“What color are you?” Huh? “What. Color. Are. You.?” Me? I’m shopping at Pier 1 Imports in the home fragrance aisle and see a young, blonde girl about six years old looking up at me. “What color are you? Are you brown?” I’m wondering how to answer this question. Should I pretend I didn’t hear her? Do I answer? She’s so cute and it’s an innocent question. I go for it. “Well, yes. I am brown. What color are you?” Before she can answer, her mother clamps a hand over her mouth, mutters some unintelligible apology and hauls her off to another part of the store. I sometimes recall this episode as I think about D2 and the kind of global citizen I want him to be. At my company, we are rapidly expanding overseas, and have opened offices in Russia, Ethiopia, India and soon South Africa and China. We talk about the kind of employee we need to take us into the future; one who is multi-lingual, mobile, globally-minded with strong learning agility and a high tolerance for ambiguity.
Despite the resurgence of anti-immigration legislation and the vitriol and polarization we see in today’s American political scene, it’s undeniable that American society is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual. At the same time, globalization is bringing the world to our doorstep in ways we never imagined. The upheaval in the Middle East, led by a huge wave of young people, is a powerful reminder of the changing demographics of our world. The question I ask myself every day is how can I best prepare D2 to live in this world? I want him to be comfortable around all kinds of people, from many different types of backgrounds. I want him to be able to speak and connect with them – and not just in English. It’s how I grew up in my suburban San Diego neighborhood in California. Today I live in a mid-sized town in North Carolina and I struggle to make sure my son is exposed to the kinds of diverse people and ideas that I hope will shape his world view. I feel an urgency to be vigilant about this because his peers are not just the kids down the street, but children in China, India and other parts of the world.
So I’m challenging myself and other parents who are trying to cultivate their children into citizens of the world. Let’s not shelter our children. Living in a small-town or a homogeneous community is no longer an excuse for lack of exposure to people, customs and ideas not like our own. If we want our children to thrive in the emerging global workforce, we have to step out of our comfort zone to give them the kinds of experiences that will help them succeed where ever they may land. This may mean looking at our own lives and challenging our own world view and long-held beliefs. How? Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Examine who’s around you. Do you socialize with friends of different races, ethnic and religious backgrounds? We can model for our children a more inclusive and global perspective just by who we choose to be around socially.
- Travel. What better way to teach your child about the richness of the world than to see the world. I didn’t start traveling overseas extensively until I was 19 years old. I want D2 to start much earlier. I’m planning to take him to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil for his sixth birthday.
- Eat. Pray. Play. Whether you travel or not, one of the most powerful ways to experience another culture is through food, religion and art. Some of my fondest memories as a child in San Diego were hanging out with my Egyptian neighbors and eating many meals with my friend Noor and her family. I’m also grateful that my mother worked hard to expose us to art museums and festivals from a very young age. I plan to do the same for D2.
I wish that mother at Pier 1 had taken the time with her daughter to introduce herself and ask me where I was from. I wish she had helped her daughter answer the question, “What color are you?” and perhaps even given her more context for how to talk to someone who looks different from mommy and daddy. That mother missed a powerful teaching opportunity. The world’s not black or white any more (never really has been) but black, white, yellow, red and all shades and hues in between. I embrace it. I’m ready and I’m making sure my son is ready. Are you?
Bravo!Great article Portia and so relevant especially in the current times we live in.One can truly turn any moment into a teaching opportunity.
Aparna, I so agree which is why I felt compelled to pen this post this week. I marvel at how different the world is going to be for my son – it’s both exciting and daunting and I just want to do the best I can to prepare him. Thanks so much for dropping by!
Our son went through a stage when he described everyone by the color they were wearing. So if I came into his room in the morning wearing a blue nightgown, he’d say, “Blue Mommy, blue Mommy!” This became slightly embarrassing on the playground when he was playing in the sand box with an African American child and he pointed at the little boy and said, “white boy, white boy!” My husband quickly responded, “yes honey, he is wearing a white t-shirt!” All that said, it does make me happy we live in a community made of people of lots of different colors and ethnicities. (And even then, Boss Mom, I think my son remarked on your skin color when we last got together — he mentioned it was the same as his friend’s.)
