When I was in high school, I read the book Black Like Me (Signet) by John Howard Griffin. The book is a true story of a white man who dyed his skin to see what it was like to live as a black man in the South in the early 1960s. The book had a profound effect on me and made me think about being white—something I had never given much thought to before. And in thinking about being white, I also began to wonder what it would be like to be black.
Our ethnicity plays a part in choices we make for our children and relationships we build with other families. Our nation continues to have large disparities between the haves and have-nots that are, at least in part, based on race and ethnicity. To move our children toward a more just world, we parents need to be tuned in to racial issues and need to find ways to steer our children toward healthy multicultural exposure and relationships.
Jamie, our adopted 8-year-old, is of Puerto Rican descent and has tan skin with a rosy undertone. T, our 9-year-old foster daughter, is African American and has skin the color of coffee. In mothering these two girls, I’ve become much more observant of how all races are portrayed in the world around me.
While we’d like to think that our TV shows, ads, toys, and books represent all children, my experience is that I rarely see kids in newspaper ads or on TV who are the color of T. The message seems to be that white like my boys and light brown like Jamie is fine, but dark brown—like T—is not as attractive.
And T is noticing. We have several picture books with black girls as main characters. Upon starting one of these books, T almost always exclaims, “She looks like me!” before we start reading. In reality, the girl doesn’t look like T any more than a picture of a random white woman would look like me, but T is so happy to see anyone of her color, with her hair and her style of features, that she focuses on these similarities.
But if having daughters of color has opened my eyes to some negatives in terms of how children of color may still be marginalized, being a mother to T and Jamie has also allowed me to see the beautiful bridges that can form across cultures and color. I have been privileged to witness both black people and white people reaching out to my girls with special interest because of their foster care background. I have been welcomed into the African American community by black women seeking to teach me about skin and hair care for girls of color. Countless times Bill and I have heard people remark on what a beautiful family we have. I have close friends who are African American who I likely would not have met if my daughters were white.
The multicultural nature of our family has propelled us into a world of diversity that we might not have otherwise explored. No matter what their ethnicity, all families do well when they choose to step out of their comfort zone and help their children understand the value of diversity.
Try a church in another neighborhood. Attending Mass with a population of a different ethnicity occasionally will give you and your children a sense of another culture’s music and approach that may be different from your own parish, yet recognizable at the same time.
Make an effort to meet families of different ethnic backgrounds. We naturally seek out people who share similarities with us, and striking up a conversation with someone of a different ethnic background is a stretch for some people. But parents who consciously choose to cross cultural barriers in friendship teach children they should do the same.
Choose toys and books with an eye to diversity. If all your daughter’s dolls are blue-eyed and blond, what message are you sending her? Children who see a celebration of different ethnicities and cultures in books and art and among their toys will recognize and be comfortable with diversity in the wider world.
—by Annemarie Scobey from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2012 Best in Class award from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past three years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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