Talking About Race With My Biracial 5-Year-Old


It’s interesting being a parent of biracial children in that like with most things with motherhood, I’m fumbling around in the dark.

Digging through my 5-year-old’s backpack, I ran across a worksheet on Martin Luther King, Jr.  Curious, I asked him what he learned about King in school.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Image from mattlemmon.

He told me that white people used to not let brown people do things and King made a lot of white people mad because he was helping the brown people.

Hmmm. Well, kinda.

Since my husband is a blond-haired blue-eyed Norwegian and I am a black girl from Kansas, I’m always curious as to how our biracial kids perceive themselves when it comes to race. So the conversation began on this day as it has many times before:

“Do you know any brown people?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes and pointed at the chocolate side of my hand. “You.”

“Do you know any white people?”

He smiled: “Daddy!”

“Right.” And then I waited. I waited because usually at this point in the conversation, he gives me a glimpse into his curious little mind.

“Mommy, am I one of the brown people who can’t do anything or the white people who get to do everything?”

My heart sank a little. All the talks we’ve had about the importance of content of character, how President Barack Obama had a white parent and a brown parent, the books we’ve read about King, Rosa Parks, Obama and kids of every hue and belief. Did they not stick?

My niece and nephew are also biracial and they’re college students. I admire how their generation doesn’t seem to feel the need to check the white or the brown box. They are who they are and that’s it. I too am trying to keep my kid “box-free” while also instilling a sense of knowing where one came from.

That’s why my response to whether he was brown or white was another question: “What do you think?”

He studied the backside of his hand. “I am both, it’s like a mix.”

“You’re right!” It’s true, he is. His caramel-colored skin and loose and profuse sandy brown curls are a perfect blend of my husband and me.

“What if I was on a bus though, would I have to sit with the white people or the brown people?”

“Uhhh,” I admit, I fumbled for words. He’s 5 years old. I want to protect him from the ugliness of racism. But I don’t want to lie to him as there’s no stronger weapon against racism and other ignorance than the truth. But, really, he’s five. It’s not like it’s time to have The Talk, which for generations has been a rite of passage for many brown boys.

Thankfully, my husband came to the rescue.

“Well then, we’d move to Norway!”

The conversation then moved elsewhere, but inside I wondered. Why had I stalled? I’m a parent who prides herself on her candid and honest relationship with her kids, why did I fumble to tell my baby had he been born in another time he’d be in the back of the bus with his mama?

I’m not ashamed of our history, quite the opposite in fact, but there’s something about telling your child that he was viewed/could be still viewed as a second-class citizen. I never want him to feel “less than,” but I also want him to know of his rich history, both the African-American and the Norwegian.

Later that evening, unsatisfied with how I handled it, I brought up the issue again.

“Remember when we were talking about segregation and you asked me if you would sit in the front of the bus or in the back of the bus?”

He nodded.

“You’d be in the back with mama.”

His eyes widened.

The words spilled out: “But that’s only because of those old rules. What really matters about a person is what’s in his heart and in his mind. The color of their skin doesn’t matter, we all just have to be good to each other and know that as long as you put in the hard work, you really can do whatever you want. I mean, look, Barack Obama would have been sitting in the back of the bus with you and your mama.”

His eyes widened again.

“But now, because of people like Martin Luther King, those rules have changed.”

Then to drive home the point, I used the six-lettered s-word in our home that is considered profane.

“And besides, those rules were really, really stupid.”

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37 Responses to Talking About Race With My Biracial 5-Year-Old

  1. misssrobin says:

    Sounds like a rough moment that you handled well. Being a parent can be tough. Especially when we’re not sure how to answer their questions. I love that you asked him to answer them before you did. Otherwise, you might never know how he felt about it. At that age he would probably have just fallen in line with whatever you said.

    I think you handled it beautifully. Best wishes as you continue trying to answer those tough questions.

    Stopping by from SITS.

    • sheswrite says:

      Don’t you just love SITS?? Thanks for your comment, it’s so true that being a parent can be tough. I think it’s key to try to be as honest with ourselves and our children and admit when things are flawed. Best wishes to you too! Thanks for stopping by!!!

  2. melanie, i really enjoyed reading this. thank you! i referenced your post (with a link) on my website.

    • sheswrite says:

      Thanks for sharing with your readers, that’s quite the compliment. I’m also glad you liked the piece. I find it can be challenging to write about race because everyone’s experiences are so varied and people can easily misunderstand what’s being said. But I figure how else are we going to learn to grow if we don’t communicate with each other about the good, the bad and the ugly. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Ginny says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Such a tough conversation!

    My daughter is also 5 and this is the first year that we really talked about who Dr. King was and what he did. I stalled over answering her questions about racism because I didn’t want to be the one that introduced it to her. But I’m thinking it might have been all right, because she commented how lucky her cousin was to be brown and white. Progress?

    • sheswrite says:

      Lol, yes that my friend is progress. I love that as a race, we’re really mixing as the race that really counts, the human race. Hopefully as a society we will be more honest in embracing our similarities as well as our differences. :) Thank you for taking the time to read my piece and leave a thoughtful comment.

  4. You handled this so well! Stopping from SITS!

    • sheswrite says:

      Thanks for the comment! Don’t you love the power of SITS? I’m glad you think I handled it well, I feel like I’m never sure, I’m just hopeful that my guy’s therapy bills won’t be so high when he’s an adult.

  5. Pingback: Share Your Best Post From This Week Here with #SITSSharefest - The SITS Girls

  6. Kristen says:

    I think you handled this beautifully. It’s hard to get just the right tone between a unfortunate reality and acknowledging that something is “really, really stupid”.

