Sometimes the conversations we shy away from having with our kids are exactly the ones we most need to have. Professor of media, culture, and communication, Charlton McIlwain, hopes his new website, Kids on Color, helps families do just that.
I recently sat down with McIlwain to talk about why he created the site and the purpose he hopes it will serve.
ML: Charlton, you’re an associate professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU, and while your scholarship focuses on race and political communication, I didn’t see anything in your professional history that suggested an interest in children. Can you tell us about the Kids on Color project and why you decided to start it?
CM: Well, nothing will shift your focus to race and children perhaps more than having a bi-racial child born about three weeks before the nation elected Barack Obama President. I was a stay-at-home dad, so my son – whose mom is white/Jewish – and I spent a lot of time together. The first few months of his life I juggled two, seemingly daily occurrences. On one hand I took note of the “whose kids is that?” stares, walking around my Brooklyn, NY neighborhood as curious folks looked down at my son then up to me, down at my son, then back up to me. On the other, I was doing research on the election, immersing myself in the minute-by-minute news about the election, or fielding media calls and doing interviews about the election.
Kids on Color was really a collision of these two things going on in my life simultaneously. In one instance I sat back on the beach with my wife and son his first summer – watching and silently cracking up as I watched and listened to this little white girl and her friends tried to make sense (out loud) of how my wife, son and I were strangely related. “A Black, a White, and another Black. Hmph!” That’s what she came up with – before her overhearing father quickly snatched her up and exited the conversation!
In other instances, I’d started to get more and more involved in conversations – well, fights really – on Facebook, with old friends of mine, most of whom were staunch conservatives. We fought about the tea party, and health care and whether Obama was trying to poison the minds of hapless white kids across the nation by speaking to them at school. Well, you can probably imagine how these conversations ended.
Those conversations got me wondering if there was any other way to have a productive conversation about race with adults so far entrenched in their racial attitudes and political ideologies. A conversation where people could strongly disagree but still listen, and perhaps learn from each other. My thoughts returned to that little girl at the beach. Her story was amusing. Yet it spoke volumes. It was honest. Sincere. And, better, perhaps than anything else, who could argue with it?
So in short (sort of), I started Kids on Color to try to recapture those stories. Stories that might be a good starting point for us to jump start conversation about what is, for most people, a difficult topic.
ML: I have a daughter who just turned four, and she’s already becoming racially conscious, so I have some personal experience with this. The uncensored racial thoughts of a young child are definitely an interesting window into our racial Zeitgeist but can also be terrifying for many adults (usually White) adults who were socialized to think that it’s impolite (or even racist!) to talk about race. Going back to your story about the little girl on the beach, have you thought about what you would have said to her if her dad didn’t whisk her off? Or rather, what would you have liked her dad to have said or done?
CM: Yes, it’s amazing how soon kids recognize difference and begin to develop the sense that race – color – actually means something.
To be honest, I was perfectly happy to let the little girl end Beachher conversation right where she did. She seemed to have come up with an answer to her question that made sense to her. If anything, I may have added, “well, actually, his mom is white, I am black and so my son is both white and black.” That could have kept the conversation alive for quite some time, I suspect, and I think that would have been a good thing.
Her father was definitely the perhaps typical white father. I could see his eyes practically bulging out as he listened to his daughter’s comments, one after the other. He clearly wanted to part in any further discussion of the matter. But I figure she seemed to be questioning us – so I think the better reaction from the father would have been to just wait it out and let us continue to a discussion, wherever it lead.
ML: Your comment above and your main motivation for starting the Kids on Color site assume that talking about race with kids is a positive and healthy thing to do. Yet, as you no doubt know, there’s a school of thought (which, for the record, I do not subscribe to) that it is precisely this kind of focus and attention on race that is keeping racism alive. What do you say to that?
CM: Ah, yes. I’m familiar with that criticism and will spare you my long answer to that.
I’m sympathetic to the viewpoint. And, though I haven’t gotten to this point with my son, I do think sometimes, why burden the kid with race before he has to? But the problem with the talking-to-kids-about-race-keeps-racism-alive thesis it that it assumes a race-neutral starting point. It assumes that we live in a society where colorblindness, racial equality and racial justice are the norm, the status quo. I wish it were, but unfortunately it is not. And I think this is one of those areas where the scholarship is clear – that kids recognize difference at an early age, develop skin-color based preferences at an early age and pick up on social cues at an early age about how to treat people based on their outward, physical differences. They pick up on these things from their caregivers, friendship circles, preschool teachers and media.
So what I like to say is, it’s not a question about whether someone will talk to our kids about race. The question is who will do so? What messages will they give them, and do we really want to, as parents, forego the opportunity to influence and shape their racial attitudes that will likely stick with them for a lifetime?
That was a short answer, right?
ML: So, how do you imagine the Kids on Color site helping parents have these conversations, and do you worry at all that the site might provide fodder for the exact opposite kinds of conversations than you would like to see families engage in?
CM: For starters, I imagine KoC and the stories that appear there might serve as a common reference point for parents who have and do find themselves in the position of having to broach the topic of race in some way with their kids or others. What I hope will happen is that folks will read a story and say, “yeah, something like that happened to me,” or “My kid said the same thing.” My hope is that that point of contact will motivate others to share their own story (which they can do in the big box at the top of the page, or in the comments to another story). I also hope that it will provoke discussion – about how people responded differently, about more general issues about how to deal with race and racial issues at home, in schools, etc. I hope it will serve as a place where people can go to get advice, to swap stories, to share news and freely engage in open, honest discussion.
I’m not too worried – yet – about some of the other conversations that might take place. I think disagreement and debate are good things, and I certainly think that there is room for such when we’re talking about these issues. My hope is that building the discussion around the actual experiences of children and parents might at least provide a context in which discussion takes place in a civil, constructive manner. That remains to be seen.
ML: Can you share a story that was submitted to KoC, maybe one that stands out for you in some way?
CM: The one that stands out to me the most has the title So… I’m Not White?.
What, not white?It’s a story about a little girl who is shocked to learn that she, like her family, is Black. It stands out to me most because it exemplifies some of what I mentioned earlier about why it’s important to be able to talk to kids about race. Here you have this preschool girl who has already recognized a distinction between Black and white, and has grouped herself in the white category. On the one hand it’s refreshing, and telling that at that age, the meanings of those terms and categories are obviously flexible. On the other hand, it appears that she had some reason for identifying with one group or another. There could have been many reasons, any of a number of which may have made sense to her. But she chose and did so based on some cue she picked up along the way. It illustrates the fact that a parent could choose to say nothing, in which case the girl will most likely to continue to pick up on certain cues at the whims dictated by her environment. Or a parent could choose to take the opportunity to clarify, discuss and even influence the girl’s understanding. This parent chose to intervene. Now, many may debate whether the parent intervened in an “appropriate” way, perhaps. But, at least in my view, taking the opportunity to engage rather than retreat from the conversation is far more important.
ML: Thanks so much for the interview, Charlton. Is there anything else you’d like Psychology Today readers to know about Kids on Color?
CM: The readers should know that Kids on Color is a work in progress. It builds on the simple idea of sharing stories and then mobilizing those stories for the purpose of stimulating discussion about race and difference. The stories provide a wealth of insight into the racial consciousness of young people and provide reasons to think about how we as parents, caregivers, educators and others take up these issues. By all means I hope they will visit often, and encourage others in their social network to do the same. And by all means, I hope that they will contribute their own stories!
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