The Doll Test

Updated on October 13, 2011
A.C. asks from Boston, MA
28 answers

First off let me say that I am African-American and someone who wants to instill in my children a sense of racial pride. With that said the infamous doll test has always struck a cord with me so I thought i'd get a feel on what my 2.5 year old thought/knew about race. He has come home from daycare from time to time and said, "mommy are you black?" and I would respond yes and he would say, "no you're brown.... and Kate is white." .... Understandable, he is learning his colors right?! So i took it a little further and said yes my skin is brown and yours is too but we call ourselves 'black people'. And he got upset stating he did not want to be black!?!?!? The school he attends is very diverse and so is our circle of friends and family, so what would make him at 2 not want to be BLACK??? Then this morning it dawned on me, the association with the color black is usually all things negative! Prime example, i was explaining to him the importance of brushing his teeth and making sure they stay 'nice and white' and 'you dont want your teeth to turn brown and black and rotten do you???' in my best animated voice. Thats when it hit me like a ton of bricks! I've got to change the language I use and make sure i'm very delicate so that he wont feel his skin color is undesirable like rotten teeth or something dirty. What do you moms think about that and do you talk to your children about race at all???

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So What Happened?

What an interesting subject, and I love hearing all points of views but I do want to mention one thing. To those moms who think that a two year old isnt thinking about race at all or making a connection this early you are sadly mistaken. My degree is in childhood development and children learn by making connections to previous schemas in their little brains. So all things they intake began to make connections with each other and create new dispositions and ideas. So word association even before your children can speak IS very important and should be monitored with a certain intention.

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answers from Raleigh on

My son asked me why some of his friends are "brown" when he was about 3. He also used brown because, said he "They ARE brown!" When I tried to correct him, he got mad at me! He said "They are not black." They proceeded to show me a black and brown crayon and gave me a lesson on colors. I asked him what color we are, and he said "pink". One time he said we are "orange" when we he was going through his orange phase. Don't worry about it. I don't think he reads that much into it at this age. Colors are colors!
And I can think of some pretty disgusting things that are white. Pus. Mayonnaise. A yeast infection. Shall I go on? :)

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answers from Columbus on

My daughter's best friend has - her words - "chocolate colored skin". Sounds better than rotten teeth to me.

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answers from New York on

My initial thought was, no he does not want to be black because his skin
is brown. Too young to get the "you are black" when he looks in the
mirror and sees brown. You have a good point about the language we
use on an everyday basis. I do talk to my grandson who is three about
race. I want him to embrace everyone. I was raised in the city and had
such a diverse group of friends. To this day I still do.

1 mom found this helpful

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answers from Boston on

First off, and no offense here, but I have a hard time understanding wanting to instill "racial pride." Because if I went on television to tell the world how proud I am that I am white as white can be, can you imagine the death threats and screams of "RACIST!!" I'd receive? Other kinds of pride I can understand more. Be proud to be an American, be proud of nation-of-origin's history, be proud of your family tree, be proud of your parents' rags-to-riches story, be proud of hard work and a 4.0 GPA in school... but I just don't understand why it's okay for some people to be proud of their skin color but not others. ...? Does that make sense?

That point aside, rural NH where we live is not the most racially diverse part of the nation, and I try so hard to make sure my kids understand that God makes people in all shapes/sizes/colors/abilities, even if they are not all visible to them in their daily lives. When I mention someone to my 4-yr-old son at church, and he asks "who is that?" I will say something like, "The one with the beautiful dark skin." Or on a show or in a book I might point out that God made that family to all have black hair (my boys are blond) and they might eat different kinds of foods and speak a different language. Or if we see someone with a disability, that some people's legs don't work right...and remind him that God loves all kinds of people. Like a rainbow has all beautiful colors that are all different.

You can point out good things that are supposed to be brown or black, like chocolate, the night sky, a favorite teddy bear, furniture, shiny shoes, what have you. And say, "see? This item is brown/black, and it's just the way it is supposed to be. Just like we have dark skin and it's just right for us!"

