“Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?” (Ch. 3 Reflections: The Early Years)

This post is long overdue – life got busy.

I love the question which opens this chapter, a question Tatum’s daughter once asked her:  “Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?”  Hearing kids talk about race is fun and sometimes even subversive.  My kids have never referred to their friends as White, Black, Yellow, or Red – because, it turns out, none of us are actually those colors (except Brown).  Race, I’m reminded, is a social construct.  Another example:  I just polled my three boys; oldest says he’s Chinese, middle says he’s English, and youngest says he’s Spanish (I asked him why, Because I look Spanish.)  But these humorous conversations with kids about race remind me that while kids certainly have some wrong-headed ideas about race, so do we as adults.

Talking to our kids about race isn’t easy.  Some parents fear that by introducing the conversation so early, they are raising questions and concerns that before didn’t exist.  Even for patently racist parents, they know that they must speak about race in hushed tones, or at least behind closed doors.  And yet passing on values about racial & ethnic identity and relationships to our children is vital, even if it happens non-verbally.  I am convinced that there are a few places where we can see where our real values are.  One is how we use money.  The second is how we raise our kids.  As a Christian, it’s almost cliche to talk about people who are Christians – until it comes to their money and their children.  But this an untenable position before a Jesus who told his disciples:  “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt 19:14).

There are some stark differences though between Tatum’s world and my world.  First, I am not Black; while I am a racial minority, there is something categorically unique to the stigma associated with being Black in America and something unique to the relationship between Blacks and Whites.  Second, it seems like I live in a much more diverse neighborhood than Tatum does; where I live, Whites are as populous as Latinos, Filipinos, Chinese, and Indians; White normalcy seems to be more prevalent in her neighborhood, or at least at her children’s schools.  Third, my kids already come home with messages about racial inclusion and equality–unsurprising given the racial diversity among their teachers.  And for these reasons, I don’t naturally feel as nervous about my kids growing up as Chinese-Americans as Tatum does with her kids.  This doesn’t mean that there is no racism in our neighborhood–there is, but not of the character Tatum writes about.  At this stage, they don’t perceive that they are worse off or that they are weird because of their looks or their Chineseness.  They don’t think they are yellow because they drank “too much” (insert yellow colored drink).  In fact, they would be happy to bring their Chinese soy milk or yogurt drinks to school with a level of confidence that would have put my 3rd grade self to shame.  As far as they are concerned they are as different and as similar as their friends who are Armenian, Filipino, Caucasian, etc.  At least for now (or more accurately, as far as I know.)

Tatum advocates that FIRST, we should be happy to accept children for where they are at developmentally (often making broad generalizations, e.g., about one’s consumption of chocolate milk).  SECOND, we as adults need to watch how we unconsciously transmit messages about race to and around our kids (do we mention someone’s race unnecessarily?  especially in a pejorative way, or to express surprise?).  And THIRD, we should help them develop a critical consciousness (e.g., using racial stereotypes in media as simple entry points to teach them).

At this point, as a parent, I find myself emphasizing three things with my children which overlap, but slightly differ from Tatum:

  1. ACCEPTANCE:  Like Tatum, I accept where my kids are with respect to their understanding of race and ethnicity.  After that one conversation, I have never asked my kids what race their friends are.  When they describe what’s unique about their friends, only once or twice have they ever referred to skin color; all other times they’ve referred to their hair color or curliness, their height or size, their raspy voice, and (when pressed) if it is a girl.  I want to learn about their world as they see it.  And even when my youngest insisted that he was Spanish because he looks Spanish (what does that even mean?), at this point, I see no reason to correct him.  Because at this point, self-discovery is just too fun and fluid.  The stuff my youngest says is wrong almost half the time.  And rather than spending all my time correcting him and stifling the joy of discovery, I delight in seeing how he discovers things about himself.  But with my older son, I do find myself correcting him because he’s old enough – but I always do it in a way that steers his understanding of the truth rather than making him feel embarrassed for being so “ignorant.”  We laugh a lot when we talk about race, ethnicity, gender, or outer space aliens — and I hope, learn a lot too.
  2. IDENTITY:  Clearly, two of my boys have identity issues (but who doesn’t?).  But that’s the freedom they have at this age.  But what does it mean to be Chinese-American?  I resonate with this question, because I am Chinese, and yet I’m not.  I look Chinese, yet I don’t speak Chinese.  I have Chinese family values, and yet I am also a Western individualist.  I cook and eat Chinese food, but pretty much every other cuisine as well.  My kids are the same.  Unlike my grandparents, I don’t feel the need to preserve their Chinese-ness, and yet I want them to have a sense of what it means to be Chinese-American, especially in the diverse environment that they are growing up in.  Recently, I’ve been reading through with my boys Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a marvelous graphic novel that approaches the Boxer rebellion from the Traditional Chinese perspective and the Catholic Chinese perspective.  There’s also lots of gods, and magic, and knives, so my boys love it.  I also read Yang’s American Born Chinese with my oldest – and to my surprise, he understood it’s meaning, despite not growing up wanting to be like the cool White kids.  What I love about these stories is that they are both Chinese and Western.  Yang offers a narrative that not only bridges those two worlds and their histories, but also brings the tensions to surface.  I am resistant to the idea of imposing what it means to be Chinese-American on my boys, and story provides the freedom for them to discover that for themselves with some narrative anchors.
  3. JUSTICE:  Particularly out of my Christian convictions, I want my children to grow up being sensitive to anyone or any group that is being ignored, bullied, or singled out in a pejorative fashion–regardless of the social marker.  I regularly ask them if there are people who no one wants to play with, that everyone laughs at because I want them to be the first to be their friend, to include them.  Race has generally not been something I have specified as a reason to rile them to action, again, because they have not brought it up as a reason.  More often, it will be because someone is smelly, or weird, or dumb, or mean (do these labels track with race, gender, or socioeconomic status?  maybe/maybe not).  A good friend of ours has a son who is autistic, so that is also on my radar.  As they become more race-aware, you bet it will be a more intentional conversation.

