When Andrew started attending the program he’s in, he was the only white student in the school. His school is in an African American neighborhood and the majority of students are African American. There is also a small Chinese population and a dual language Chinese-English program. But as far as students with his racial makeup? He was the lone ranger.

That is no longer the case. There are now a few other white students, and all of them, as far as I can tell, are drawn to that school to attend the program that Andrew is in. The percentages, especially in his class, are shifting, but he is still very much in the minority.

For a long time Andrew never noticed. There are a lot of ways that Andrew doesn’t see basic social groups. Gender, age, race: he has a tenuous grasp on these categories and is only now sorting them out. He still mixes up girls and boys from time to time. He talks to every one, of any age, the same way. 3 year old Tess, his classmates, the little old ladies at my church, have all sat through a thorough explanation of his bey-blades and were encouraged to try out these toys themselves. He has no filter to tell him that the octogenarian he just asked to rip a bey-blade, might not want or be able to. So as he started this program, I knew that race and color wouldn’t come up for a while.

Andrew started talking about skin color last fall. He told me that he wished his skin was more like his best friend’s. He remarked on different people in his life and how they had “black skin”. But his tone at this point was merely observational and nothing more. It was an easy stage. I just affirmed his observations and that was that.

Around Martin Luther King’s birthday, his tone began to change. We talked to him about Martin Luther King at home and he heard about Martin Luther King at school. They watched clips from the famous “I Have A Dream” speech and wrote about “diversity”, “respect” and “dreams”. It was about a week later that Andrew started talking to me about not wanting to play with his best friend anymore. He listed off the kids he didn’t want to play with and told me the one boy he did want to play with and the boy he chose was the only other white boy in the class.

When we talked about it he would talk about the other boys’ black skin but in an off-handed way. The reasons he listed for not wanting to play with them were vague. “Chase is too silly.” “Rashan talks too much.” “I like Tomas because Tomas is quiet.” (Tomas was born in Poland and is the other white boy in his class.) I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. My hunch was that all of the talk about Martin Luther King emphasized the differences in his classmates in a way that made Andrew squirm.

Andrew could have very well been telling the truth. He truly might have wanted a quieter friend to play with, a change in pace, some time to get to know Tomas. What stood out to me though, was that every time Andrew DID mention skin color, I didn’t know what to say. The more he brought it up, the more flummoxed I felt. I had my lines… “we are all different colors”, “diversity is great!” etc, etc, but the more I said them, the more it sounded like a script that just wasn’t helping. He seemed to be processing something and I felt ill-equipped on how to help.

So, I started asking around about it. I find race very, very hard to talk about. I felt embarrassed that this was happening and embarrassed that I didn’t know what to say to Andrew, but I needed to figure out what to do. I talked with a friend who knew someone with years of experience in diversity training. I emailed her our story and she called me the same evening to talk.

She told me a LOT of things that I found extremely helpful. She told me that everyone seeks out people that are similar to them. It’s just a natural part of life. And the more Andrew feels comfortable with who is he, the more comfortable he will be with people that are different from him. She said that is it normal for him to go through phases of seeking out people that look like he does. But that will change and shift and grow. Basically, she said that I have nothing to worry about, she said to keep the lines of communication open and to just keep talking about it.

And so I asked her how. How do I talk about it? How do I talk about it in a way that is meaningful and productive? She told me to avoid value statements. When Andrew told me that he wished his skin was like Chase’s, I said, “I know. Chase has beautiful skin! He’s a cutie pie!” She said instead to just state facts and ask questions. ASK Andrew about Chase’s skin. What does it look like? What color is it? What do you think about that? What color is YOUR skin? Is skin color important? And she said that his answers will change. Sometimes skin color WILL be important to him. Sometimes it won’t be. And all of that is normal. And again, the more comfortable Andrew feels about himself, the easier it will be for him to relate to people that are different than he is.

I decided to add a page about this in my advocacy journal (I changed the names and blurred the faces of his classmates). It felt like an act of advocacy to track this down and learn some skills. Heck, it felt like an act of advocacy to learn what questions I had and to see what I didn’t know. And going through this process was hard and sort of embarrassing, but ultimately really, really good.

His homework one night was to write about diversity and draw how his classmates are diverse. He drew himself with Chase and wrote how Chase loves mozzarella sticks and Andrew loves apples. They both have white shirts. I scanned his paper, shrunk it and added it to the book.