    • sheswrite says:

      You’re right, it is hard. I am wondering how to handle future talks because I don’t anticipate it getting any easier. What a character-building exercise this whole parenting thing is, right? Thanks for stopping by.

  7. This post was selected to be featured on the Saturday Sharefest on SITSGirls!

    • sheswrite says:

      You know, I meant to write this on my previous comment to you. I was soooo honored to be picked for being featured on Sharefest. So awesome and appreciated! Plus I got introduced to some fabulous bloggers as well.

  8. Marie says:

    This gave me chills! What a lucky little guy to have such a wise Mama. (Stopping by from SITS.)

  9. Andrea says:

    Excellent. Though my daughter is not bi-racial there will come a day we she too we ask some of these same questions and I hope to handle them truthfully and with kid-gloves, sort of like you did. Well done. Glad to be visiting from SITS Sharefest. Andrea @ be-quoted.com

    • sheswrite says:

      Ah yes those “kid-gloves” tricky things to navigate life while wearing, aren’t they? Thanks for visiting my site from Sharefest, and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I look forward to returning the favor.:)

  10. Nellie says:

    What a beautiful story and explanation, my son is mixed too, jamaican and puerto rican and I imagine I will encounter some questions like this in the future. Thank you so much for sharing, happy Sharefest!

    • sheswrite says:

      Thanks for stopping by on Sharefest, and glad you understand some of the unique challenges biracial kids face. I think with honesty and openness, we can do our best to instill a good sense of self in our children and that will better equip them to handle all kinds of obstacles.

  11. Lisa says:

    I really enjoyed your post. Your son is lucky to have you! (Stopping from SITS.)

  12. Jenine says:

    Hello,
    I’ve just came from SITS Girls and I just wanna say that you handled that situation with your son pretty well. I am also biracial (mother: African American, distant Cherokee, father: German, English and Belarussian (basically just white). Anyway, when I was coming up, my mom used to tell me that because she’s black that makes me black even though I’m half black. For a while, I accepted it, but realized that the only thing that mattered was that I’m an American. I guess my thinking is a little bit different from some of the older biracials like Barrack Obama or Halle Berry because I was born in the ’90s.

    • sheswrite says:

      Ah I love that solution. That the only thing that matters is that you’re American. I think it’s important for all kids regardless of race, sex or creed have a good sense of self and all that that entails, whether it’s that you’re a fast runner, or in a wheelchair or that you’ve got beautiful blonde hair or beautiful ebony skin. We are all a sum of our parts, ya know? And knowing that sum and appreciating it is key. OK, sorry to get all Oprah-ish on you. I’m done.

  13. Melanie says:

    Hello…I came from SITS as well and I, too, thought you handled a tough situation well. Kudos to you!

    It is hard sometimes to answer adequately those questions about race. I am a black mother to 3 biracial boys (my husband is white), one of whom is 5 too, like yours, and I constantly wonder when those ‘race’ questions are asked (mostly by my 7 year old) if my answers are good enough.

    I know the end goal is for me is for my boys to grow up being confident and secure in their biracialness and to love, appreciate and respect fully both of the cultures that make them up. Against a world of adversity, I can only hope and trust that my (and my husband’s) answers will be enough.

    Thanks for sharing! Wonderful post.

    • sheswrite says:

      I do think that you and your husband’s answers will be enough, even if those answers are “I don’t know.” I think being honest about your experiences, the good and the bad and keep things in an empowerment mindframe, all will work out well. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. ;)

  14. I think you handled this beautifully. I always want to be honest, but at the same time, I want to protect my children from the harder things (for a while, at least.) It is hard to find that balance sometimes.

    • sheswrite says:

      I know, I too want to protect them from the harder things as long as possible. Like the truth about Santa, I mean, Logan would be so sad to know that he doesn’t really eat all of the treats the kids leave out for him. Afterall, that would result in a big, huge bellyache. ;) Thanks again for your comment.

  15. Belinda markey says:

    Really!? I’ve just read through this post and past ones as well. I don’t understand why you focus on the color of your skin as THE defining characteristic of yourself. First you’re an individual, then whatever falls after no matter what others think or do. Same for your son. What a shame to perpetuate a racial stereotype on a 5yo couched within a “history lesson.” He deserves better. And I’m not a “hater” – just another human being who doesn’t look at color or any other characteristic as a reason to do so. Time to step up and out. Ifmyou continue to dwell in color then you give permission to others to do the same.

    • sheswrite says:

      OK, interesting viewpoint. I do not see my color as THE defining characteristic of myself. No one, especially a woman like me, is that monolithic. A true look at my posts reflect my diversity. There is not ONE defining characteristic that makes me who I am, I am a mom, I am a wife, I am a friend, a writer, a lover of wine, I’m a Kansan, a runner and the list goes on and on. You’re right, it shouldn’t matter to people what or who I am but regardless if you want to hear it or not, it happens. The real shame is people’s unwillingness to recognize that because hearing each other out and being willing to have the tough, honest conversations are what gets us as a society closer to progress. And that’s not perpetuating stereotypes couched within in a “history lesson.” It’s my unflinching truth.

      Thank you for posting.

      • Keri says:

        So true. It’s hard for my family and friends to understand this IS a issue for our biracial family and many of my biracial students. They think everything should be fine now since we have a black (biracial) president. There are still everyday questions we have to answer from our children and students. Worse yet the questions of those at the store.

        • sheswrite says:

          Thank you, thank you, thank you. Very well put and I agree especially about the questions of those at the store. I’ve had a few doozies and need to blog about those experiences as well. Thanks again for stopping by and taking the time to comment. :)

  16. If I had on a hat, I would take my hat off to you. Thank you for giving us a peak into your life.

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