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Friday, March 26, 2010

Conversations with my Kid - The Trying to Learn About Racism Edition

I was going to post an entirely different conversation but then this morning, I had an interesting one with my 7-1/2-year old which left me feeling a bit stumped. So I have switched gears to share this one since I appreciate gaining insight from other mamas.

As I was buzzing around getting our morning going, I overheard my 2nd grader teaching my 5-1/2- year-old kindergartener one of those patty-cake, jumping-around, rhyming, singy-songs that little girls do on the playground. In this particular one, one of the lines was "Here comes a lady with an African booty."


Knowing full-well that my kid had no idea what she was saying, I gently said, "We need to talk about this song you've learned because some of the words just aren't very nice."

I then left the room to consult with my man because sometimes he is more even in his approach and I didn't want my daughter to feel like I was punishing her because I always want her to feel comfortable telling me things she learns on the playground. The last thing I want is for her to feel like she needs to keep secrets from me. That's a bigger ugh.

So when she came out from her room to sit down and have breakfast, we both calmly explained that she didn't do anything wrong but saying those words can hurt other people feelings and she really can't sing that song with her friends anymore.

"Why does it hurt other people's feelings?"

"Well, where do African people come from?"

"Africa," she said.

"And what color are most people that come from Africa?"

"I don't know."

"Well, African people usually have brown or black skin. And this country has a history of not being very nice to black people."

"I know that," she said.

"Okay. Well then if you know that, we are just trying to tell you that if other people heard you singing that song, especially perhaps, black people, they would not like hearing those words and their feelings would be hurt."


I felt myself getting frustrated. I thought - Why can't she just grasp this concept and say okay and just understand???

My husband jumped in, "You see, there's a thing called racism and when you say those words, it sounds racist. Like you are saying that there is only kind of African butt and that's not true. In this country we try our best not to generalize about any race."

"What's race?" she asked.

Wow. I underestimated the complicated nature of this conversation.

"Race is a certain group of people. Like when you're black, that's a certain race and well, we're white, and that's another race."

My husband and I exchanged glances that said we had no idea if were helping this situation out at all.

Our daughter continued, "Well, we are not talking about a race, we are talking about one lady!"

"We know that, honey, but in the term, 'African booty', you are talking about a race. And those are the words that we have a problem with."

And then I added, "Do you have any idea what those words are even supposed to mean?"

"No." Claire said. "But we weren't trying to be mean."

"We know that, honey. And we're not punishing you. But we're your parents and we are here to help you learn about the world and we are telling you that the world will not like it if it hears you say those words."

"But we weren't trying to be mean. And we weren't even talking about African people, we were talking about one lady!"

And after a few more exchanges, the conversation ended as we needed to rush out the door as to not be late for school. I told her I was going to talk to her teacher which terrified her because she LOVES her teacher and never wants to be perceived as a kid who does anything wrong. I told her it wasn't to get anyone in trouble, it was just to let her know what was being said on the playground by many kids and maybe she could talk to the whole class about why it's not a nice thing to say too.

As my husband left to drive the girls to school, I felt so....unsatisfied. Was I expecting too much from her? Was this concept of racism beyond her grasp? It's such a delicate balance of educating and not feeling punished for something she so clearly was not getting.

What am I missing here? Any experiences you can add or tips or insight or language I should have used would be greatly appreciated.

Damn those singy-songy-rhymey playground things.


If you have a "Conversation with your Kid" that you would like to share, paste the link in the linky contraption below. I'd love to check it out.

Thanks for adding to the conversation.....have a great weekend!


  1. I think you did the right thing. She didn't know it was wrong or even what racism is. You are teaching her right from wrong.
    When I was little I came home and said the N word to my dad. He was so horrified and told me how wrong it was I never said it again. I'm sure your daughter won't either.

  2. Oh - they probably saw Bertha. Bertha Butt. One of the Butt sisters.

    Sorry. I had to.

    You were right to try to approach this subject. When you really understand where "Ring around the Rosy" came from, you can see that most of these children's songs came from adults - or were/are an expression of adult attitudes. Adults are sometimes too careless with what they say around the kids. Sometimes.

  3. Boy everyone is lining up for advice on this one! :) Just kidding - I see the post has not been up for long - hopefully people will start burning up the keyboards with their thoughts because I have struggled with this ever since my 14 yr old was 6.

