With an American mom and a Brazilian dad, you’d think our child would spontaneously be a model of behavior in multicultural settings. A dinner conversation this week, however, reminded me that while setting a good example is important, a parent’s job is much more complex. You can’t assume your child will learn how to be anti-racist or culturally sensitive, simply by being exposed to diversity.
Our good friend Steve, who we hadn’t seen in years, was in town for a conference with his boyfriend Paulo, who is Brazilian. We invited them over for dinner. L, who is 7, was passing a comic strip he had drawn around the table for all to see. He showed it to Steve, and then ran over to show it to his dad (Papai in Portuguese). Papai said “show it to Paulo,” indicating that Paulo, as our guest, should be the next to see it. L retorted “he doesn’t read English,” simultaneously using the third person and making an assumption about Paulo’s intelligence, right in front of him.
As a fellow Brazilian living in the US, Papai immediately felt the offense and directed L to apologize, which L did through tears. What saved if for Steve and Paulo was that they could tell that L was upset not because he had been scolded, but because he truly felt badly that he might have hurt Paulo’s feelings and didn’t have the language or facility to correct it.
In this case, after sharing the comic with Steve, L should have moved onto Paulo as the next guest at the table. If Paulo didn’t understand (which he did) he could have asked for explanation-rather than L starting out with a pre-conceived assumption that reflected poorly on Paulo. As it turns out, Paulo speaks and reads English fine-he was quiet simply because he is shy around new people.
For children, it’s a reminder of how to behave with all people regardless of background: Don’t make assumptions about people, if you don’t know something, ask, and show respect for others.
For parents, you can’t make assumptions about what your child thinks or assume he/she has tools to talk about cross-cultural issues. Teaching in a way that’s open and non-judgmental, modeling how he could handle it differently in the future, would help.
*This is the launch of a new series, Family Friday, which takes ‘real life situations’ taken from trying to raise an anti-racist child, to hopefully provide points of learning for intercultural communications. Names are always changed, but circumstances are real. Coming up next week: Grandpa reads Huckleberry Finn, Child asks about “N” word.