Moms Discuss Educating Children on Cultural Heritage
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Just ahead, our money guru Alvin Hall explains the subprime mortgage mess and why some big money finance guys are taking the fall because of it.
But first, nearly 40 years ago, Toni Morrison's debut novel, "The Bluest Eye," took readers into the world of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a troubled black girl who thinks that life would be better if only she had blonde hair and blue eyes. Now, that was fiction, but the painful sentiment is something that families of color do have to deal with.
Now, we've talked a bit in recent days about colorcast issues in the African-American community, but numbers of other groups have also shared with us their struggles with navigating issues of the parents and self-worth. So, if you are a family of color or have children of color, how do you reinforce cultural pride without turning your own kid into a chauvinist?
For their common sensing, savvy parenting advice, as always, we turn to our Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey, Davina McFarland and Cheli English-Figaro. And we also have a guest mom today, Dr. Marguerite Wright. She's a child psychologist and the author of "I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World."
Welcome, ladies. Thanks for joining us.
Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha Mom): Hey, Michel.
Ms. DAVINA McFARLAND (Mocha Mom): Hi there, Michel.
Ms. CHELI ENGLISH-FIGARO (Mocha Mom): Hi.
MARTIN: I've got to ask, and I know it's hard, but I need to ask the moms if any of you have ever had a child say to you, mom, I wish I were white, or I don't like being brown, or I don't like how I look, or I don't like my hair. Davina?
Ms. McFARLAND: My daughter has gravitated toward more pale things. When she picks doll, she always picks the white doll. When she created - we have a Wii at home, and you make your own me. And when she made her me, her me was pink. And we said, that doesn't look like you. And she said, I know, but it's what I like. And I said, well, is that what you want to look like? And she said, no, but I like it.
MARTIN: How old is she?
Ms. McFARLAND: She's six.
MARTIN: But did that hurt? Did that hurt you?
Ms. McFARLAND: It bothered me, only because I thought, well, gosh, does she not feel good about the way she looks and does she not feel good about who she is? And I'm still not necessarily sure.
MARTIN: Anybody else? Cheli?
Ms. IVEY: Absolutely. I know I - when I was young, I wanted to be white also. But I think when the child says, I want to be white, they don't really understand the racial prejudice at all. They don't know what it is to get a mortgage and be redlined. Children at five and six and seven, they don't know that. What you're really saying is when a little girl says that, is she's saying I want to feel beautiful?
MARTIN: Jolene, we've talked about girls here. You've got five boys. Does this ever come up with the boys?
Ms. IVEY: Well, the boys actually - I think they're pretty funny, because you know, look at me, you all can't see me on the radio, but the women here know and I'm real light and a lot of people think I look white, although I'm not, I'm black - or I'm biracial, as the doctor would say.
But my kids are all really light and I think they're roughly the same shade. Well, they are hysterical. They have asked me all, when they got to about three or four years old, mommy, how come you're white and we're black? And I just look at them and laugh and tell them, you know, I'm not white, number one. And number two, what makes you all think you're so brown? And they all even can pick out between the five of them which one is lighter or darker. They're very aware of the gradations in color. Now, one thing that Cheli just said that I find funny, is, you know, she say when she was a little girl, she wanted to be white. But the way I look, I lived in a black community, I wanted to be blacker. But, you know, you get what you got. That's all there is to it.
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: You get with what you got. And what I was saying was it's not really that I wanted to be white, it was just that I didn't want to be as brown.
MARTIN: What I'm hearing, Dr. Wright, from these moms is that this is still an issue.
Dr. MARGUERITE WHITE (Author, "I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World"): It really is. And I'm impressed by how sensitively the moms are handling it. And they touched on something that, developmentally, young children just do not have the concept of race. The baggage - the emotional and social baggage that adults attach to skin color young children just do not have.
MARTIN: How young are you talking about?
Dr. WHITE: I'm talking about preschoolers, even kindergarten or first graders. It depends on their home environment and their circle of friends. And, unfortunately, a lot of the negative messages are not just sent by the larger society, the media, the various media.
But, from the research I have done, if a young child has a negative concept of their skin color, usually it's from someone in their environment.
MARTIN: From the one hand, you don't want to make such a big deal out of it that it becomes this big issue. You know, on the other hand, I think, like Davina pointed out, you want to know if your child is constantly drawing images that resemble him or her not at all or seems to be favoring a group that doesn't resemble his or her family in any way.
Dr. WHITE: One doesn't want to overreact and make a big deal. But one could have conversations. And the conversation could be, oh, you have such a beautiful color. It must be something big that make you want to change your color. But then it's ongoing. And then go up to the school if the child came home from school and talk with the teachers, see if anything went on at school. But one has to be really careful there because the teacher has to be sensitive. The teacher might make a big deal of it.
