(**Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert, I can only speak from my experience and from listening to other people of color. (POC) I am intentionally using the term POC because black people are on the forefront of our minds, as they should be, but POC includes people of all ethnicities and races (not just black) and diversity comes in all shapes and colors.)
Segregation. White supremacy. Racism. Prejudice. Discrimination.
These are words I hoped would never appear in the 21st century. But here we are, two hundred and forty four years after the words “all men are created equal,” and we are still dealing with the same issues.
As a business owner...a business that hasn't even opened its physical doors yet...should I speak out? Do I have a right? Does my voice matter? Is it too risky? What does this have to do with a Play Cafe for children?
Many who are reading this blog, like me, grew up in a predominately white neighborhood. There may have been one or two people of color in your entire school. And most of the time, those were children who were adopted into white families. I never had an aversion to people of color, I just didn't have many in my circle. Toys were not created with diversity in mind; I was truly innocent and naive.
The fact that I grew up in an area with such little diversity created an uneasiness in me whenever I was around people of color. I knew racism existed. I also knew I wanted nothing to do with it. I was so concerned with being accepting that any time I encountered a person of color, I went overboard trying to prove they mattered to me. Why was this so difficult for me?
How could this have been different? What can we do now to make a change moving forward? I do believe that many of us see the need, but feel so helpless in knowing what to do, how to move forward. Now more than ever, it is important for us to raise children who experience, accept and appreciate cultural diversity.
First of all, it starts with you. Children are quick to pick up on their parent's bias, even if it's in unspoken, subtle ways. Let me be clear that there is no list that can magically "fix" everything overnight, but we have to start somewhere. Here are seven ways that you can help raise your child to accept and appreciate diversity.
1. Acknowledge Differences
According to CHOC.org, around the age of three or four years of age, children start to recognize differences. Children may start asking questions such as, "Why is her skin darker than mine?" or "Why is his hair straight and mine is curly?" The best thing you can do is answer their simple question with a simple answer. "Everyone is different: we come in different colors, shapes and sizes." Don't make too big of a deal about it, but answer their questions. If you over analyze, they can feel like diversity is a bad thing that needs to be explained. I remember when our daughter was three and we were riding to church with some of our good friends whose daughter was biracial. Our daughter said, "Beth,* you need to take a bath, your skin is dirty!". (*name changed for anonymity) Of course, I was mortified...but my daughter didn't know anything
about race. She just saw that her skin was darker. Thankfully, our friends were so gracious and laughed and said, "No sweetie, Beth's skin is just darker than yours. We're all different, but equally beautiful."
2. Be a Positive Role Model
Explore and be mindful of your own behavior. We do things without thinking just because it's the way we were taught. Do you laugh rather than protest when someone tells a culturally insensitive joke? Do you lock your door when you drive through certain neighborhoods? Do you mimic ethnic accents to try to be funny? Associate professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, Pennsylvania, Dr. Kerrie Laguana says, "You may not intend to demean anyone, but a child can certainly get the wrong impression."
3. Talk About Bias
Children learn a lot from what they see on TV. Many times, the villains will be darker and have less known names, while the princesses are blonde and light skinned. These form unintentional bias in our children. When you see a stereotype, talk about it with your children. If you hear your child make a generalization, "All the black kids in my school are good at football," make sure to explain that just because some kids with a certain ethnicity act a certain way, that doesn't mean everyone is the same. Encourage them to see differences, but not generalize when it comes to race or ethnicity, even if it's positive.
4. Encourage Empathy
Even as young as 3 or 4, you can have a discussion with your child about what it might feel like to be different than everyone around you. Have them imagine what it might feel like to be teased because their skin was a different color or their eyes looked different. If we talk to our young children about these issues before they arise, they are more likely to stand up for a friend when they are bullied because of a physical difference. This article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers 5 Tips for Cultivating Empathy.
5. Expose Your Child to Diversity
This is SO important. The earlier the better! Start exposing your child to cultural and ethnic diversity from birth. Buy dolls that are ethnically diverse (harder than you think!). If you live in a community where everyone looks like you, make sure to seek out diverse relationships. Take your children to cultural events and exhibits at museums, eat at different ethnic restaurants, read books with diverse characters. Creating a safe place, like Mezanmi Play Cafe, for children of different races to play together and moms to develop relationships is essential and one way to move forward in this journey.
6. Develop a Strong Self-Esteem
Help your child develop a strong self-esteem and sense of identity. "Happy, well-adjusted kids tend not to be bigots," says Peter Langman, Ph.D., director of psychology for KidsPeace, a not-for-profit children's service agency. "Kids who feel like they aren't valued tend to look for targets—someone they deem 'different'—to release their own anger and frustration." Building self-esteem is especially important for kids who might be singled out for being in the minority. When we lived in Haiti for almost six years, our then five year old son thought as soon as he lived in Haiti long enough and spoke the language well enough, his skin would turn brown like the rest of his friends. When he learned this wasn't the case, at first he was sad, until we reminded him that everyone is different and beautiful just the way they are!
7. Don't Tolerate Prejudice of Any Kind
Whether we're talking race, sexual orientation, religion or mental capacity, every person deserves respect. Overlooking any kind of prejudice gives the message that it's okay to feel superior to someone else. "To raise a tolerant child, you need to help your child learn to value everyone as a human being," Dr. Langman says. (emphasis added)
These are difficult times that we are going through. It's not the first time, and it won't be the last. It is my dream and goal that Mezanmi Play Cafe will be a place where everyone is valued and welcome no matter the color of their skin, sexual orientation or religion. We all have more in common than we realize and children are an excellent way to break down the barriers we have put up around ourselves out of fear and lack of knowledge. I understand that my stance may mean losing some customers, but I truly believe we are here on this earth to LOVE one another. That's what I am going to do, and I invite you to do the same.