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answers from Seattle on

I got into that argument with my (south carolina prejudiced as all get out) kindercare teacher. I got spanked and put in the corner because I flat out insisted I was PEACH, not white, and held up the crayon to demonstraight. (I won't even get into some of the things that woman said... which were VERY confusing for a little PEACH girl, with cornrows done by my neighbor once a week, who'd been living in Japan for the previous four years).

Most toddlers are pretty literal. What helped with my son was to show him photos of blue black Africans, and for "white" he had his dad to go off of (natural redhead, and that man is almost paper white... meanwhile I vary between peach and dark red tea that's sat too long), and then photos of that absolutely stunning white/black combo... where even peach and chocolate look REALLY black and white. Ditto black and white photos... how brown turns black, and light turns white, and in between is grey. Which got him to understand where the phrases CAME from, even if he didn't agree with them, and has to date refused to use them EVER (It's also only 11:30 twice a day in our house; 11:31 is NOT 11:30, much less 11:26 or 11:36... long. suffering. sigh.)

The thing about color references, though, I absolutely did NOT drop.

Green is GLORIOUS... unless it's meat... and then green is NASTY.
Brown is disgusting when it's gunked up teeth... and luscious in chocolate.
Red is vibrant when it's on a humming bird... and painful when it's pinkeye.

Skin is just melanin. Crayola even has 100+ skin color crayon box these days. There's nothing better or worse about any color of skin, or eyes. It's just descriptive.

IMHO... toddlers are trying to figure out the world around them, and they aren't going to be confused by green being bad on meat, and good on broccoli. Nor that white is good for teeth and bad for rye bread (mold).

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answers from Seattle on

Yah, my kids are literal too. Today I said, "Oh, here's your pony." They said, "THAT is a HORSE, mama. NOT a pony" (They were right too.)

We have a pretty interesting household. My husband is part Japanese and is pretty dark. My dad is Georgian and most folks can't figure out what my ancestral lineage is...just that my features aren't typical for an (N. American) white gal, but my coloring is. My niece is fair, green eyes, blond hair and is a descendant of Italian, E. European, and W. European ancestors. My daughter is darker than I am, and her features are my own.

My daughter is the proud owner of one, "Orange Baby". My niece has, "Pink Baby". They're right, too. Their dolls are one shade each of pink and orange.

Our skin, unlike a dolls, are comprised of many, many different hues. Just from a painter's perspective, if I'm doing skin tones I am NOT using a prefab "caucasian skin tone 43" and spreading it evenly over the body. I'm using a combination of Ultramarine blue, vermilion red, yellow ocher and titanium (or when I didn't have kids) flake white. I'm adjusting throughout the face and body. Some areas are going to be more blue, more yellow, more red. Some people are going to be more blue, more yellow, more red. I'm a pretty red pallet.

My kids want words to be exact. I want color words to be exact too. (((I can let the rest slide, but creating a pallet is one of my few skills. I can match and mix paint really, really well. It drives me CRAZY when people say, that's a blue bike. No. The bike is not blue. It's green. It's a combination of pthalo blue and hansa yellow, with a DASH of zinc white. That's green. It's against a darn yellow wall, and that's shifting the color towards the blue spectrum because of relative color theory.)))

ANY way.

I have these sort of conversations with my kids. "You are ABSOLUTELY right. This is a pony. Did you know a pony is just a horse that measures 14 hands and under? It's a small horse. With a thicker coat. YOUR ponies are usually colored pink or blue. Unless we painted a pony, it wouldn't really be that color. But nonetheless, a pink pony is ALSO a small painted horse."

When my children's race come into it, "Yup. You are right Cicia. You are peach colored. Folks call that "white" here. White is a word that means a few different things. White means, the color white (hold up piece of paper). That's how we've learnt it, right? White also can also be a name for folks with peach colored skin, or when a person's family has peach colored skin, or about where their grandparent's grandparent's grandparent's are from. Opal's skin IS more brown than yours. Cicia's skin is more light than yours, Opal. Luka's great grandparents come from a part of the world where folks USUALLY are a little or a lot darker than Nana is, for example. Cicia's come from a place where folk's skin is usually a lot lighter than Papa A.'s."