If you’re parent, it’d be great to hear what’s on your mind when it comes to conveying messages and values about race to your children.

10 thoughts on ““Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?” (Ch. 3 Reflections: The Early Years)”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Really interesting to think about from a parenting perspective! I think since my husband is born and raised Japanese, Japanese is his first and main language, Japan is his country of citizenship and the place where his family lives.. and since our children will have dual citizenship.. it will definitely define my children’s identity in being “Japanese” and being “American.” I think the conversation changes the further you get from your first generation of immigrants and the further you get from bilingualism. But I love the 3 points at the end about acceptance and justice. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Somer! Yes, the distance from immigration I think makes a big difference in terms of identity. My parents moved here when they were 18, my in laws when they were in their 30s. And it’s obvious to my wife that I am more Westernized because of that. That cool that your kids have dual citizenship!

  2. well, my children, unless they are homosexual, pretty much define Tatum’s privileged “normal” in ch. 1, so i’m trying to be ultra-conscious of how we discuss race and help them become aware of their privilege and how it could color interactions as they get older.
    that doesn’t look like much at this age, aside from a conversation with Theo a few months ago about different skin colors because people’s ancestors came from many different places around the world, and another, this weekend, in which I told him it was not okay to talk about being Japanese because we aren’t and we don’t want to offend people who are. (context: “if we were Japanese, we’d see oompa loopa DOOPAs!” as the culmination of lots of silly wordplay.)
    and i’m willing to admit that i may be overreacting on the Japanese reference, since to him it was just a silly-sounding word, but there has been so much in pop culture this year with white people co-opting non-european culture and reducing it to suit their needs, that i want him to get the message early on that he has no right to take over others’ words and use them for his own purposes.

    1. whoops, hit return too soon.
      anyways, my overall response is that for now, i will be hyper-aware of race, since (at the risk of sounding “noblesse oblige”) i feel like it’s my responsibility to take extra steps to begin to compensate for our privilege. i know i would love us to be “post-racial”, but i know we aren’t yet, and ignoring it or pretending my kid is already p-r, isn’t going to make it so.
      i really appreciated a lot of the points further on in her book too, and i’m trying to apply them at work as well as home/community.

      1. Great thoughts. Privilege is a funny thing, and there are so many types – I occupy a privilege space simply by being male. I echo what you shared, being aware of our privilege is crucial, but even more so, using that privilege for the benefit of others.

  3. Hi there, I’ve recently found your blog (loved your post about three kids!) and I was taken by how honestly you write. I wanted to ask you about a guest posting opportunity, but couldn’t find your contact info. I hope leaving a comment here is ok! I’d love to talk with you more…Please feel free to email me, or visit my blog: http://www.bowdenisms.blogspot.com (And now I’m compelled to write something that will assure you this isn’t one of those, mostly complimentary, but slightly spammy robot comments. So um….Here: I’m not a robot. And this isn’t spam. 🙂

  4. Hi! I enjoy your writing too, found your blog after my friend linked to your post that went viral (haha no prizes for guessing which eh). As a Christian Chinese Singaporean who speaks English and Mandarin, who’s studied and lived both in the UK and US, I do relate to what you were saying in this post.

    It’s strange – I always felt so much more aware of my ethnicity when I am overseas. It’s as if it’s so obvious that there’s a sign hovering above my head going “Chinese girl”. When I’m in Singapore, I’m hardly conscious about my race. It’s as if it just melted away as an identity aspect. What hovers over my head seems more of the “Full-Time-Working-Mum” label, haha.

  5. Hello all, pediatric doctor specializing in the effects of nutrition on skin color here, so I believe that I am qualified to speak on this subject. While it is widely understood that dark skin is an evolutionary result of ancestors spending time in the sun, it is less commonly known that there are other factors that can influence skin color. Interestingly, the chocolate milk that black skinned children breast feed on has a very high sugar and protein content that leads to darker skin color. When these children do not have access to their mother’s chocolate milk, they try to compensate for the lack of sugar and protein by consuming other foods and beverages high in sugar and protein such as watermelon, kool-aid, and fried chicken. In summation, while it is not the main factor in the determining of skin color, a mother’s chocolate breast milk leads to a subtle yet significant darkening in skin color.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s