“Daddy, why is my skin light-colored? Why is our family’s skin light?”

The question recently came out of the blue one morning, which of course is par for the course when raising a preschooler. No doubt, it was inspired by things my daughter learned about Dr. King in school that week—about how, in her words, “he taught us we should share with each other, no matter what color our skin is,” and how “a long time ago, people couldn’t drink the same water or go to the same restaurants or the same schools.”

Before that week, I had never heard her speak so directly about “skin color.” We have been deliberate about placing her in multicultural environments where she would be exposed to neighbors, peers, and authority figures of varying ethnicities. We see this as an essential part of raising her “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), of molding her as an image-bearer and equipping her for life while sitting in the house or “walking by the way” (Deut. 11:18).

But we’ve also been careful not to make her hyper-aware of racial differences too early on, not least for the sake of the development of her own identity. As a young Korean-American, even in our richly multicultural neighborhood, she is growing up as a minority among racial minorities. She is the only non-black or brown child in her preschool class and, as far as we can tell, in her whole elementary school. These are challenges and opportunities we embrace as parents. But they are challenges.

And opportunities.

I kept the conversation simple that time. It was a passing thought of hers anyways, and I could tell she was ultimately more interested in the heaping mounds of snow outside. But it reminded me of Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s research on the early development of racial identity in children. In her widely acclaimed book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations About Race, Dr. Tatum, a clinical psychologist and educator, explains: “At the same time that preschoolers are identifying the colors in the crayon box, they are also beginning to figure out racial categorizations.” It starts much earlier than we typically think. Our children are not “color-blind.”

More specific to my daughter’s question, I also recalled Dr. Tatum’s observations about the significant role parents play in the shaping of kids’ understanding of race:

“Many adults do not know how to respond when children make race-related observations…Perhaps afraid of saying the wrong thing, many parents don’t offer an explanation. They stop at ‘Ssh,’ silencing the child, but not responding to the question or the reasoning underlying it. Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away, they just go unasked.

I’ve been looking forward to her questions.

Which isn’t to say I always feel equipped to answer them. This is where Dr. Tatum has been helpful again, as she provides examples of various conversations she had with her son when he was young. Like the time she cracked brown and white eggs in the kitchen to illustrate how they, like people, have “different shells” but are the same on the inside.

Or like the one about the time her son, at the time four-years-old, asked his mother, “Am I Black?” after someone at school told him that’s what he was. “Yes, you are,” she replied, to which her son retorted, “But my skin is brown.” Dr. Tatum responded gently: “Yes, your skin is brown, but Black is a term that people use to describe African Americans, just like White is used to describe people who came from Europe. It is a little confusing, because Black people aren’t really the color black, but different shades of brown.” It is a little confusing.

And not just for preschoolers.

That story reminds me of another conversation I had with my daughter a few months ago, when she insisted she was “white,” pointing to the surface of her hand. She was contrasting her skin-tone with mine, which she described as “yellow,” pressing her index finger into my more “olive-toned” (as they say) arm. I was tempted to correct her, but resisted, recognizing that she wasn’t talking about racial categories as much as she was simply observing literal hues, which—as Dr. Tatum’s response to her son’s “Am I Black?” question illustrates—often fit awkwardly with modern racial terminology.

Ultimately, I dropped the topic because I didn’t know in the moment how I’d correct her anyway. If not “white,” then what color was she? Again, Tatum comes to mind: “The color-coded language of social categories obviously does not match the colors we use to label objects. People of Asian descent are not really ‘yellow’ like lemons, Native Americans don’t really look ‘red’ like apples.” Words matter. Categories matter. Timing matters. Keep in mind, we’re talking about preschoolers here.

We’re talking about the early formation of our children’s ethnic identities here.

And so continues the journey. I don’t know which, if any, of these observations and conversations my four-year-old daughter will remember later in life. Whether they will count as her earliest race-related memory, I don’t know. But I do expect that they are indeed shaping her identity as an ethnically particular bearer of God’s glorious image—gradually, cumulatively, sometimes subconsciously. Because that’s what we do as parents, whether intentionally and biblically or haphazardly and misguidedly. That’s what we’re called to do.

It’s hard work, to be sure—for parents as well as for any adult committed to investing in children in our churches, schools, and neighborhoods. But it’s a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor, and not only for ourselves and our own children but also “for the life of the world.”

After all, as Frederick Douglass reminded us insightfully, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Photo credit: Kevin Krebs via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA