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‘Doesn’t ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Mean Someone is About to Die?’: Telling Your Kids the Ugly Truth About Race

race
5 min read

Doesn’t “I Can’t Breathe” mean someone is about to die?

Yes, your kids are going to ask this—and yes, George Floyd did die at the hands of police officers whose duty is to protect American citizens. This also happened to Eric Garner in 2014. Garner uttered the same three words, “I Can’t Breathe,” before dying in a police chokehold. Not all American citizens are treated equally. Our children are going to ask these types of questions about race and we, as parents, have to provide our perspectives and worldviews to them.

Today, I want to share my personal experiences discussing race with my children and bring to light some of the struggles that South Asian Americans have when discussing race.

What Is the “Right” Age to Talk About Race?

One evening at dinner, my four-year-old son started to label his preschool friends based on the color of their skin. Some of his friends were White, Black, Yellow, or Red and then he asked, “What are we? Yellow?” I thought for a second, and replied, “Actually, we are Brown.” I remember contemplating whether I even wanted to answer his question, or if I should tell him to stop talking like that. However, I knew that when it comes to race, we cannot remain colorblind or color-mute. We all see color and we all make assumptions based on the color of someone’s skin.

There is a common misconception that young children of ages 2-5 may be too young to talk to about race. Sometimes parents feel that they may encourage racial bias in their children by talking about it, but this is not the case. Research shows that children can pick up on race and color as early as infancy. Babies as young as three months tend to look at the faces of people who match their caregivers’ race longer. As they become toddlers, they may pick playmates based on race, and at as early as 4-5 years of age, they will start drawing their own conclusions about an individual’s race. If we don’t have an opinion, our children will form one that is based on the opinions of others—whether that be the media’s, their friends’, or based on their own unwarranted assumptions.

How Do You Start Conversations About Racial Injustice With Your Kids?

Trust me, I know this can be awkward to talk about. However, there are developmentally-appropriate ways to introduce racial injustice to your child. Diverse books are a great way to start a conversation about race. There are also books that explicitly address racial injustice. For example, the children’s book “Something Happened in Our Own Town” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard is a great resource to help answer your child’s questions about what happened to George Floyd. This book also helps children identify and counter racial injustices in their own lives.

I also understand that parents may be afraid to give kids this information because you don’t know exactly what they will say and to whom. Kids don’t always have a filter when it comes to these topics. I still remember when my four-year-old son went up to a woman in his preschool and announced to her, “You are Black.” She politely replied, “Yes, I am!” She was one of the only African-American individuals in our pre-school, and at that time, I was reading him a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. I explained this to her and, of course, she understood because, verbally or nonverbally, it was a difference that was being acknowledged by not just him, but by others in our communities and in our schools. I know these topics are difficult to bring up, but by starting these conversations early, you will be there to guide your children through this complicated process.

What is Microaggression?

By building a foundation of acknowledging racial differences, I was able to take my conversations with my son a step further. During his elementary school years, I talked to him about how we, as South Asian Americans, are positioned in these discussions about race and how we may deal with subtle microaggressions throughout our lives based on the color of our skin. 

Microaggressions are acts that happen in our day-to-day interactions with people, whether intentional or unintentional, that target a person in a marginalized group. I am a mother of color, and my kids know they will be treated differently in society. We are still seen as immigrants who are often told to “Go Back To Your Country” when someone doesn’t like the way we dress, talk, look, or act. And if they do like the way we dress, talk, look or act, we will be called “model minorities.” I have raised my children to be aware of how race is a social construct that changes based on the political and ideological needs of our society. When my kids hear race-based comments like: “What country are you from?” or “You speak English well,” or “You’re good at spelling, right?” they understand that these microaggressions exist because the concept of race has been socially constructed over time—it serves to socially stratify human beings based on the notion that all human beings are not created equally.

Can Brown People Be Racist?

Yes, I have told my kids that Brown people can also be racist. South Asian Americans need to tackle the issue of anti-Blackness by unpacking the biases that exist within their own communities. Lighter-color Indians are often racist toward darker-colored Indians and this discrimination has existed for years. Many South Asians believe skin color determines a person’s worth in society. India even has an entire beauty industry dedicated to helping dark-skinned Indians make their skin a lighter color by manufacturing products such as Fair and Lovely. In the United States, we have perpetuated this stereotype by typically featuring Indian characters who look like Princess Jasmine. We need to acknowledge and disrupt these conversations, like Mindy Kaling did when she featured a dark-skinned Indian girl in her Netflix series, “Never Have I Ever.”

How Do We Help Our Children Respond to Racial Injustice?

I want and need my children to respond to George Floyd’s death because Brown complicity in White supremacy has been an issue in our community and we are just starting to tackle what that means. I, myself, have grown up in a community that promoted anti-Black discourse and in which many of us (i.e. second-generation Indian-Americans) were told not to be friends with or date/marry a Black person. We need to acknowledge our Brown Privilege and teach our children that we cannot remain silent and reap the unearned societal benefits from being Brown. We need the next generation to know better and do better. 

My kids and I discussed attending the protests, but at the time I felt it was not safe due to COVID-19 concerns. However, I told them that they could still find a way to respond to racial injustice. Protesting is just one way. We brainstormed different ways we could each be active participants. We could create artwork related to the protests and our feelings around it (showcased here by my son’s friend, Adi Kaushal), start a fundraiser to raise money for Black Lives Matter (like my friend’s daughter, Anaya Doshi did), write a blog post, or support Black-owned businesses. Today, each member of my family is working towards one of these goals.

Artwork by Adi Kaushal. Photo courtesy of the author.

As parents, we should teach our children that we have a responsibility to respond to racial injustices and take the right steps towards transformative solidarity with other minority communities. This starts by telling them the ugly truth about race.


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1 Comment

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    Anonymous
    Really enjoyed reading this! Thank you.

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