What is race?
Here is the definition according to Merriam-Webster:
Definition of RACE
1 : a breeding stock of animals
2 a : a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
b : a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
3 a : an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species;
also : a taxonomic category (as a subspecies) representing such a group
b : breed
c : a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
4 obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition
5 : distinctive flavor, taste, or strength
(Personally I think my favorite is #5! I'm picturing it describing all the different ethnic groups of people and it's niiice! - You have to read it and say it with some flair in order to understand what I mean!)
Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D, in her book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?," And Other Conversations About Race, states that "race is a social construction. Despite myths to the contrary, biologists tell us that the only meaningful racial categorization is that of human. Van den Berghe defines race as, "a group that is socially defined but on the basis of physical criteria," including skin color and facial features." (For more information, see the notes and bibliography in Tatum's book. Or ask me, and I'll share the references with you!)
We began talking about race in our family when our now nine year old son was three. He was keenly aware at this young age that his skin color was different than ours, and he was uncomfortable with this. We frequently told him his adoption story and explained how his birth parents had brown skin which is why he has brown skin. Around this time is when I began reading Tatum's book, mentioned above (and pictured below.)
I could go on and on about the greatness and importance of this book! Tatum talks about racial identity formation in the early childhood years, through adolescence, and into adulthood. She addresses "Understanding Blackness in a White Context" as well as "Understanding Whiteness in a White Context." She also discusses "Critical Issues in Latino, American Indian, and Asian Pacific American Identity Development" and "Identity Development in Multiracial Families," including in adoptive families. This is a book that would benefit all parents and teachers to read - I highly recommend it!
Now, going back to the skin color conversations, there is a beautiful book entitled "Tan to Tamarind: poems about the color brown." In it Malathi Michelle Iyengar and Jamel Akib not only portray the beauty of the various tones of the color brown, but also the beauty of being a child, a person, of that color. I just love the last poem and want to share an excerpt with you to give you a taste of what lies within the book:
or coca brown,
café con leche brown or
radiant ocher brown.
Our hands, our fingers.
or rich coffee brown,
sandalwood brown or
rosy adobe brown....
We are brown. We are beautiful.
Another book I recommend along these lines is "Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea" by Joyce Carol Thomas.
With either of these books, you could have your elementary aged children write a poem about themselves modeled after or inspired by one of the poems. That's what I had our son and I do when we read them this past fall. I was surprised (and so happy) with how much effort our son put into his, and how beautifully it turned out. (I wanted our daughter to draw a picture of herself in response to listening to the poems, but she was being her strong willed self at the moment and I decided not to push it. She played with Legos on the floor instead.)
"Skin Again" by Bell Hooks is another great book to open up or further a discussion on skin color and race! It rhythmically illustrates how the skin we are in only tells a small piece about who we are. It's what is underneath our skin that truly matters, who we are in our hearts and in our minds, celebrating the stories of who we each are. "The skin I'm in is just a covering. It cannot tell my story. The skin I'm in is just a covering. If you want to know who I am, you have got to come inside and open your heart way wide."
"This stunning picture book introduces race as just one of many chapters in a person's story. Beginning with the line, "I am a story," Lester tells his own story with details that kids will enjoy, like his favorite food, hobbies, and time of day. Then he states, "Oh. There's something else that is part of my story…I'm black." Throughout the narrative, he asks questions that young readers can answer, creating a dialogue about who they are and encouraging them to tell their own tales. He also discusses "stories" that are not always true, pointing out that we create prejudice by perceiving ourselves as better than others. He asks children to press their fingers against their faces, pointing out, "Beneath everyone's skin are the same hard bones." Remove our skin and we would all look the same. Lester's engaging tone is just right and his words are particularly effective, maintaining readers' interest and keeping them from becoming defensive. The pairing of text and dazzling artwork is flawless. The paintings blend with the words and extend them, transporting readers away from a mundane viewpoint and allowing them to appreciate a common spiritual identity. This wonderful book should be a first choice for all collections and is strongly recommended as a springboard for discussions about differences." - Mary Hazelton, Warren Community School and Miller Elementary School, ME