We haven't talked much about racism, marginalization, or oppression, because it hasn't been relative to their developmental stage yet. My kids SEE the way folks look. They don't see race, nor do they yet see inequities and oppression. They are learning to treat everyone with respect and value, to share, to play with "new kid friends they don't know yet". They still notice similarities and differences. My niece on the bus will say, "That babies hair is like Opal's, it's curly. Mine is strait." "Yup," I say, "Some folks have curly hair, some strait, and wavy. That baby's hair looks a lot like Opal's."

My Daughter's great grandfather on my husband's side was put into the Japanese American internment camps. He and his wife, my husband's grandmother, were not allowed to marry in her families Mormon church because it was an interracial marriage. They are 93, still married, and have 5 living children and more great grandbabies than I can keep count of.

My children WILL know this story, but they don't yet. They won't get it, because it's not something they can see and touch. Right now they get fables. We tell stories about little bear (my daughter's character) and little panda (my niece's character). They are analogies about the bigger picture, but they are digested more easily than explanations and the history of expansive systems and structures. I tell them their own histories too, but only a few generations back. They don't know about my Dad's people, exiled from their country, nor my mom's people, who Holland during world war 2. They don't hear about famine, war, or genocide, or the insidious racism that touches our lives and is sometimes hard to name. They just wouldn't get it, because they are too little.

They DO get, that person wasn't being a good friend. Or, that person was acting super mean. Or, that person was pretty rude to the other friend and sharing is important and we all look different and we all deserve to be treated respectfully.

Just one more note out of me. My kids get really, really attached to certain colors. Right now, Cicia is into Purple. If I were to say, you are purple, she'd be thrilled. If I were to say she was orange...all S. would hit the fan. While racism still does exist, and it's entirely possible your son might be exhibiting symptoms of having been marginalized by, culture, language (and associations), his day care, etc, it's also possible that he might not like the *color* black and doesn't want to identify with a word that, to him, still is associated with a hue, rather than an identity, a history and sense of cultural heritage and pride.

Hope this wasn't too long winded!

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answers from Houston on

As a white woman, my son tells me we aren't white, we are 'peach', because really we AREN'T like bone/ivory white. (Except for my legs in the summer, lol!

Kids are very literal in their colors. I don't think he isn't happy with his color, I think he just has a disconnect in taking the term black too literally. Just like when I was a kid and learned my aunt got fired from her job, I literally thought her boss had thrown fire on her.

So, why not focus on things that are truly black. Did you know black diamonds are more rare and often more valuable than white diamonds? What about the beautiful black stallion, read the book, "Black Beauty" together. Or your skin may be brown, but what about your hair, is it very black? Focus on those things. He still likely won't get the black is brown, but that is something he will learn over time.

For language like the black teeth example, that's a good catch. replace words like that with the true word, a "painful hole called a cavity".

And yes, I do talk to my kids about race and all kinds of physical differences. I tell them God made us all different and isn't it great!

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answers from Milwaukee on

but he is aren't black. take a piece of black paper and put your hand on they let him be brown because he is!!! if i take a white piece of paper and put my hand on it i don't match the white....i'm peach or pink.....teach your son the way he wants to be taught!!!

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answers from Chicago on

I'm bi-racial and I grew up in diverse neighborhoods and always had friends from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. I want to teach my 3 year old and 14 month old daughters that skin color doesn't matter and that everyone is the same on the inside and I used to think that the best way to do that was by not addressing the differences.

When playing with dolls I would say things like "the baby with the brown eyes" or the "baby with the blue eyes" to try to get my daughter to notice another characteristic other than skin color. But after reading Nurture Shock, I have to agree that that's not the best approach.

Skin color, after all, is often the first thing that people notice about each other. I can't remember what the age was exactly, but somewhere around age 6 months or so, babies already recognize the differences in skin color/races. And by trying to teach our children to ignore color, and not talk about it, we might inadvertently make them think that it's an uncomfortable and taboo subject and one they shouldn't talk about when what we really want is for them to talk about it openly with us instead of learning stereotypes and prejudices from outside the home.

Given your son's age, you could probably be very simple with your answers. For example, if he asks, "mommy, why is so and so white or why is so and so brown/black" he might be satisfied with an answer like "so and so has brown skin because his mommy and daddy have brown skin". I also make it a point to buy books/toys with characters from different racial/ethnic backgrounds and do activities (music classes, language classes, etc) that also have children from different racial/ethnic backgrounds.

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answers from Atlanta on

I have found it very interesting to watch and listen to my oldest (youngest is almost three abd has never mentioned it) and what he has perceived and been taught regarding race. We live in a very diverse area, and our boys have had far more "brown/black" teachers and caregivers than white. The oldest never said anything, and then one day at a before school meeting, he walked up to a little boy he didn't know and said, "Hey little brown boy!" Totally innocent, but as an adult who grew up with a lot of racial prejudice, I kind of cringed. I casually mentioned on the way home that instead of calling people by a physical characteristic, we should introduce ourselves and ask their names. It was more in depth, but he got it. Evidently the norm here is for teachers to refer to darker-skinned children as "brown" instead of black, and that's fine with me( I'm white or pink if you will...). We just wanted our kids to grow up in a mixed environment without any preconceived notions, and I'm happy to say it seems to be working very well! I would suggest pointing out some things to your son that are wonderful and black -beautiful black animals, the night sky, great shoes, awesome cars -whatever! It's fine to let him know "black is beautiful" whether you're talking people or things.

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answers from St. Louis on

I don't understand why he can't be brown. I am being quite serious, just because society says you are black you have to be black. I like brown, apparently your son likes brown.

Why would he think his skin color is undesirable like rotten teeth, he is brown?

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answers from Chicago on

Kids are very literal at this age. I commend you for your commitment to teaching your son to be proud of his heritage, however I think he is much too young to really grasp what all that means. Like Ephie said, he probably just doesn't like the color black, and that's okay. He's not saying he doesn't want to BE black, because he most likely doesn't know what the heck that means. I think you are reading too much into what he said.

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answers from Fort Walton Beach on

I can see where you are coming from in thinking that black tends to have a negative connotation but in all reality I don't believe that is the issue. You mention that he is learning his colors and I think most kids go through the literal phase where skin is brown so you are a brown person. According to my kids we are peach not white.
The shade of your skin is such a huge thing for most adults but children just don't have the same thoughts so I don't believe it is a racial thing.
At our previous church we had two ladies named Mary that my son adored. One was from Namibia and he refered to her as the "brown Mary" (she thought it was hilarious), the other lady has shiny silver hair & so she, of course, became the "silver Mary."
Skin tone is just another wonderful way to demonstrate that not everyone is or should be alike. Pride in heritage and pride in the shade of our skin is two totally different things in my opinion.
Hope you have a wonderful day.

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answers from Cleveland on

I think you are taking things a bit too far. I dont' think your son saying he didn't want to be black have anything to do with the color of his skin. He's 2!

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answers from Washington DC on

When you say I am black but yet he sees brown his little 2 year old brain can't figure out why you're black is actually brown. He is learning the colors and he definitely sees brown not black.
I'm sure he hasn't made any racial connection yet.

Start saying his teeth need to be clean so they are healthy, same with him. He needs a bath to be healthy, you wash the dishes so they are healthy to eat from.

Here's a funny my MIL loves to tell about my BIL the first time he made a skin color connection. My BIL was maybe 2 or 3. He was playing in the living room near a picture window and could see out to the street. A black man walked by the house and BIL jumped up and yelled for MIL, Mommy, Mommy come see the chocolate man!!!

My kids have always had multiracial friends. People are people. I hope I am instilling that in them. But I do not make a big fuss over it.

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answers from Seattle on

We are a mixed race family. I am as white as the driven snow and my husband is very dark brown from Mexico City. He would complain during the summer about how dark he was getting and I finally had to tell him to cut it out. His skin is a beautiful color and my eldest son gets just as dark as he does! I don't want my kids to feel shame about what color they are! It's funny, I never thought latino folks thought about their skin color and the DO!
I don't think that you need to change what you are saying about teeth. It's true! You DON'T want your teeth to turn brown and black and fall out! But, you said brown AND black. So, I highly doubt he just held onto you saying black but thinks brown is ok, right?
I just talk about how beautiful everyone's skin color is. My children actually say they feel sorry for me and my pasty white skin...those buggers. I would just comment about how lovely your son is. Maybe he didn't want to be black because he's not! Maybe he sees himself as brown, and that's perfectly fine, right? :)

