By Dr. Michelle Reyes
When should a momma start talking to her child about race and ethnicity?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.
My husband and I are a bi-racial couple – I’m an East Indian woman, my husband is Latino – and our sweet, little “Indo-Mex” toddler is already very aware of the fact that he has brown skin. When we talk about colorful blocks, he points to his cheeks to indicate that he’s found something brown. When we talk about animals, he points to his arms to tell me about a brown horse. It’s quite incredible really – largely because we never taught him to do that! He can even distinguish between children of other ethnicities and seems eager to learn more about his own. I sometimes wonder if children of Anglo descent with more peach-colored skin do the same thing.
However, regardless of skin color, I have noticed that children in general, including my own two-year old son, are capable of expressing basic understandings of race and ethnicity; and these findings have made me feel that it is time that I start making a more intentional effort to talk to my son about these things.
In many ways, the issue of “ethnic parenting” is made more urgent by living in a city like Austin. Truly, it is a unique experience to raise a child here with its melting pot of peoples, ethnicities and cultures. Data shows that our city has now “crossed the threshold of becoming a Majority-Minority city. Put another way, no ethnic or demographic group exists as a majority of the city’s population.” This means that if you live anywhere within the Austin metroplex, you and your child are probably rubbing shoulders with a wide variety of peoples on a daily basis, from Anglos and Latinos to African Americans and Asians. You also most likely have neighbors from different countries and who speak different languages.
What incredible opportunities we have quite literally at our door step to talk about race and ethnicity right here in Austin! But how much do we really engage with the multiculturalism around us? How often do we use this issue as a teaching lesson or, at the very least, the focus of a conversation with our child? What are the ways in which we can raise a culturally-sensitive child? Do we even think it’s important?
I think there are three big things any momma can start doing with her little ones right now (and regardless of age, really) to increase her child’s awareness of, sensitivity to and even appreciation of other people. These revolve around exposure to 1) authentic, ethnic foods, 2) authentic, ethnic locals and 3) authentic, ethnic history.
Authentic, Ethnic Foods
From the moment I moved to Austin three years ago, I quickly learned that food fusions are super popular here. There are Mexican-American fusions (note to self: eating any sort of taco with flour tortillas is no longer an authentic Mexican dish) and Indian-American fusions (here: replace green chilies with jalapeños) among others. Last year, the food writer, Matthew Sedacca, from New York City even declared Austin to be the “breakfast capitol of the world”. I’m not here to bash food fusions or breakfast tacos. In fact, I like both. But while everyone seems to love tacos, I don’t know anyone (outside of our own Latino friends and family) that has eaten at a traditional taqueria. Why not switch it up one weekend and try some tacos at Taquerias Arandinas (or any taqueria food truck on the side of the ride) instead of Torchy’s, or “real” Indian food at Swad instead of Nasha? (Oh man, I love the Chole Bhature at Swad). If you’re more into bakeries, how about stopping by Café Nenaí for an alfajor instead of a cupcake at Capitol City Bakery? Make it an adventure. Make it fun. Food is an important part of any ethnic group and, as such, is a good introduction for kids (even toddlers) to experience and, hopefully even enjoy, other people and their culture.
Authentic, Ethnic Locals
I can also not stress enough the importance of community for ethnic minorities. If we want our kids to be more culturally-sensitive Austinites (and, yes, we do!), then we need to find ways to instill this sense of community in them, or at the very least an awareness and appreciation of it. The best way I can think of to do this is to spend time with ethnic minorities by frequenting their locales. Why not try shopping at a traditional Mexican grocery store (a Tienda) like Michoacana one week instead of going to HEB or Whole Foods? (If that’s too scary, you could always start with Fiesta). Or what if you took your son to get a haircut at an African American barber shop like Marshall’s Barber Shop instead of Birds? More importantly, when you go, strike up conversations with the people there – ask them how their day is going or what the special of the week is. I promise you, spending time in and engaging with ethnic locales will have a lasting impact on the mind of your child and his/her view of these people groups.
Authentic, Ethnic History
Finally, take a break from the Thinkery and head on over to the George Washington Carver Museum or Mexic-Arte Museum one week. What a great way to kick start conversations on both race and racism, by exposing your kids to the history of these issues in Austin. I’m sure they will have questions, and our job as parents are to answer them as honestly and critically as possible. Expressing regret for the past, desires for reconciliation and positive steps moving forward are also not misplaced.
There is so much more I could say on the subject. For example, there are other people groups in Austin that I didn’t mention explicitly (e.g., Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Burmese and Iraqi) that are also just as deserving of attention and exploration.
The topic of race and ethnicity is a complex issue to be sure, especially in our city, and they get even more complex as our kids grow up! But I do believe that we, as mommas, can start right now at making positive parenting choices by both exposing our child to the multicultural world around him/her and modeling our own enjoyment, appreciation and care of it.
Dr. Michelle Reyes is a pastor’s wife, German professor and mom to a toddler. She has a Ph.D. in 18th-century German literature and specializes in women’s writing, feminist studies and folk and fairy tales. She loves reading to her son in different languages, watching football and finding new Indian restaurants in the Austin area. She is passionate about empowering women and in cultivating critical, culturally-sensitive minds in their many roles as mothers, sisters and wives. Michelle also co-founded the urban, multicultural church, Church of the Violet Crown, with her husband and Lead Pastor, Aaron Reyes. You can learn more about her at her personal blog, The Art of Taleh, and at www.churchofthevioletcrown.com.