The XX Factor

Apps, Afros, and Handcuffs: Talking With Kids About Race

I’ve promised before to start talking openly with my kids about race. After reading NurtureShock and other research , I’m convinced that the common parental policy of “colorblindness” teaches kids only that race and skin color are things we don’t discuss-filled with secrets and mystery. I’ve vowed to take a more open road-but I’ve been waiting, as one does, for the right moment.

Of course, there’s no shortage of evidence that the parents of many Americans waited too long. If we’re supposed to be blind to differences of skin color, the (white) police of Hartford, Vt. didn’t get the memo-a few weeks ago, they gave one of our (black) neighbors the Skip Gates treatment, and then some. A teacher in Seattle was certainly blind to something, although apparently not race, when she threw an 8-year-old out of her honors class at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School , claiming that the smell of the girl’s Afro was making her sick. But even with such stark reminders that the color of our skin and hair changes the way people treat us-and even in a mixed race family (one of my daughters is Asian) it feels weird, if not impossible, to turn to my 9-year-old and say, “So, what do you think about the fact that only one kid in your class is black?”

It turns out there’s an app for that. Harvard cultural anthropologist Michael Baran (who wrote about Disney’s Princess Tiana for DoubleX late last year) sent us links to two iPhone apps from the Race Awareness Project . Guess My Race presents pictures of real people and multiple options for guessing how those photographed answered the question, “What race are you?” Who Am I seems simpler: One player selects a picture from a group of photos, and the other player must guess, by asking questions and eliminating options, which picture was chosen. Is anyone surprised that neither turned out to be simple in any way?

Of course, you can guess many people’s race from a picture-if, that is, you’re just thinking black or white. But Guess My Race gave eight different options for every person: Caucasian, Black Caucasian, Haitian, White, Hispanic, Dominican, Gaelic, Mauritanian, and so on. My 9-year-old had questions immediately. What is “race?” Does “Gaelic” really count? Who decides these things, anyway? We were off, and we didn’t stop until dinner forced us to call it quits. The answer to each picture came with a quote from the person on why they’d identified themselves in that way, and then another page, which we read together, going over-in detail-historical reasons for race identity in other countries and in ours. I hadn’t really prepared for explaining what a “former stoney hippie” was, or why a white person might be able to joke about past drug use while a black person could not, but I couldn’t deny its relevance.

After a few rounds of this, we tried Who Am I, and when I told Sam a picture I’d chosen was of “someone I’d call black,” he struggled over which of the people of varying shades of pink and brown to exclude. I realized the whole thing begged a question, and so I asked him which matters more-the way I see a person, or the way they see themselves?

I had my doubts about this. More than doubts. Who’d believe that “there’s an app for that” could be anything more than a joke in the context of talking to kids about race? When we put the iPhone down, I expected a shrug from my kid-the kind of reaction I get when I tell him something he already knows or wants to pretend he does or just isn’t really interested in. Instead, I got “I loved that!” The look on his face, the tone of his voice-he reacted as though I’d opened up something that explained the mysteries of the world, and maybe I did.

After all, I know all this-maybe not the history of race relations in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but how and why people are judged on every aspect of their appearance. I know it because I see it, I experience it, and I do it, and Sam watches. He sees people respond to other people in varying ways based on where they are, how they’re dressed, and what they’re doing or carrying. In his town, no one reacts to his hair or skin-but sometimes they comment on his sister, who’s from China, and when Sam himself was in China, that same hair and skin earned him a powerful dose of unwanted attention. When we travel in New York or walk across our college town, we see a huge mixture of people, but when we head to the farming town a few miles away, suddenly, everyone looks much the same. It must be a huge relief to have someone sit down and finally offer to explain some of this, and now that we’ve done it, I feel a little guilty about all the years when we didn’t. Maybe race shouldn’t be a big deal in this country, but we know it is. Too big a deal to ask a kid to figure out by himself.