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answers from Washington DC on

Yes i talk to my children about race. My son also must have met your son one day cause my 7 year old said the exact same thing to me when he was about 4 or 5 I made reference to one of his friends when we talking and was like "the black boy?" and he was like no what black boy you mean the brown boy and i was so confused! then he explained to me he was brown and he meant the kid who was same color as him! got me to thinking too about the language I speak to him and still to this day he still says brown and does not consider himself black at all, so now on forms that i get that say "black", African American, or anything along those lines I bypass and check "Other" lol I have had some folks especially those who are bi-racial tell me they check that too and then where there is a line to explain themselves they put HUMAN! I like that! :-)



answers from New York on

i remember when my son came home from pre-k one day and proclaimed that we are white. we are actually asian. that was really funny and interesting to clarify.

it's interesting. i find it to be easier to deal with the race issue for me because we live in nyc. my kids are exposed to so many different cultures and colors that it makes it easier for them to differentiate who is from where and so on.

i use colors sometimes to describe people. i never, ever say it with a negative notation. ever. i refuse to bring my kids there and when society or peers do it, i look forward to cleaning up any wrongdoing.

ever since st. john's university was forced to change their team names to the Red Storm from the Redmen, i knew we had gone too far. as good parents, we will always be there to bat cleanup. keep up the good work, mama! reinforce the positive, i promise it will stick to him like glue.


answers from New York on

I'm white, so is my husband. I don't think there's a connotation of black colored things being bad. I have found my oldest daughter who is 5, when this first came up, was very literal. Our neighborhood is mostly white. There is a mix of other races - Indian, Hispanic and Oriental and some African American. The first time anything about race came up was when my kids were 3 and 4 and in preschool. My oldest daughter said some of the kids in her class had brown skin and wore a special thing on their head (turban, they were Indian). So I went over that lots of people were from lots of places and some people had brown skin, some yellow colored, and some white, and everyone was a person, just had different colors of skin. I said, like we're white, and our friends so and so have brown skin. My daughter cut me off and said we're not white, mom we're beige. I said oh ok you're right, we're beige. Since then nothing really much has come up except me answering questions, like I explained to them what a turban was and why some Indian people wear it and others do not. And we have recently been talking about the difference between what one's religion is vs what one's race is and what one's country of origin is. All of this is confusing for my kids, like I will say so and so doesn't celebrate Christmas because she's Jewish. (My daughter's BFF is Jewish and I didn't want her making comments about Santa Claus to her, and making her feel bad). And my kids will say oh I thought she was American. And I have to explain the difference....
It's all learning to them.

I was explaining to my girls why America was a great country because of all the freedoms we have and that not every country had these freedoms. My daughter said oh you mean like in India, they have no TV???
I said well they do have TV there, but they have alot of other problems! LOL!
Good luck to you with this!


answers from Providence on

How interesting. My son, although sees the differences between people and their skin tone, he doesn't perceive them as being so different. At such an early age, children definetly are aware of others being different " colors" , and are making connections. For us, we have told our son that people are many colors, and God made us all the same. So to him, someone may be white, brown, or black, but it doesn't make a difference. We are all colors.

You have a very bright and sensitive son. As far as the teeth thing, I always say to get the yucky bugs out. He hates bugs, and it helps to use something they don't like.



answers from Minneapolis on

I'm a white person, and we talk about color of kids in the class sometimes. Mostly just because I want my kids to know that yes people are different colors. I'd rather talk about the differences, and then talk about their personalities (or other things about the person) rather than ignore that colors are out there. Kids notice and naturally make note of similarities and differences, I think it is important to just make sure they know that differences are good because we are all unique and all a little different from each other in some way.




answers from Burlington on

Wow, I hadn't even thought of the teeth thing!! I am white, my husband is pacific islander, adopted black son (black birth mom)and multi-racial daughter (white birth mom)so race is something I am trying to be very cognizant of. I will often tell them how much I admire their skin color, and I have tried to get a good mix of black and white dolls/toys in the house. We don't have a lot of diversity in their daycare or in town, but more in the hospital where I work. Race has not become a big issue yet, but I hope to have some of the right answers as they arise. Thanks for making me aware of my language! Soooo complicated :)



answers from Dallas on

We're "white", and my son attends a racially diverse daycare. He noticed his teacher was brown when he was around 2.5-3 years old. He declared it to me one day, and told me that we were "yellow" - I guess our skin tone is kinda (LOL). So I agreed that Ms. Beverly was brown, and that we were actually "beige". So now he says that we are "beige" which is really funny to hear him say :) He notices colors, but really doesn't care about it. And I just tell him that people are all different colors, etc.

