It makes sense that you’d want to teach your child to speak your language when you’re talking about all that, and about your personal experiences. But as you’ve probably noticed, a straight explanation aimed at getting her to see things your way might not work here. By the time you got to the end of “Mommy’s from the Dominican Republic, and I identify as both black and Latina, although you’re right: The DNA test did show a lot of European ancestry, so in a way you’re onto something … ,” you’ll be lucky if she’s still awake, let alone making sense of what you’re saying.
What if, instead of arguing with or ignoring your daughter’s “You’re white” comments, you were to take her outlook as a challenge to begin discussing identity beyond black or white labels and all their inherent limitations?
After all, what looks on the surface like a child’s confusion about race, says Marcia Dawkins, author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, is actually a reminder of a couple of things. “For one, that race is a symbolic social construct, meaning it is taught. Also, that it can be questioned and changed depending on geographic, age, demographics,” she says.
Dawkins suggested to me that what your 5-year-old is doing by refusing to accept your point of view might actually predict the beginning of younger Americans “seeking liberation from traditional racial labels.” And we all know that in a country that’s becoming increasingly multiracial, and where it’s ever riskier to assign individuals an identity they haven’t already claimed for themselves, labels make less and less sense all the time.
A disagreement about these things (even when one side is represented by a kindergartner’s perspective) can be seen as an opportunity for much-needed observation and dialogue rather than a problem that needs to be corrected.
The one thing you want to be sure to do, says Dawkins, is to challenge the “implicit hierarchy” that your daughter has probably already absorbed. “Ask her what it means that Mom is the only white person,” she suggests. Does that make you better in her eyes? Worse? Different? How?
Then take her to other parts of the city. Ask what she notices, and why she thinks it’s important. Don’t wait to for her to bring it up. This way, says Dawkins, you’re encouraging her to both “trust her own judgments and learn that others will see things differently.” As a result, she’ll learn that it’s not about being right or precise, but that “talking openly and honestly about race is the most important and ethical thing to do.”
It goes without saying that she’ll be ahead of a lot of adults if she adopts this outlook.
So the good news is that you don’t have to decide between a response to “You’re white” that’s “yes” (which denies how you identify) or “no” (which forces your daughter to accept something that doesn’t make sense to her). Instead, a conversation that definitely won’t begin or end at one fish fry, but is more likely to cover her formative years and beyond, could simply begin with, “Why?”
The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “White Writer, Black Characters: Bad Idea?“