Talking Race With My 3-Year-Old

Living in Louisiana changed my 3 year old.

Ok, so he only lived in Louisiana for a month. He spent a few weeks at my parents and a week at my mother-in-law’s.  When I say living there changed him, I don’t mean that he got a good tan from spending time outdoors or how his hair grew out of control because I’m the only one allowed to cut it.

He’s started to share his thoughts about race and ethnicity. Three years old isn’t too young. I actually thought it would happen sooner since Sophia, his big sister, talks about how much she loves her brown skin and curly hair. My husband and I have taught her that she is the perfect mix of my Vietnamese yellowish skin and my stick straight black hair and his 65% cacao dark chocolate skin and his tight black curls. It took her a while to come to terms with the fact that she didn’t look exactly like mommy, but now she is super proud of who she is.

We’ve actually talked about skin color with Jaxson before. He happily announces how he is brown and daddy is brown and mommy is light brown. He’s never really asked much of anything else. Sometimes he asks why his skin isn’t the same color as his big sister because, well, he adores her. He wants to do everything she wants to do.

After returning to DC last week, out of the blue Jaxson announces, “Mommy, you’re the only Vietnamese person in this family.”

I paused and thought about his observation. “You know you’re Vietnamese too, right?”

He nodded and turned his attention back to whatever toys he was playing with then.

I didn’t have to think too hard to figure out where his line of thinking came from: my mother. She talks about race and skin color often. Some of the talk makes me cringe. She used to tell me things like, “It’s good that Sophia isn’t too dark[skinned]. She took more after you than your husband.” (Imagine that in the typical wise know-it-all mom voice, but in Vietnamese.) I mostly ignored it when Sophia was a baby.

I thought more about Jaxson’s observation about my looks compared to him, his sister and his dad. Then I realized that for most of his time in Louisiana, he was surrounded by my family. People who shared the same yellowish skin, the same straight hair, and the same almond eyes. He knew that he didn’t look like them. But I did, so I must be Vietnamese like his grandparents and aunt. From a 3 year old’s point of view, he didn’t look like the other Vietnamese people he knew.

Makes total sense to me.

My gut reaction to his comment was, “Oh crap, I haven’t talked to him enough about his Vietnamese heritage. I’m slacking with kid #2.” But really, I was putting guilt and my baggage about race and ethnicity into his simple, child-like observation.

Jaxson starts preschool in the fall. His sister attended the same school and her class was very diverse. Soon Jaxson will make more observations about his classmates’ skin color, hair, or even non-English language. I’m excited to be with him and help him learn how everyone is different but special.

This was a good reminder that kids notice race. Young kids. They’re might not understand the implications of race and their role in society, but it’s important that we don’t ignore this crucial talk. I want him to feel comfortable speaking about his mixed race heritage. I want him to learn how to ask others about their race or heritage.

I don’t have all the answers, but I will remind myself to see it through my son’s eyes.