Race in America is alive and well as a pervasive discussion topic. Whether we are handicapping the upcoming presidential election, tracking what's trending on Twitter (Jeremy Lin, Whitney Houston), or having any number of conversations around the water cooler about practically anything else in our lives (schools, work, money), there's often a racial angle, and sometimes it is quite a prominent angle. I say that in neither a positive nor negative sense, I'm just being descriptive.
As parents, it is easy to think that so long as we put our kids in a multicultural setting, we can check off "dealt with race" on our big to-do list in life. After all, it's an important issue for our kids to learn, and it's awfully hard to actually talk about directly, so all too often we decide that all it takes is for us to work hard to make sure our kids live lives in which they are regularly in contact with all races and ethnicities of people.
To be sure, living in a cosmopolitan setting and being intentional about putting your kids in places where they will mix with a diversity of people is a good thing, better than cloistering them in homogeneity, where their only contact with people of different races and ethnicities might be through mass media. However, it doesn't absolve us of actually talking to our kids about race, race relations, and racial tension. Kids are in fact aware of race, and in the absence of direct instruction from someone I trust (such as, say for example, myself), I'm leaving their take on an important topic up to chance.
Of course, what you can cover with a 15-year-old and 17-year-old is different from what you can cover with a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old, as I have. So I have decided to keep things pretty simple. Over breakfast one morning this week, I simply told them, "I like that both of you have all kinds of friends. You have friends who are white, friends who are black, and friends who are Asian, and that's good. It's good that you have friends whose parents are from countries outside the United States, and who speak languages besides English at home. That makes me really happy, because it's important that you can have all kinds of friends like that. Did you know that some grown-ups don't have all kinds of friends like that? Even worse, some grown-ups don't like certain people just because they're white or black or Asian or come from another country or speak another language, and that's really mean. So it's good that you can have all kinds of friends, and I hope you always do. And I hope that if any of your friends ever gets teased for being white or black or Asian or from another country or for speaking another language, that you will be nice to them and stay their friend."
I talked long enough, and in a serious enough tone, that they knew that I was trying to impart some life lesson. But the lecture was over soon enough, and they were back to their fruit slices and their Cocoa Crunchies. Still, without doing overkill, I do want to be direct with my kids about race in America, because it's an important topic, and one I'd rather trust myself to be their main influence on rather than leaving it to chance.