Raising cross-cultural kids: Say the naughty “R” word

Raising cross-cultural kids: Say the naughty “R” word January 23, 2013

Whether in an apartment with kids from a dozen countries, or in the United States in one of the least diverse school districts around, we have made it our intention to raise cross-culturally aware kids.  This month we’ll be posting weekly tips on how to foster cross-cultural and interracial sensitivity in your kids–and your self.

Let’s say the naughty “R” word together: Racism.

I grew up believing racism was a thing of the past, confined to the eras of slavery and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In college I got a wake-up call.  One evening an African American student who had grown up in an almost entirely black community in the U.S. sobbed in my dorm room.  “Everyone here assumes I’m friends with the other black girls,” she told me, speaking of her white roommate and the other students in our floor.  “They’re nice to my face, but they never invite me anywhere with them.  It’s like they never thought I could be their friend.”

We often think of racism only as blatantly excluding someone of another race or treating them as inferior.  Racism also includes much more subtle ways of thinking and behaving, such as “tokenism” or “arms-length prejudice.”  “Tokenism” happens among people who do not want to admit that they are racist, so they perform certain “token” good activities (like giving money to one needy family) to prove their fairness to people of other races.  “Arms-length prejudice” means giving someone friendly, positive treatment in some settings (like while handing someone a cup of coffee at church), but less kindness in other social settings (like in appointing leaders of the church).

We learn these behaviors early in life without even realizing what we are learning.  Unless we intentionally remove these from our own behavior, they will sneak into our children’s future tendencies.

Explain racism at their level and give examples.

Children have a way of being brutally honest.  One morning in a restaurant in South Africa, my three-year-old son pointed and shouted, “Look!  That’s funny—a black lady and a white lady sitting together!” He was right in one sense–in the South African community where we lived, it was all too rare to see people of different races hanging out together.  We talked about his comment all the way home, and it proved a powerful opportunity to get my kids thinking about how our family could be intentional in breaking down racial stereotypes.

While our instinct when kids make awkward observations and assumptions about race is to hush or even scold, we need to take advantage of children’s natural inquisitiveness.  When you are together in the privacy of your home or car, start a conversation based on the questions your child asks.  Take time to explain the history of this country and how different cultures can relate today.  Notice examples of racism and talk through them with your children.

Give real reasons behind your behavior, such as “There are all different kinds of people in the world.  Race is one difference we can see, but there are lots and lots of other differences, and God didn’t make one kind of person better than another.  God wants us to be friends with all kinds of people.”

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