Care and Feeding

I’m Nervous About What My White 4-Year-Old Will Say to Her New Black Nanny

I haven’t figured out how to talk to her about this in a way she’ll understand.

A toddler girl grins and points out of frame
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

This is a two-part question—one part probably weirdly specific and one more general. First, the background: We’re a white family in a mostly white area trying to raise our girls (ages 4 and 1) while working full time. Most of the families around us have decided COVID is too big of an inconvenience, and if they ignore it, it will just go away. Between that and the exorbitant costs of day care (significantly higher than our mortgage), we’ve decided to hire a nanny.

We’ve had several interviews, and our best three candidates are Black (this is not the problem). Our weirdly specific problem: My 4-year-old has recently discovered that complimenting people is a nice thing to do. We’re working on making sure she understands that she should compliment people’s actions or choices rather than commenting on their bodies. Most of the time she is really good about this. Her compliments usually come out as “I like” statements, such as “I like your rainbow nail polish.” I’m very worried she’s going to say, “I like your brown skin” to our newly hired nanny. This isn’t an abstract fear. She said it to her Black preschool teacher.

I haven’t figured out how to talk to her about this in a way that a 4-year-old can grasp without going into the realm of “colorblindness.” Any tips? Anything I can say to the nanny when she inevitably says something weird, awkward, or hurtful? And the more general question: We make a point to be actively anti-racist. We found a diverse preschool for our 4-year-old (50 percent students of color). We make sure to read and watch things with a diverse cast of characters. We discuss racism with our kids (well, with the 4-year-old—the 1-year-old just sort of hangs out). Obviously we’ve got room to improve, and we’ll keep working, but how can I make sure I don’t suck as an employer of a Black person?

—Help Me

Dear Help Me,

I’m not going to pretend to be a spokesperson for all Black people, but I can pretty much promise you that there isn’t much that a 4-year-old can do or say to offend us. Most Black adults have experienced the kind of racism that would make a (good) white person’s head spin, and I’m sure your new nanny would cosign that.

The fact of the matter is she’s an expert with children, and we all know that kids say the darndest things, right? It’s not like your daughter is going to say something like “Why does your skin look like poop?” (By the way, that actually happened to me when I went to Maine many years ago, but I’m sure that’s a byproduct of having only 17 Black people in the entire state.) Even then I wasn’t offended because it was just a white kid’s extremely clumsy way of trying to learn about differences. The goal is to have your daughter ask questions and learn about different skin colors so she can understand that there’s nothing to fear or hate about people who don’t look just like her. In other words, there truly isn’t anything wrong with her complimenting her nanny’s skin color to her face. Like I said before, I’m sure she’s heard a lot worse than that.

If it makes you feel better, you can proactively talk to your nanny about the fact that your daughter is learning to embrace the differences in people’s skin color and may say something out of pocket every now and then. I honestly don’t think it’s a big deal.

In regard to your second and broader question, I would continue to do what you’re doing. You obviously are very conscious and self-aware, which are great traits to have under the circumstances. The only thing I’d caution you on is to not overthink everything. Again, I can’t speak for every Black person, but many of us just want to be treated with the same dignity and respect that white people enjoy in America. If you can do that on a consistent basis, then you’ll have a great working relationship with her.

—Doyin

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