I’m sure this isn’t over and that it could very well get more complex as he gets older. But I feel like I have enough to go on for now. Which feels like sweet relief! :)

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About robyn

I stopped teaching Kindergarten in 2005 to become the mom of two crazy boys here in Brooklyn. At first I thought being a stay at home mom meant that I needed to pour all my time and energy directly into my sons, but I realized somewhere along the way that being a rockstar mom meant not only taking good care of my boys, but also taking good care of myself. And taking good care of myself means pursuing something creative...just about everyday. I started Made In Brooklyn to motivate myself in my creative goals as well as share my work with others and perhaps inspire them in their own creative journeys.
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Andrew, motherhood, reflection, urban living. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Diversity

  1. Mama V says:

    I wonder if the MLK talk about diversity and Andrew’s cold-and-hot feelings about his friends were just coincidence. Sounds a lot like normal 6 year-old stuff to me! Although if the discussion did have influence, I’d love to figure out how exactly the teacher handled it, and what Andrew took away from it.

    Good work keeping the lines of communication open, Mama!

    • Robyn says:

      I actually think the teacher gets the gold star and the mama gets no gold star. :) She directed all of the conversation about diversity away from how people look and more about how people ARE. This kid likes this, this kid likes that…etc. It was me that talked about MLK and linked it to how people look different. And in one way I totally regret that…but in another way…I don’t. I mean, it did open a can of worms…but that’s not always bad, you know? I wouldn’t have dove so deep into this if I hadn’t initially goofed up. :) And I’m glad to have gotten deep into this.

  2. erin says:

    I really like this post. In my school, white is increasingly the minority. At the same time, I have noticed that the students are not naturally segregating themselves as much as they used to. It used to be that walking into the lunch room there were Hispanic tables, white tables, black tables…but that doesn’t happen anymore and I’m not sure what accounts for it. Some of my classes have only 1 white student in them and they seem oblivious to that fact. Sometimes I’m the only white person and the room and it takes me months to notice. For a long time the social message seemed to be “We’re all the same!” but now it seems to be “We’re all different! Cool!” I think its fine to highlight our differences and then be able to say, “that’s okay, let’s go eat chicken nuggets.”

  3. Robyn says:

    “that’s okay, let’s go eat chicken nuggets.”

    LOVE IT!

  4. Mama V says:

    Agreed! Made me laugh out loud. Thanks, Erin.

  5. I’m so glad you shared this story, Robyn, and happy to know that you added it (appropriately) to your advocacy journal. This is a lovely account of how Andrew is processing things, and definitely a story to be preserved for him.

    When Carrie was little (about 3?) she came home from pre-school one day and announced that she had a new friend who had the most beautiful skin – “the color of chocolate.” That’s my girl! ;o)

    You’re a great mom, Robyn, and a darn good story teller too! xo

  6. Mama V says:

    yes, robyn! i don’t think there’s anything to beat yourself up about here. at all. the struggle is good. even when your kids are watching/participating. all good. (trying to learn this lesson myself.) xoxo

    i did read this story the other day about a teacher doing MLK day with the younger set, and it was pretty awful. the mama is doing her own kind of advocacy work in response: http://crossingtheprairie.blogspot.com/2012/01/how-not-to-teach-about-martin-luther.html?spref=fb

  7. Marlorie S. says:

    Wow, what a post. I’m curious to here more in the future about Andrews emerging thoughts about diversity. I’m actually scared about how this is going to play out in my household. I imagine that there will be times when Lucien will only want to associate/identify with dad and other times with me for a whole host of reasons. Kudos to you for delving into what can be extremely awkward but ultimately a very important topic.

  8. Ladkyis says:

    I want to be around you all the time! You are so brave. I used to think things like that but never ever voiced them or gave them expression. To read how you work through things is just inspirational. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Plume says:

    Great post!

  10. Petra from NL says:

    Impressive honesty! Loved reading this post and what a great result from that phonecall.

  11. Amy says:

    My James describes people like flavors as Deb’s daughter does too :) when he was about three he noticed that his cousin Marisa was like coffee ice cream and he was like vanilla and some of his friends were chocolate. I loved how he thought about it, each flavor is delicious and unique, so true! But he has also been raised around his cousin who is half Dominican and does have dark skin, versus her mom, my sis who is very fair and so James never even bats an eye at skin differences. Many strangers don’t think they are mother/daughter. What james is prone to noticing and commenting on is language differences, when someone speaks another language or has an accent he is absolutely fascinated (his 100th day of school project is “100 ways to say I love you” 100 different languages, including sign language) he is my little linguist :) and one time when he was maybe just 5, we saw extremely devout Muslim women in Walgreens (with black full robe, head covering that only allowed her eyes to be seen, even black gloves) James said “wow Mom look, she must be a ninja!” and I had to explain that they dressed that way because of their religion. That was an interesting conversation for sure. Our neighbors are Arabic and wear scarves so I explained that this lady was the same as his friends Sabah and Sundus, but more religious like a priest or a nun wears a “uniform” in our church.

  12. Anne says:

    When my family first moved into our neighborhood, the little kids were always pointing out that Camille doesn’t look anything like me, but now it’s kind of a non-issue. In fact, the other day Camille was speaking her two-year-old jibberish and one of the Guatemalan girls turned to her mom and said, “Why is Camille always speaking Spanish?”

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