(The Root) —
"My 5-year-old daughter is convinced that I'm white.
"I'm originally from the Dominican Republic and identify as black and Latina. Her biological father is from the Central African Republic, and she sees herself as black.
"Just last weekend, we were at the Bed-Stuy fish fry and she said, 'Mami, you know you are the only white person in here?! Everyone else is black!'
"Obviously, she's probably saying this because of my skin color and hair. (Here's my actual ancestry breakdown, according to a 23andme.com DNA test: European, 52.6 percent; sub-Saharan African, 30.3 percent; East Asian and Native American, 7.1 percent; Middle Eastern and North African, 10.0 percent.)
"This isn't the first time she's called me white. When I correct her, she doesn't hear me, so I'm thinking about giving it up. But I don't want her to be confused about my identity (or hers). Should I push the issue, or is it wrong to force a kid as young as she is to understand race in a complicated, adult way?" —Blatina in Bed-Stuy
Kids are so honest. There's no learned discomfort around race, no pretending-to-be-colorblind stuff and no hinting around "Where are you from? No, where are you from-from?" with the under-12 set.
Thanks to that transparency, we get to hear about exactly how they see themselves and those around them. No surprise, given all the subjective twists and turns of racial identity: Sometimes this doesn't match up with what parents have in mind. At all.
On Twitter, I asked people for anecdotes of this type and got responses including, "Mom is [a] brown skinned blk woman … until I was 7, [I] thought I was adopted" and "As a kid I was always confused by my Latino father identifying himself as black."
"My son thinks he's white," one woman wrote. "It upsets his father more than me … he'll probably push the issue but I'll let him figure it out on his own."
Feeling torn about whether to "push" when it comes to getting children to sign on to an adult understanding of racial identity reflects our deeper conflicts about this topic. On the one hand, so much about race is closely tied to a painful legacy of discrimination that anyone would hesitate to impose on little ones.
On the other hand, we want kids to appreciate the texture of the environments in which they live and to know where they and their families fit into the story. Right there in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Bed-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where your daughter most recently proclaimed your whiteness, residents are grappling with gentrification in light of news that the white population grew sixfold and the number of African-American residents dropped by 14.6 percent in recent years. In New York City, black and Latino men are overwhelmingly the targets of controversial stop-and-frisk police tactics. That's to say nothing of the country overall, where race still informs health, economic and educational outcomes.
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?"