I've been called in to a number of schools where something like that happened. The child came home and said somebody said something bad about my skin color. It sometimes even say the name. And the parent would get really hot under the caller, go up to the school and unfortunately, in a number of those situations, the parents left the school.
MARTIN: Well, I could see it. Davina, you want to say something.
Ms. McFARLAND: You need to have those kind of conversations. So when I said, you know, I always want to know why. I want to know where that comes from. I want to know. But in all honesty, I would much rather her focus on the person she is inside than the way she looks outside.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having a regular visit with the Mocha Moms. And we're talking with child psychologist Dr. Marguerite White about teaching kids about skin color difference.
Cheli, you have something you want to say?
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I was just saying amen to Davina because I tell my children, you know, I care what's inside your head not what's outside your head. What I try to do in my family, I, in some ways, deemphasize appearance because it's not your fault that you're pretty. You're born that way. It's not your fault and it's not your, you know. If you're a good fortune however, you know, however. But it's not your fault. You didn't do anything to get pretty.
MARTIN: You know, I heard the same thing from the parents of - we just went to, you know, one of those parent potlucks at school. The parents of a very blonde little girl who, you know, fits the stereotypical beauty norm for the society and for others. And his - one of the dads said, you know, it just makes me crazy. I don't want her to grow up thinking that she's entitled to anything better, better treatment or anything because of her looks, you know. I don't want her to think that she's this little blonde princess because I hear it from…
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MARTIN: …people who aren't, you know, on the - who allegedly who are on top. So it looks likes - Jolene Ivey, you talked about earlier one of the things you do is also reinforce your aesthetic in your house. Make sure you have artwork…
Ms. IVEY: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: …Christmas ornaments, things like that that reinforce…
Ms. IVEY: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: …your family's aesthetic in your home.
Ms. IVEY: Right. Well, it's like my whole Christmas tree is black angels. And it's gotten so much easier over the years to find black angels. When I first started, it was really hard. And now, you can find them everywhere. I've got some black angels that look like me, too, you know, which is cool.
MARTIN: Which is cool. But I want to ask you, Dr. White, about the idea that a lot of families are diverse within their own family. How do you work to maintain cultural pride in your own kids but also celebrate other people? I mean, you don't want your kid to be a chauvinist any more than you want your kid to walk around hang dog, thinking that he or she is a victim. What do you do? What do you think about that?
Dr. WHITE: One really has to take the power away from skin color and race and not start with not talking about people about their race. And I would really say have art and books and everything of people of all different races. That idea that one of the moms says about emphasizing a person's - basically a person's character, not what they look like. And our principle identifier should not be our race or ethnicity.
MARTIN: But I have to ask you a sensitive question. Do you find that that sense of having to identify with a group and being forced into this box, is that more likely in a diverse setting or is it more likely in a mono-cultural setting?
Dr. WHITE: Unfortunately, it could be either. I've had children in predominantly black school. They have dark complexion or light complexion and these children are bullied. I've had children in predominantly white school and I remember one boy, he was basically clinically depressed. He told me how he's pressured to fit the stereotype of a black - having to be really good at basketball, having to like rap music and on and on.
So in both settings, it depends on the environment and what support they're getting from the environment. Children are really bullied about race.
Ms. IVEY: Yeah, I think that parents have…
Ms. IVEY: Sorry. I think that parents have a lot of input to that, though, because in my house, we emphasize that being black does not mean anything to do with the things you just listed. Just to put the value on things that are more intellectual and some things that are really more class issues than race issues.
MARTIN: So Dr. White, give us a couple of more practical tips, if you would. One of the things you already told us is to discourage describing people by skin color attributes. And I think that's helpful because I remember growing up and hearing people described only that way. That bright boy or something like that and they weren't talking about intelligence. And anything else that you want to share with us.
Dr. WHITE: I would say be really help children navigate media messages in movies - on rap music it's a big one. A number of parents come to me about what they should do about these negative messages particularly about women. So really be conscious of how you're working with your significant other, your husband, about what messages you're sending your children.
And I am asked to do a lot of workshop over the country. And it's amazing what teachers don't know - how in a sense they racialize(ph) children. Some of them trying to send positive messages and actually they're sending the opposite. One example is Black History Month. A number of children, a number of black children have told me that they're put on the spot when slavery is talked about - they're supposed to be the experts, and the school should really know how to handle that better.
MARTIN: That's helpful. Well, thank you.
Cheli English-Figaro, Jolene Ivey and Davina McFarland. Our Mocha Moms joined us from our studios in Washington as usual. We were also joined by guest mom, Dr. Marguerite White. She is an author and a senior clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, California. But she joined us from her home office in Berkeley, California. You can find links to the Mocha Moms and to Dr. White at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.
Thank you everybody for joining us.
Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.
Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Thank you, Michel.
Ms. McFARLAND: Thank you, Michel.
Dr. WHITE: Thank you.