Talking to my Toddler about Race

Since I moved to the United States 16 years ago, race has been a topic that is important and intimate to me. When I started my first part-time job as an after school counselor in West Philadelphia, I was baffled by the inequalities I witnessed. I could not make sense of the drastic difference between what black children had in the school I served and what white children had a few blocks away. That’s why I went onto study sociology.

Fast forward, three years ago, I gave birth to my child—an Asian American girl—in a racially divisive society. While recent social movements such as #blacklivesmatter and #metoo have sparked new awareness around social justice issues, applying knowledge about race and racism in one’s personal life can be difficult. Teaching a child about it is even harder. Even though many of my educated friends often have the skills and capacity to discuss race relations when incidents of racism happen to others or when others are the perpetrators of racial inequalities or racism, I find that many of us have yet developed the stamina or technique to deal with our emotions and honestly discuss race issues when we are personally involved in racialized social interactions.

I imagine that others who know me might think that I have all the answers about how to teach my child about race and racism. After all, I am a person who identify myself as a queer woman of color, a sociologist, and one who cares deeply about racial justice and feminism. However, the truth is that I also find it very challenging to talk to my child about race and racism. I don’t know how to find age appropriate language to talk about it. I don’t know how to carve out time and space to talk about it.

Less than a year ago, I went to a local dog park with my two dogs (a shiba inu and a mutt from Georgia), my immigrant mother, and my 2 year-old. The dog park is located in an upper-middle class predominantly white neighborhood. There were nice fake grass and well-dressed white people with cappuccino in their hands. After my mother sat down on the bench at the edge of the dog park, I held my child in my arm and enjoyed the sight of my dogs chasing each others. Suddenly, an older white woman tapped my shoulder. “Can you read the sign over there?” she asked. My initial thought was that she needed help. But as I began reading the sign for her, I realized what it was about. “No child under 5 should be allowed…” I began to stutter. “Oh no! I know where she’s coming from! How foolish I am to think that she needed help!” I thought to myself. I didn’t finish reading the sign. Instead, I tried to explain myself and told her that I would bear the risk of bringing my child to the dog park, that I would ensure her safety by holding her in my arm. The old lady was displeased with my response. Then, she threatened to call the police on me. In the past, I would ignore someone like that. Yet, this incident happened not long after two black men were arrested for simply sitting in a Starbucks in Philadelphia. I also felt compelled to stand up for myself because my child was literally watching this white woman shouting at me. “I cannot simply walk away. This will teach my daughter that racism is OK. That we should simply accept it,” I thought. So, I mustered all my courage and energy at that moment. And I shouted back at her, “I’m tired of living in this country! I’m tired of having to deal with people like you! What makes you feel so entitled to this public space? What makes you think that your comfort is more important than the existence of me and my child? Is it because you’re white?” Bewildered, she stared at me blankly. Then, she yelled, “What did you just call me?” I walked up to her with my child still in my arm. “I called you a white person,” I said. She walked away. Few minutes later, she came back and told me that she called the Child Protection Service on me.

Her racist behavior was hurtful and traumatizing for me. This white woman didn’t simply tell me that my child was not allowed in the dog park. She made me prove to her that I am not my stereotype—an immigrant Asian woman who doesn’t know how to read or speak English. She threatened to take my child away from me for existing in the same space with her, for saying no to her demand, for having a voice. But what hurt most wasn’t her racism. It was the silent acceptance of her racist actions among the bystanders. No one stood up for me. Worse, I overheard a young white girl whispering to her friend, “she broke the rules in the first place. What does she expect?”

Professionally, talking about race is my job. I discuss this topic in many of the classes I teach. In the classroom, I regularly explore race and racism with my students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Although it’s an emotionally difficult topic for many, we often find it to be liberating and healthy to address racial inequalities both intellectually and personally. That said, it’s always easier to examine statistics of the racial wealth gap and discuss its many causes at the macro level than to scrutinize how I should have responded to the white lady at the dog park at the micro level.

