Dear Care and Feeding,
I set aside time to make some gifts for friends and family. My 6-year-old, “Tommy,” who is a Star Wars fan, drew a picture for his babysitter, “Andrea,” a Black woman.
He drew her as Chewbacca. I gently asked why he did this and he said because she’s brown, she is his friend, she wears a bag like Chewbacca’s, sounds a little like him when she yawns, and her hair looks like Chewbacca’s. I don’t want to give Andrea this picture considering that Chewbacca is ape-like and comparing Black people to animals is quite racist. I’m thinking it may be really hurtful for her.
I don’t want to explain to him why it’s wrong because I don’t think comparing Black people to animals will even cross his mind otherwise. For now, I put the drawing away and asked Tommy not to mention anything to Andrea about it so he won’t ruin the surprise. I was hoping he’ll forget about it, but he has already mentioned it twice. What should I do? How should I talk to him about this? Or am I overthinking it?
—Confused in Coruscant
Dear Confused in Coruscant,
You aren’t overthinking this at all. I can imagine that Andrea likely wouldn’t feel great about getting a picture of herself as Chewbacca from a little white boy, no matter how much she may adore him, or understand his Star Wars fandom. It’s not fair for white parents to opt out of the discomfort of talking about race and racism with their children. Not only do Black parents not have that luxury, but your child can still cause harm or pain despite what he doesn’t know. Considering that your son connects the brown of Andrea’s skin to the brown of Chewbacca’s fur, it sounds like you’ve said little at all about race. Does your son know that racism exists? When were you going to share that information with him? Again, a 6-year-old Black boy would not have the privilege of just living life without understanding why people come in different colors, and how society assorts us according to those skin tones. It’s time for you to explain those truths to your son.
You must let your son know that the world around us can be unkind to Black people and that historically, that unkindness has included comparing us to beasts. Explain that he shouldn’t feel bad about what he drew and that you know his heart was in the right place, but that it might make Andrea feel bad. Encourage him to draw her as herself, or to draw something else she might like. It’s better that he gets this uncomfortable lesson now rather than him doing something similar at school and deeply offending someone—or allowing Andrea to see this picture, which could trigger any number of feelings in her.
There’s nothing wrong with race and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk to our children about what makes us different. In a society where racism is as omnipresent as it is, the only way to prevent a white child from adopting racist ideas is to talk to them before they do. Your son has a Black caregiver, so you have a particular responsibility to make sure that he has a healthy respect for Black people and some understanding as to how we are regarded by others so that he remains on the right side of morality. Best of luck to you.
More Advice From Slate
My eldest child is in kindergarten. When she’s invited to a classmate’s birthday party, she helps to choose and wrap a present. I typically encourage her to pick gender neutral gifts, but she often wants to get a doll when the kid in question is a girl, ideally one that fits the party’s theme (like a mermaid doll for a mermaid party). My trouble is that we are white and most of my kid’s friends (and most of the children at her school) are black.