It’s sometimes hard to find the right way to respond — you want your child to be polite, but you also don’t want to shut him down, especially if he’s just making an observation. I guess the answer is to teach children not to make comments about people’s appearances in general, as it could make them uncomfortable. Curious to hear thoughts on this from others as well.
Jessica – It sounds like your husband handled that situation well. I started to write about how to talk to your kids about race but decided that the issue is bigger than that. Truthfully, it’s challenging to talk to our children about differences, whether it’s race or someone who is differently-abled, or why someone has two mommies/daddies, etc. I think as parents we want to honor our children’s curiosity and at the same time teach them how to be respectful. It’s a balancing act. D2 is still too young for these questions but I am amassing a collection of children’s books that deal with issues such as race, differently abled, etc. And as he gets older, I will find age-appropriate ways to just talk to him. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
I would love to get your list of children’s books. I recently came across and currently reading;
Nursery Tales Around the World by Judy Sierra and Illustrated by Stefano Vitale (1996). I love this book.
Each story is illustrated in the traditional folk manner for that country. Similar stories are grouped together, for example the theme of Runaway Cookies is told in America by the title of Gingerbread Man, in Norway the story is called the Pancake, and in Russia the story is called the Bun. I found this gem of a book at my local library.
Leena, I’m working on a list of children’s books right now. The good news is there are lots of great lists out there (which I’m sorting through right now) with age appropriate content on everything from culture, race, orientation, etc. D2 is too young for most of these books right now so I’m mostly just doing the homework and buying a few at a time. I don’t have the nursery tales book you mention but I’m going to go right out and get it. Thanks for the reference and thanks for stopping by!
Great post! I try my best to teach by example. We have friends and associates of many ethnic and religious backgrounds, so my children are exposed to many cultures by default. When we were choosing a preschool, we were adamant that the school be diverse. This went for students and teachers.
Children will be curious and I feel like it is my responsibility to answer their questions honestly and respectfully, while giving them a colorful life experience to use as a base for their own morals.
Towanda, I agree that leading by example is one of the most powerful ways to teach our children. We’ve found a pre-school for D2, which he’ll start this fall, and the diversity of the teachers and students was a very important criteria for us. I also agree that we need to answer children’s questions honestly and respectfully – it’s how they learn and grow and we shouldn’t shrink from their curiosity. Thanks so much for stopping by.
Another great piece of writing and insight. These times are a changing. What I most admire about my X generation we are the first generation to know the stories of our parents and grandparents and have the education and empowerment to think and act differently. We are the first generation to have access to instant global communication. We are also the last of the generation to remember and use ‘old technology’ such as card catalogs, floppy discs, and cameras with film.
When I look at my daughter I am excited and hopeful for her future. It won’t be easy, but I imagine if I do my job right; by teaching her to have an open mind, treat others as you would want to be treated, have empathy for all people and understand how all forms of life are interconnected. If I do all these things and more, I believe she will have a fulfilling life and be a problem solver and giver, rather than just a taker and a consumer. I often look into her eyes and see her as a time traveller from the future. To think that her generation could live until 2100.
As a first generation American, I am thankful for my bilingual abilities. It is wonderful to know a second language and have it be available to me on ‘autopilot’. The other day, I was bathing my daughter and started to make up a song in Russian because the words sounded so cute. For example the English word “Hands” vs. “Rootchke”.
My goal is to teach my daughter Russian. My goal is to refresh my French. Thankfully many Russian words were borrowed from the French. Ofcourse the more languages she learns it will be that much more easier for her to be a global citizen and be able to communicate on autopilot.
