Friday, July 5, 2013

Raising Kids Not to Care about Color in a World that Does

When we decided to move to rural-ish Kenya with a toddler in tow, we convinced ourselves this was a good move not only for us, but for our son.  He would have the opportunity to learn a second language, and he’d spend his days outdoors, in creative play, away from hyper-scheduled play dates and runaway consumerism.  He’d have an implicit understanding about the range of human condition in the world and be appreciative of his relative wealth, and hopefully empathetic to the deprivation of others. He’d absorb this from the very ether of his surroundings.  We’d barely have to work at it.

But, maybe most importantly, we thought, he wouldn’t see “color,” or, rather, not in the way Americans do, loaded with historical and cultural baggage that has yet to be purged from our collective consciousness.  He’d see it; he simply wouldn’t care about it. 

And during the first year here, when Caleb was the only white kid in our town, this seemed to be largely the case. He made quick and dear friends with the neighborhood kids.  He loved being in their very presence, and would look crestfallen when they would leave to go home.  He picked up Kiswahili the way he picked up his friends, effortlessly and with no awareness of the process.  We proudly posted pictures on facebook of Caleb running around with his Busia friends, the very tableau of inter-racial harmony. People would make comments like “Oh, children have so much to teach us” and “a poster for cross-cultural understanding.”   
Like this one

And this
But even then I noticed that he was more fearful of Kenyan women than white women, probably because they were in the habit of always attempting to pluck him from my arms and would then laugh heartily at his protestations. A small cultural difference that might have loomed large for him. Maybe because his mom, his universe, is white, he warmed up quicker to white women. But it made my liberal heart blanche that he was developing those sorts of preferences. Facebook pictures be damned, he was clearly seeing color and sorting people.

Then during our visits to South Africa, where there was a larger population of white people mixing or, commonly not mixing, with black people, he started to ask, “What color is she?” “What color is he?”  Then, “What color am I?”

“You’re white, Caleb.  And Maxon is black.”  I’d say. But like a typical American, the sentences stuck a bit my throat, the full weight of our complicated and ugly racial history weighing down the words. But the words were not loaded for him, and maybe in telling him the simple fact of our superficial differences, in a breezy, off-handed manner, I could diffuse the power of those differences even for myself.  

We have since moved to a larger city with a larger ex-pat population.  He’s no longer the only white kid. In efforts to move beyond the so-called “expat bubble” and solidify his cross-cultural worldview and language skills, we entered him into a Kenyan school.  He was once again the only white kid. He didn’t hate it, but sometimes after I dropped him off at school, I’d see him alone in the corner not talking to the other kids, feeling, maybe more profoundly than before, his “otherness.” 

That would have probably gone away with time, as his novelty wore off and his innate and overpowering desire for friends and play took over. But too many times I’d drop him off late for school and the teacher would have yet to arrive. The 14 students the school told us were enrolled turned into 28.  The corporal punishment we were told was not used was betrayed by the kiboko (whacking stick) parked ominously in the corner.  And Caleb came home singing the “shame” song one too many times (the song all the other students join with the teacher in singing to a student who has misbehaved). It all jarred too much with our American notions of pre-school education.

So ultimately, pragmatism trumped idealism the way it does with liberal urban-dwellers in the US who exit en masse to less “gritty and diverse” areas as soon as their hipster credentials clash with their progeny’s educational prospects.  We enrolled Caleb in the local international school, filled with children of all colors but who are uniformly privileged.       
His birthday party held at the International School
And none of these socio-economic differences can escape his attention.  Most of his friends who have a lot of “stuff” in their homes are white.  The ones who make play dates, have cars and who can afford to take weekend trips with us are almost all (but not entirely) white.  Not a single laborer, guard or house help is anything but black.  Every white family we know has a comfortable house. 

Weekend trip
This is not apartheid South Africa or the US South in the 1940s.  None of this is institutionalized.  And, of course, Kenya is predominantly black, with black people inhabiting every social strata.  Still, light skinned expats are uniformly at the top – the racial inequities of the globe personified. 
So, I’m left wondering what lesson he’s learning. 

I could drive home the point that there are differences – language, color, customs, possessions – but that they don’t matter.  “We are all God’s children,” or some agnostic equivalent.  But I think a lot of it comes back down to “stuff” with kids. (And maybe, in the end, with adults too).  He notices that some people have more things than others, and these differences fall largely along color lines.  That’s not a difference I want to celebrate or even dismiss.

I guess the point is that your skin color, or the celestial lottery which determines the place of your birth, shouldn’t limit what you have.  But shouldn’t is a harder concept than is.    