Recently, there has been studies by social psychologists urging parents to teach their children about race. One study suggests that children as young as two years of age use race to reason about people’s behaviors. While this is a giant step forward from what sociologists call colorblind racism, which assumes racism will solve itself by simply ignoring that it exists, I am still left confused about exactly how to talk to my child about such difficult topic.

Here I share several things that I have done to promote racial justice with my child on the ground level (Again, I don’t have all the answers; I’m just thinking out loud) :

  1. Talk about her race and the race of people close to her

    One of the most persistent features of racism is that whiteness is seen as the default, the norm. As a result, many white people don’t think of themselves as having a race. The normalcy of whiteness in turn justifies white supremacy and the systemic oppression of people of color. Whenever opportunities arise, I tell my daughter that she’s Chinese American, and her race is Asian. Her best friend is white, and her parents are white, too. My housemate is black, and her son is black, too. Telling her about her race and the racial backgrounds of the people she knows well lets her know that race matters, even though racial categories aren’t natural. This will equip her with the ability to name the devil by its name when racial oppression occurs (because it will and already has occurred).
  2. Words Matter

    Racism is created and maintained by hidden mechanisms and unconscious biases that exist at both the institutional and interpersonal levels. While the topic of systemic racism might be too complicated and intense for young children to understand, stereotyping is something that they engage in on a daily basis. After all, it’s their job to figure out how the world works.

    One day when T and I were at a local playground, T saw a black kid and called him “a monster”. I immediately told her that the child is not a monster, that he is a black boy. I asked her what made her think that he was a monster. She said he looked dark and monsters are dark. I explained to her that black people have dark skin. Having dark skin doesn’t make someone a monster. And calling someone a monster is not kind. Empathy is a powerful tool that can dismantle systemic oppression. Once we can see everyone through a humanistic lens, we learn to treat people with respect and come to appreciate our differences.
  3. Talk about racial injustices that are happening in the world

    Unfortunately, we live in a world where racial violence and social injustices are happening every day. I talk to T about immigrant children in detention centers, refugee children in Greece, and world events in which children are involved. It helps her know about her own set of privileges, despite being a girl and a racial minority. Living a life with stability and abundance is indeed a privilege.
  4. Read children’s books that address social justice issues or show the struggles of people of color

    Racism and racial inequalities did not emerge in a vacuum. They are deeply rooted in larger historical processes such as European colonialism, Western imperialism, slavery, etc. While it’s crucial to learn about the present challenges that we face, it is also important to understand how systems of oppression have come about and its development through history. Nowadays, there are many great children’s books written that deal with these topics with age appropriate language. Most recently, T and I read Dancing Hands, a book about a girl from Venezuela who played the piano in front of Abe Lincoln. Through the story, she learned about the malice of wars and the peace that music could bring to the human soul.
  5. Expand personal circle to include people of different races

    Although cultural producers and social justice workers have produced much good-quality anti-racist and anti-sexist content, mainstream media still perpetuates many racist and sexist ideals by relying on cultural stereotypes when writing and telling stories. The most powerful way to counter against negative portrayals of marginalized groups and eliminate ignorance is to shed light on the reality. When children have genuine personal relationship with someone of a different race, they learn that what they’ve seen in the media is inaccurate and untrue. And very often, children develop personal relationships through the networks of their parents. If we only have friends who are just like us, how do we expect our children to seek anything different? It is true that it’s not easy or comfortable to get to know someone who is different. Therefore, to learn to be comfortable about being uncomfortable is the first step towards racial justice at a personal level.


    #racialjustice, #socialjustice #parenting #socialjusticeparenting #pandamom #asianamerican #race #racism #consciousparenting #women #feminism

Published by pandamotherly

I am Dr. Esther HioTong Castillo. I am Panda Mom. I'm a biracial sociologist mama with a 3 year-old daughter. Three years ago, my complicated birth and the sea-change in my career and family had thrown me into the downward spiral of depression and anxiety. Now, I'm sharing my story and writing my way to health and wellness at the intersection of trauma, intergenerational trauma, family, and parenting.

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