I did want to share a shocking story from my mom’s generation and her experiences growing up in Russia in the 1940s-60s. The way she tells it, Russia had closed borders and all information was controlled by the government (Big Brother). Religion was banned and my mother was not taught a faith to follow and thus never taught me a formal religion. The Russian people were so controlled that it was a shock to them when in the late 50s-60s African American students and athletes came to Moscow for a cultural exchange. My mom says the public went into hysteria as people had never seen people with darker skin color. She said it was just as if ‘Aliens’ had landed on Earth. (This was hard for me to imagine, that people in Russia were so removed from the rest of the world. This is probably what the Indians went through when they saw the first white men.) The college age kids became obsessed with African American culture such as Jazz. Interracial marriages became the hip thing to do.
While I’m on the topic of Race, in graduate school our professor showed us an excellent documentary. I think it was done by PBS and I think it was called Race. Well researchers concluded that there is no such thing as Race. Blood and DNA was analyzed from all sorts of people from all over the world and based on blood/DNA the researchers could not determine from which region of the world the person came from. Fascinating to think about.
Your topic is so broad but for me it really comes down to being an ‘aware’ person and seeing the bigger picture. It seems governments love to classify people and create differences: classifying people by race, gender, age, religion, economic level, and education level. I would love to see the day, when people are just people and we all treat each other with care, respect, and dignity.
Leena – what a great story about your mother! I totally agree, as X-ers we have a unique foothold in our society today. It’s so good you are teaching your LO Russian. D2 is learning Spanish from his nanny. The other day she asked him where his belly button was in Spanish (based on the book Where is Baby’s Bellybutton) and he just looked at her. She then asked him in Spanish and he pointed right to it! To your point about Race – You are quite right. It’s more a social construct than a a biological one. I learned this in my early days as a grad student in Anthropology. I think our thinking on race and ethnicity is evolving and our children I think will be even more progressive in their thinking because of the flattening of our world. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment.
Nice post, and I agree 100%.
Here is an interview of a woman who is walking the walk when it comes to diversity – if you haven’t seen it, I thought you might enjoy. I have met her in person, and she is truly amazing.
PS I am enjoying your blog!
Jenny, thanks so much for sharing that link. She is indeed walking the talk! What a great story. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.
Great post! I think that although our kids may be growing up in a multicultural environment, many of us did not and were told to avoid issues of race. Although I don’t have kids, I have nieces and nephews that I spend a lot of time with – I’ve found that addressing these topics head-on with little ones is the best way to go. The same holds true for adults. People may be uncomfortable at first, but tension eases when they realize skin color/race is something we need to talk about and want to talk about rather than pretend it doesn’t exist or isn’t important.
Keep up the good work!
Kalyn – I agree. I think that race remains one of the most difficult issues for us to talk about even in today when we have an African-American president. There is no such thing as the “post racial” world – not anyway. I whole heartedly agree that addressing the topic head on is the only way to go. I hope things are changing with Millennials who seem to have a very different view on issues of race, sexual orientation and class. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Such a powerful post. As someone of African descent, and now living in the U.S, I definitely understand. I think that parents should focus on raising a global citizen than raising an American citizen. I want to raise my child so she can survive any continent she finds herself. And that goes for older people too. The world does not start and end in the US of A. There is more to life than your little town with only one walmart, go out, experience the world. I just got on a team brainstorming about moving into various parts of Africa, and that is very exciting because you can find everyone from every parts of the world on that team, and they are all willing to explore possibilities in Africa and creating opportunities for the citizens. We are a global company and we need global-minded people who can strike conversations and deliver.
The next generation will be a generation of no boundaries. Nice post 🙂
Blessing – thanks for your post. There’s nothing like working on an international team that really gives you perspective on the world. It’s one aspect of my current job that I really love and I hope to pass that on to D2.
Exellent and thought provoking piece! While at a conference recently, I had a conversation with a colleague about public versus private schools. She was a big proponent of public schools specifically for the diversity more inherent in public schools than private. For her, sending her children to a school with a homogenous community would do little to foster her children’s overrall educational exposure. Today, her children are in college and have multi-cultural and multi-ethnic friends. I must say it was the first time I had ever heard anyone express to me the importance of diversity in the raising of their children. Living where I do now, it is a challenge to build relationships for the sake of my children with people who are quite different from us; however I do realize the importance of teaching my children a global perspective.