He’s too young to understand colonialism and differential distribution of opportunity and geographic determinism and such, so it’s hard to make sense of the inequality that cannot escape his attention.   I suppose the real point we should be imparting is that we should treat people equally even if the world hasn’t. 

And maybe also that we should focus on what makes us commonly human.  That we all feel joy and pain and loss and sorrow.  We all make good and bad choices. We all have gifts and complications.

And as I watch Caleb play with equal parts glee and mischief with his friends of all colors, calling 3 of his friends (of different colors) “my best fighters” and another 2 “the fastest runners,” I  realized he’s probably already got that lesson down.


  1. I can imagine that this post was hard to write, in part b/c you're giving voice to things that we would all prefer didn't need to be voiced. Living in Abu Dhabi, I am seeing that on the one hand, my kids are much more versed in nuance (ie "Arab" now gets seen as Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, etc) but then they also see the very clear demarcations between have/not--a fault line that, yes, runs along racial and ethnic lines. I figure all we can do is keep talking, keep asking questions, keep reminding them that systems sometimes perpetuate injustice--and that systems can be, should be, changed. It is, like so many other things, way too complicated...but way too important to be ignored.

    1. Yes! I can't wait until my kids are old enough to understand the power of "systems" in perpetuating things that even a 3 year can see is unfair!

  2. I really appreciate your insights- I wonder how my children would feel in the same situation... When my Ethiopian son is in an all-white environment (age 5 now), he definitely notices.

    1. Definitely hard! And I think you probably have a more difficult situation given how loaded race is in the States. But, Becky, if anyone can handle it with sensitivity and insight - it's you!

  3. What a beautiful post. Not only should we treat people equally if the world hasn't, but it is our job to help repair the world.



  4. Very honest and True. It's a struggle, and it plays out in my "we're oh so liberal" and "we're also oh so diverse" and "some of us can choose very different options for our children" town every day. Personally, I believe that economics and education are the great divide. It's just that they are so intertwined with race and ethnicity - on the whole - that it's hard to see past it. It's easier to occlude the truth of your checkbook than your skin, after all.

  5. Great post Kim. I have the same concerns for Mariela. I hope she blends into canadian schools well and most importantly that she is accepted just the way she is. My issue is reverse from yours. I am an African living in Canada. People here have their perception of Africa which isn't the full story and sometimes even as an adult I am not an equal but any measure and those differences I feel are rooted in my origins. People here are surprised that I am so fluent in English without knowing I have spoken it all my life. I didn't learn it in Canada. My fear is that the people raising my childs friends don't always see my world the way you see it. They don't know Africa the way you do and so they don't understand it.

  6. what a great post. so articulate and honest and well written. I would be nice not to see color, but we can't help but see all differences. What would be nicer, like you said, is that we wouldn't care and just appreciate all people for who they are.

  7. I think it's like all things as a parent, you just try to guide them the best you can into what is right. And hope that they learn not just from your words, but from your actions. The world around them is always going to teach both good AND harsh lessons. It's our job to sort it out for them, so that they can eventually sort it out for themselves.

    Nice post!

  8. It is a hard lesson to teach. I definitely think that his mind will be more opened by the mere fact that you are teaching and showing him this lesson of equality, even if it's not what he will always see in the world.

  9. I like that you take a topic like this, one that is hard to talk about it, and put it out there.

  10. What an awesome upbringing he is getting. I love the photos that enhance the points that you made. I have given my kids more travel than most of their peers have had (Thailand, Morocco, Peru coming up), and I hope that it's giving them a better perspective than they might have otherwise, but they are still growing up in privilege in a town without much diversity, so I worry about it. I wonder what your son will say about how these experiences helped to shape who he will become.

  11. My iPad is in some kind of grudge match with blogger so my comments keep getting eaten ::: shakes fist at Internet ::: Anyway, this post was great. Very honest and articulate on a subject that's hard to broach. I'm definitely sharing.

  12. We never made an overt effort to give our kids a lesson in this area, and judging by their friends I think it has left them colorblind.

  13. What a thoughtful post. I actually identify a lot with your attitude towards this: though we aren't living abroad, we're in a poorer, much more ethnically diverse neighborhood. Everyone keeps asking when we'll move somewhere nicer, but I'm not sure I want my kids to have a "white-washed" experience growing up, even if it is in a safer neighborhood. I'm sure my opinions will change over the years as these hypothetical children emerge, but it's definitely something I think about. Your experience just adds to my education on how children understand race and the world around them.