Combatting Racial Trauma in Preschool

More times than I can even count over my fifteen years of parenting, I have had an African American friend or acquaintance tell me that they must confess something to me.  They lean in, and quietly whisper ‘I usually don’t like seeing white people raising Black children.’  I lean in as well, and tell them, ‘I completely understand.’  I think they’re waiting for me to be insulted.  I am not.  Think of the racial trauma most Black Americans have endured.  I would be a fool to think that everyone in the Black community was going to welcome the sight of me with seven Black children.

I have yet to have a Chinese person greet me this way.  There could be several reasons for that.  First of all, there is no long history of Chinese people being enslaved by people who look like me.  There was no war on drugs or mass incarceration of Chinese people.  My Chinese children absolutely endure racism.  It’s just not quite the same dynamic.  It’s not better, per say, or worse, it’s just different.

My Chinese children also have special needs, some of which are visible.  In general, Chinese people understood the need for their adoption.  They valued my ability to get them to medical care in the United States that they didn’t have access to in China.

Some transracially adopted adults have also confided in me that they don’t always agree with transracial adoption either.  These are usually adult adoptees that lived through absolute hell with their adoptive parents.  A hell that involved never acknowledging the racial trauma incurred from living in what were often completely white environments.  I spend quite a bit of time on social media pleading with adoptive parents to do better for their kids.

I see change over the past 15 years, but not nearly enough.

This isn’t the 1980s anymore.  We know that pretending to be colorblind isn’t the answer.  Kids see racial and other physical differences between themselves and their peers from as young as two-years-old.  If they can see those differences, we, the adults, need to acknowledge them too.

Last week, I sat on the floor of the Preschool Room of the early childhood center I own.  It was particularly tough day for the teachers, so I went in to try to lend an extra hand.  To clean up after lunch and to sit with some of the kids while they helped others transition to rest time.

A little circle formed around me, books were thrust toward me.  “Read this one!” “No! This one!” One little girl was holding a book by Todd Parr.  I love Todd.  The bright illustrations in his books always keep the kids engaged, and he always has something relatable to say.  As I read to the kids about all our differences, I tried to pull in real life examples.

Cate, my 4 year old Chinese-American daughter, attends preschool with these children during the school year.  It’s still summer session though, so she wasn’t there that day.  I turned the page, saw this image, read the text, and then asked “Do you know anyone who is adopted?”

“What’s adopted?”

So, I explained it.  I explained it clearly in a developmentally appropriate way.

They totally loved it.  They always do.  I have explained this more times than I can count, to children who are now done with high school and entering young adulthood.  I explain it factually, and non-emotionally, plain as day, as if it’s the most normal thing ever.

Because, it is.

“Now can you think of a friend who is adopted?”

“CATE!” From one of the eldest girls in the group, who clearly got it.

One little boy who happens to be Chinese too, like my Cate, spoke up.

“Cate is adopted! That is how she looks like me, but you do NOT look like my mom!”

His mom is Chinese.

I am decidedly not.

Absolutely.  I cheered on his WONDERFUL observation.  “How smart of you to notice that!”

We kept reading.  We talked about people who use wheelchairs for mobility.  We talked about families that have two moms or two dads, or one dad and no mom.  We have all different types of family structures in our group of friends within the classes at the centers.

This is how we avoid the trauma.  We talk, and we talk, and we talk.

It is exhausting, and it can be uncomfortable, but it is my passion.  No question is wrong.  No one is chastised or made to feel embarrassed because they don’t know.  We talk about all of it.

This builds a bridge.

This helps my kids avoid more racial, ethnic or disability related trauma.  It helps ALL the kids avoid it.  We talk about religion too.  We absolutely do.  Because the friends we love who are Muslim or Jewish deserve to have a place where they feel known.

Sometimes it’s too embarrassing for parents.  It’s too uncomfortable.  They’re too afraid.  They don’t know what to say.  Their child asks and they hush them, blush, and turn away.  All that ends up doing is making the person they just asked about feel like something is wrong with them.  The best case scenario is if no child ever has to ask, if it is just discussed with them that people, and their families, come in many different colors and types.  But, if they ask, don’t shush them.  This creates trauma for all involved.

We can’t be colorblind anymore, because we never really were.  We spent years denying important pieces of our children.

In the wake of Charlottesville, I wrote a letter to the parents of these children, the ones I read to, and I told them that while so much may have changed in the rest of the world, that for their children, nothing would change when they walked through our doors on Monday.  We have always had a mission that included combatting trauma by teaching kids to value each other’s differences, and that now, more than ever, that mission would stay a priority.

We hope you’ll join us in this mission.

–FullPlateMom, who recommends THIS website for more books on valuing differences within others.

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3 Comments

  1. This post may be my favorite. I am a mom to a 4 year old boy who has yet to ask indepth questions. We live on the border of Milwaukee and our city so he sees diversity. Do you suggest I bring it up to him or wait for him to bring it up? You mention parents blushing when their children ask what may be an embarrassing question… can you give examples of answers you would give to some questions? Thanks in advance.

    1. I would definitely bring it up. Even if your child isn’t able to verbalize what they notice, they have noticed. When a child asks questions about why our family doesn’t match (as in, why I am a different color than all my kids), sometimes their parent “shushes” them. I answer based on how old the child is. Are they are preschooler? Then my answer usually involves praise. “What a good question! I’m glad you’re asking. You are in your mommy’s belly. My kids didn’t…” and I go from there. When a child is school aged I say “Do you know what adoption is?” Lots of times the kid the kid is like “My cousin is adopted!” Problem solved. If they’re middle or high school aged, I ask them why they’re asking. Sometimes they’re looking for an answer to something that I don’t understand or that is intrusive. By that age, my kids don’t always want to discuss something so personal so openly. Older kids need to understand that too.

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