What I learned when my 2-year-old wanted to wear blackface

The other day, I painted my son's face like Spider-Man. And then things got complicated.

My daughter, Petra, wanted me to paint her face like Tiana, an African-American Disney princess.

In case you forgot who Tiana is, because Disney did an uncharacteristically bad job marketing her, here she is. She's the smart, funny, independent heroine of "The Princess and the Frog."


Petra actually said, "I want you to make me brown all over, like Tiana."


I couldn't do it.

But how do you explain to a 2-year-old what is so terrible about painting her face to look like a black princess? Petra was coming from a place of admiration, not mockery.

Even knowing that her intentions were good, it felt wrong. But I didn't have the words to explain it.


And the next day, I found the Mother's Day Action Kit, from Showing Up for Racial Justice.

The kit is just a collection of links to articles and resources, aimed at white parents who want to help their kids grow up without racism. They also have an AMAZING book list for children of all ages.

I wish I had read it before. Before this conversation, yes, but also before I even had kids. I want my children to grow up without the centuries of racial baggage that is in the groundwater of American culture. But how?

If you are, like me, a white parent trying to figure all this out, here are the top three things I learned from the kit:

1. Kids notice race.

Babies as young as six months are aware of differences in people's skin color and features. Kids aren't race blind.

2. We need to name race, and we need to start very young.

If we are uncomfortable or silent when our kids point out that someone has brown skin, we send the message that that difference is too shameful to talk about.

3. If we don't give explicit messages about race, kids will come up with their own.

As white parents, we tend to say things like, "Everyone is equal" or "Under the skin, we're all the same." Those phrases are too vague. Kids don't know we're talking about skin color.

After reading this kit, I'm going to be more deliberate about avoiding vague language when it comes to discussing race with my children.

My husband and I want our kids to be race-conscious. We attend a fairly diverse church, where people talk about issues of racial justice. We have "multicultural markers" and baby dolls of different ethnicities. We choose books that show children of different races having fun together. But we have a hard time talking about race explicitly. Because it means admitting that the world is terribly unfair. It means naming the injustices we benefit from.

It means offering Petra a compromise: Let's paint your face as Frog Tiana, because race isn't a costume. But a frog can be.

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