“Is This a Brown School?” – On Teaching My Kids About Diversity

Last night I took my kids to a fall festival at one of the schools I work with. I actually taught at this school for five years, so it’s always like coming home when I go over there. This school is about 65% English Learners and probably 90% kids from a language background other than English. The majority of the students’ families are either from Egypt or from a Spanish-speaking country. When we arrived at the fall festival and made our way through the sea of children to the ticket booth, my six year old son said, “Is this a brown school?”

Yeah, I thought I would faint, too. I quickly explained that these were kids whose families came from all over the world (although many of the kids were born in the US) and that it’s rude to call people “brown” or say “brown school.” I left it at that until the end of the night, after my kids (who were 2 of maybe 6 white kids that I saw all night) had stood in line with people of all colors, shapes, and sizes who were speaking several different languages.

On the way home, I talked to them about how there are private schools and public schools, and how they go to a private school, but public schools are located in neighborhoods, so kids in public school attend the school closest to their house. And this particular neighborhood had a lot of families from other countries who speak other languages. I talked about how anybody can go to any school, and there are no “brown schools” or “black schools” or “white schools.” And how no one is better than anyone else because of their skin color, or the language they speak, or where they come from. “Do you understand?” I asked my son.

“Yes,” he said, “but there still were a lot of brown kids.”

Huge. Sigh.

Honestly, I think my son’s comments are not signs of racism, but merely his six-year-old way of describing how people look and differences in people. But since I can’t get in his head, I’m not completely sure. What if my kid is racist? What if my kid thinks he’s better?

Then come the next questions: What have I done to make my kid racist? What have I said? Have I taught him some wrong attitude? Am I putting my kid at a disadvantage by putting them in a private school? Am I sheltering them far too much? There is some diversity at their school, but not near as much as you see in the public schools around here.

When I was at the fall festival, I was so excited to be in the midst of that throng of cultures and languages. (You have to remember that I did not grow up around white kids. I was one of I think three white kids in my graduating class. I went to middle school and high school with students from all over the world, from a myriad of languages and a bunch of different religions.) I enjoyed watching all the children interact with their friends, both in their native languages and in English. I enjoyed interacting with a few of the parents as we stood in line. Working with people from other cultures has always been a dream of mine, and I pretty much did that when I was teaching. I have always felt passionate about bettering the immigrant experience and helping them become a part of our culture, as well as helping Americans shed their prejudices and be able to accept and welcome immigrants. I have to admit that last night I felt an overwhelming urge to go back to the classroom just so I could have contact with these kids and families again.

Yet it was a completely new experience for my kids. They have African American friends, but they rarely are around multilingual, multicultural children. So where do I go from here? How do I, a middle-class, white mom, teach my middle-class, white kids about diversity? How do I teach them what language to use regarding diversity? How do I teach them to value, love, and appreciate all kinds of people? How do I get them to see people, not color or language? Seriously. I want your advice.

P.S. This can very easily become a public school/private school debate, which is probably a worthwhile discussion, but it’s a discussion for another blog post. If you want to discuss schools in light of this topic, that’s fine, but please try not to get off on a tangent.

8 comments

  1. David Dunn says:

    Your kids are not racists. They are kids, and the school was “brown” in the sense that there were a lot of brown people there. Also, I think “brown,” in certain contexts, is becoming an acceptable word to use. On the one hand, ethnicity is part of what makes us who we are. I do not want to say we should be color blind. That’s stupid. Our colors are part of what make us who we are. But those identities are also given to is by the society in which we live. Thus we should be given permission to transcend them. (Transcend does not mean to leave behind but to take up, to divinize the immanent — to sanctify.) “Brown” can indicate that. We are all various shades of brown. We are all different.

    Not that Ephraim was thinking that, but those would be my talking points.

  2. Myrna Martin says:

    Good Morning !
    I read your heart and all I can say being Brown, that as long as you teach your children the cultural differences, they will be fine. They are correct in saying what they saw. There are many of us whom are different and to top it all, we speak funny and sometimes funny accents. I teach to a predominant white school and was hired to teach children be exposed to Brown people A comment I heard fr one of the kids was;
    Ms. Myrna do you drink lots of chocolate milk?
    No. I don’t Why?
    Because my friend says he does and that is why
    he has dark skin.
    I have to admit that at one point in my life I told everyone I have eaten so much black beans that turned my skin brown.
    Once we show the love we have for our brethren and pray for all cultures, comments will come and go without hurting anyone. Wonderful is the country where we live to learn many things.
    God’s peace be with you.

  3. Shelia says:

    I agree with David and Myrna that Ephraim was probably making a simple observation. Sorting things out in his head. Sometimes our own hypersensitivity to an issue causes us to read more into it than is really there.

    One suggestion: in instances where you know your children will encounter situations that are different than those to which they are accustomed, perhaps you could prepare them before hand. For example, you could have said, tonight we are going to visit one of mommy’s favorite schools. I love being here because there are people from lots of different cultures. Some of them wear saris (or burqas, etc…). They speak different languages. It is so fun to hear all those languages around you. Many of the kids you will see tonight have skin that is darker than yours or mine. Being with them reminds me of Thailand where I lived when I was your age. I want you to know what it is like to be with people who are different. To see how wonderfully unique God made all of us. I am so glad you can be here with me tonight.

    You could say it better, but you understand what I mean.

    You might also help them understand the many, MANY things they have in common with those children who look different, but still argue with their brothers or sisters, ride skateboards, play video games, etc…

    Giving them language is also helpful. But, whatever you do, keep dialogue open. Try not to shame them if they do not handle the situation well. Simply give them tools to handle it better next time.

    Ephraim and Madeleine will absorb much from you that you do not purposely teach them. They saw you interact with people last night. They see the dignity and respect with which you treat others. They are learning far more from you than you realize. And I’ll wager most of it is good. 😉

    • kksorrell says:

      Shelia, you make a great point. I should have prepared them. They know what I do, so I guess I expected them to expect ESL kids. And I guess I shouldn’t have made E feel bad – I myself am always unsure about what the “politically correct” terms are. I think he was just stating what he saw, not making a judgement.

  4. Karen Vertrees says:

    Your children are not racists. He just noticed people of a different color than he was use to. When I was growing up in Church we used to sing the song “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. The song went on to say “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”. This shows us that there are people of many colors and each is a creation of God and loved by God. As long as you teach them this and you do not show racism, they will be well-rounded children. And as far as public school, private school, or home-school, that is a choice a parent makes by what he/she/they believe is best for their child.

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