I think with kiddos, that the word black can be scary cause when it's dark, technically it's black, and if they're scared of the dark, black ends up not being their favorite color. Sigh.

I wish I could think of something else helpful! Hugs!


answers from Rochester on

Oh, I am so sure that your child has no understanding of "black and white" and is saying he doesn't want to be black for JUST the reasons you stated...the color black, to a two year old, is the dark at night, a bruise, a scary monster, stress there!

My six year old...well, we're white. I'm a mix of Irish/Norwiegan/Cherokee, so fairly pale skinned with curly hair. My husband is a French/German mix...he's fairly dark complected, beautiful black hair. Our children are light, blonde hair, blue eyes. However, all her friends are Hispanic...every single one...except for one black boy that lives down the street (and he is Sudanese and VERY black.)

She thinks it's silly to call people black and white, even though I've explained the concept. She insists that WE are peach, her Hispanic friends are light brown, and the black boy is dark brown. I've also heard her say people were purplish brown (of VERY dark people) and yellowy-peach, of Asian descent. However, has she EVER noticed any difference besides actual skin color and language? Nope, and I am so thankful!

If we could all be so pure like that! To her, everyone is God's child, and she really doesn't see a difference. I love it.



answers from Springfield on

I make sure I pick the "person of color" when I play board games with my 3 year old. I am 1/2 Mexican and 1/2 French -Canadian. I grew up in a VERY predominantly white town. I went to a French-Canadian catholic school and got a lot of grief in college by not having pride in my culture because I did not speak spanish, but did speak french. I look like... something but obviously something. It was hilarious to go to the bilingual school office in college with a roommate who was a light skinned native speaker and shrug that I did not understand but she did. My son is now 1/4 "Hispanic" and I want to make sure that his understands that beauty and value has nothing to do with skin color. I am very aware of this and make it a conscious part of his upbringing.



answers from Boston on

This brings back memories of when my kids were young, a little neighbor went to her first day of kindergarten, her mom asked about the kids in school and she named a few and said and there is the Brown boy, her mom corrected her saying they like to be called black, and the daughter responded no he last name is brown and he is black.

As an added point I have never told my kids if they did not brush their teeth would be brown or black, we always said yellow.

My grandchildren do not know the difference in color or nationality, they are all their friends.



answers from Kansas City on

I think you are right. I try to talk to my daughter (just turned 4) about race, but it's hard. I think that right now I struggle with the thought of do I point out differences or wait for her to ask?? I'm not really sure what the "right" thing to do is, but I do think that everyone needs to be more concious of what our actions and unspoken words transmit to our children.

I'm going to go ahead and throw out there that you might not get very supportive answers to this quetion. I hope you do b/c I believe in the validity of your statements, but ...?

Also...have you ever read any books by Vivien Gussen Paley (I think that's how it's spelled) anyway, I haven't read her books since college but she has some extremely interesting experiences about teaching preschool to a class of black students and white students. It is worth the read and I suppose I ought to find my copy somewhere as well!


answers from Oklahoma City on

I personally don't teach my kids that there is a difference between races. We are white and have black friends and sometimes they'll say something like "Uncle Marv has brown skin and our is tan", and I agree but don't go on to talk about how we are all different. I think when people put so much emphasis on differences THAT'S what causes racism. If kids ONLY see people acting the same around people of any race and treating everyone the same and the differences are NOT pointed out, then they have NO reason to see people as better/worse than them!
It is kinda funny though, 2nd daughter ALWAYS picks a black person for anything... Like in chutes and ladders, she chooses the black player and when we asked her what she wanted for her last birthday she picked out a black doll. She does it every time! :o)

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