It all started with the guy at the garden store. His face was splotched with purple burns—not badly, but enough for my kids to notice and be scared, making loud comments in the store. I hushed them, smiling apologetically. Once we were in the car, my oldest daughter told me, “His face was weird.”
I sat there for a moment, wondering how to explain diversity to my three blond, blue-eyed daughters.
Finally, I told them I didn’t like the word “weird.” In fact, I said, “We are banning that word from our vocabulary. Because differences aren’t weird…they are simply different. And that man has a unique face, one that shows what he has lived through. Would you want someone calling you weird just because of something that happened to you a long time ago?”
I wasn’t sure my teachable moment had been all that because a few months later my younger daughter asked why a mother at our school wore a scarf on her head. “That’s weird,” she said.
I patiently explained that some women, specifically Muslim females, choose to cover their heads as a show of modesty and piety. I looked up a website and we went through about eight of the 17 reasons for wearing headscarves, but I quit when their eyes started to glaze over.
I remained frustrated that we were still struggling to celebrate the differences that make each person unique and special.
I was reminded of my girls’ comments when I watched The Daily Show’s Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams hosting conversations on race in America. I realized the problem isn’t just race-relations; we also must become more accepting of ethnic and religious difference. Then it occurred to me if we adults were struggling with these issues, I needed to be much more patient and understanding when my children had fears, concerns or questions.
According to the National Crime Prevention Council, the United States is experiencing more diversity now then ever before. With the cultural richness comes the downside of more hate crimes and discrimination. My concern as a white American is how to talk to my kids about diversity in a positive, not threatening way. Whether we’re ready for it or not, our world, it is a-changing, and my children need to figure out where they fit in.
I wanted to be sure I’m tackling the issue of diversity in a positive, respectful way, so I did what I’m sure many parents do when they’re stumped. I Googled the answer. I ended up on the PBS web site, reading Dr. Christopher J. Metzler’s Teaching Children About Diversity. He talks about celebrating differences and making sure I model positive behaviors by teaching my children “that differences are only a part of who we are. It is not the total of who we are.”
I was wondering how to bring up the topic once again, now that I was armed with data and great comments. Before I could figure out how to slip an opener into the conversation, my oldest daughter saw the headscarf-wearing mom and brought up the topic. “So a headscarf is her way of showing her faith?”
That simple curiosity started our discussion about religions, languages and foods. I used concrete examples, like the fact my girls were learning Spanish and my love of hummus, which originated in the Middle East.
Some of these questions about diversity have been working out all by themselves, and I’m grateful. The images kids see on websites, television, even at school are very different from those I saw, when the most exciting ethnic TV characters were Erik Estrada from CHiPS and Gary Coleman from Different Strokes. Yesterday, my daughters watched the Disney show, Jessie, which shows a family unit of four children of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. This idea of mixed families is already fairly normal to my kids because we have Caucasian friends with a biracial daughter and another Caucasian friend with an Anglo son and a Hispanic daughter.
My girls used to say their friends with two mom-only households were “weird.” But now, as we’ve gotten to know the children and mothers better, they no longer classify the gay family as “weird.” In fact, my middle daughter pointed out her friends with only moms were getting more hugs and pedicures than she was. According to my daughter, I, as her one mother, can’t compete with three moms in a nuclear family.
And that, I think, is the key to accepting diversity: being exposed to a wide range of people with different backgrounds, customs, religions, foods, languages – the list goes on and on. It’s a process, like anything else we teach our kids. So now instead of letting my kids talk about how weird something is (which sadly still does happen), I try to have my kids to explain what, exactly, they find different. Once they point out the unique trait, my next question is, “And do you share anything in common with that person?”
Guess what? They always do. Weird.