    The playground rhymes or versions of them have been around since the beginning of time it seems - A time when no one had heard of "politically correct" - but that didn't mean what was being said was not an insult to someone then as it is now. Now we are just aware of it - thank God!

    Truly kids are clueless and for the most part innocent when they sing these songs - they don't know what they are saying. That's where we come in - we HAVE to say something. Being PC gets a bad rap sometimes as going overboard, but I think its critical to explain to children why someone might be hurt by their words, even though they don't mean to hurt anyone. Even if they don't fully understand now, it is not too early to help them see the power of words.

  4. It sounds like you handled it really well, even though it seems frustrating to you. We just went through this with the word "retarded," because my sons hear it all the time at school and have an older sister with a severe disability. When I read your story, I almost had the impulse to sigh and yearn for the "old days" when you could just say, "it's bad and you're forbidden to say it because I said so." Sigh.

  5. Wow! I'm going to think about this a little more. As the mother of a three year old my exposure or experience of handling this as a parent is almost non-existent (although we sort of experienced it this week). However, as a biologist I have a strong reaction to the term race when applied to humans. There are not different human races, plural, not from a biological stand point. Race is a social construct. What are the implications for your conversation, yep no thoughts yet.

  6. So tough. Kids are just figuring out their world and we just have to best guide them and their word choices the best we can. Probably looks different for everyone, but I think you guys did the best you could!

  7. Lee,
    I'm sitting here trying to figure out what to say and how to say it to get my message across. But, like you said, things are tricky when it comes to race.

    My son is also 7-and-a-half. He's in second grade at a magnet school where, although the town we live in is white by majority, my son is in the minority. He is surrounded by boys and girls of every race and culture. The school made it a point to focus on race starting in kindergarten and carrying all the way through fifth grade. I'm not sure if it is due to this consistent message, but my son appears to have a greater understanding of race. He has even corrected my use of a certain crayon when coloring a picture, saying "No mom, we use this crayon for Chinese people" (for example).

    I think in the situation with your daughter there are two separate things to focus on. The simpler one would seem to be hurting peoples' feelings. I'm sure that she can understand this and you can use an example that if this one woman they sang about was walking by, her feelings would be hurt that the little girls were calling her butt big. :)
    The second issue is, of course, race. And for that I would recommend an open, ongoing dialogue. Watching the news, remarking on classmates and people at the grocery store, continuing to talk about it, somewhat nonchalantly, when the topic presents itself.

    I don't know. I have no answers. But I offer a little here because I know what it is to NOT know and to WANT advice and help and suggestions from others. I use our blog to do that often. I will never pretend to know what I'm doing or whether I'm on the right track with my current mode of parenting.

    Good luck. I'm sure that with parents like hers who are conscientious and caring, she'll be just fine and, with time, come to understand the world through your eyes.

  8. just like the commenter above said, i don't pretend to know what i'm doing or if i have the right answers, but wanted to thank you for opening this dialogue. our family is made up of many colors and this is very dear to my heart.
    i think that you did well and have a great start. i think it is important that it is an on-going, natural dialogue. i think my biggest thing is that i don't want people to be "color-blind" to my family. (or anyone--i just can really only speak for us.) it sounds like a nice thing to say, but really? i WANT you to see our colors and love them just the same. to celebrate the difference. the beauty.
    i think it is important to continue talking about history, how that must make some people feel & how we should be in light of that.
    it is wonderful that, although this is really hard, you are willing to help her understand the impact her words can have on other people.

  9. Wow - what an interesting post. It is so hard to communicate issues such as this to our kids when they are so innocent and really don't understand the implications.

    I will say that the biologist above got me thinking about only ONE race - the human race. That's really how children see it - we're all people with different color skin, eyes, hair etc. with no other "race" differences. I really like that perspective.

    Maybe the idea is to focus simply on the "butt" portion of the song and how it's not nice to talk about other people's butts??

  10. I feel like you made a good start. As other commenters said above, race is a huge topic to cover and grasp so it makes sense that it will be a long journey with continuing discussion. Knowing there are parents out there willing to talk about these things with their children gives me a little more hope about the future.

  11. Sadly, our children will learn stereotypes and racism soon enough. It's all over - from classic Disney movies, to pop music, to the school yard. I think it's an appropriate conversation to have with your child, because if they don't learn tolerance and right from wrong at home....then where?


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