kids and race

At dinner tonight, I asked D if he knew why we were celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday.  He said that King was famous, and that he worked so that blacks and whites could both do things equally.  Fair enough for a first grader.

Last year, D’s class was almost entirely African-American, with one other white kid.  This year, at a different school, his classmates are more diverse, with a majority Hispanic, but a scattering of white, black, and Asian kids.  He considers almost all of his classmates his friends, with Pokemon the main unifying interest. When he draws a generic person, he reaches for the brown crayons.

But we’re not living in a non-racial utopia.  One day D came home sad because a classmate didn’t want to play with him, and he explained it as this boy only wanting to play with other kids with brown skins.  I didn’t know what to say. We’ve been trying to set up a playdate with another kid for months, but it hasn’t happened — I’m not sure whether it’s the language barrier, cultural issues, or just that family’s lack of interest. 

D’s invited about 8 of his classmates to his birthday party next week, and we haven’t heard back from most of them.  I’m afraid that my super-sensitive kid is going to be heartbroken if they don’t come.  And I’m concerned about what message he’s going to take away if it’s only white kids who wind up coming.

I don’t think it’s race per se that’s the barrier, but economic class and language may well be issues.  Some of the kids’ parents probably don’t own cars. Our house is only about half a mile from the bus stop, but the buses run very seldom on weekends.  Or non-fluent English speakers may feel awkward about calling us to RSVP.  We’re going to ask his teacher if we’re allowed to bring in cupcakes so he can celebrate with his friends in any case, but I’m still worried.  I’m probably overdoing it with the party preparations (a papermache pokeball pinata, a jigsaw puzzle with a secret message) to compensate.

9 Responses to “kids and race”

  1. robin Says:

    RSVPs aren’t usually about race, they’re about manners, time, forgetfulness, the unpredictability of the USPS and the many ways in which emails can go astray including into multiple spam filters.
    My hard-won advice is: two-three days before every party, call every person you invited and check to make sure they a) got the invite b) didn’t lose the invite c) recognized your name d) remembered the date, etc etc etc. You’ll be doing yourself and darling son a big big favor to just take the ball into your court.
    Good luck!

  2. Ailurophile Says:

    I want to append to Robin’s comment – kids sometimes take invitations home and put them God-knows-where, and they fester forgotten until the night before the party and the kid will say, “Oh, by the way, Mom, D is having a birthday party tomorrow, can I go?” Rather like homework assignments! Seconding the suggestion to call the parents about three days before the party to make sure that they even GOT the invite.

  3. Parke Says:

    My kids got the same MLK message in school, drawing heavily on the ideas in the I Have a Dream speech. That’s good enough for kindergarten and second graders. Still, with a couple families of friends and their kids over for dinner Sunday evening, after singing Lift Every Voice and Sing (with my wife playing trumpet), we chose a different text for our before-dinner read-aloud MLK observance: the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It is healthy to remember that King could sometimes get angrier than the kindergarten lesson lets on.
    By the way, about the party, do you think it might help to focus on a couple kids whose parents you’d most like to get to know, and to invite the parents also for a social time alongside the party? Does everybody at your school follow the tradition of inviting kids over for a party with organized activities, or do some of them follow the older style of having an all-ages party for adults and kids together? I hope you and D have a blast.

  4. jen Says:

    I’ve seen this thing with the birthday parties being a flame-out for non-anglo families. I think culturally they’re just not as big of a deal for other demographic groups. The attitude seems to be, my kid goes or doesn’t go, whatever, I won’t worry about it. Whereas with an anglo kid if you get invited to their birthday party and skip, you need a pretty good reason — and you need to overtly give that reason — or people get pretty upset.
    In my experience in Chicago this has been the case hispanic and asian kids. Many’s the heartbroken anglo boy whose cool friends from school didn’t make it to the party.
    On the other hand, we also don’t play in our front yard with the neighbors who speak Spanish. We play in the back yard, so I can work on the computer and know the kids are safe, and the kids go to bed at 8:00, even in the summer. I know the neighbors consider this very unfriendly. We do some things where our expectations align, like the annual block party. It’s kind of a work in progress, this diversity thing.

  5. Highheelsbackwards Says:

    My son goes to a preschool where the majority of kids are Hispanic. Others are recent immigrants from places like Ethiopia and the Caribbean. From what I can see in my brief pick-ups and drop-offs, some of these parents work long hours at working-class type jobs (as opposed to DH and me, who work long hours at underpaid white collar-type jobs). My son has invited a number of the kids to his birthday party in 1-1/2 weeks, but we’ve barely heard back from any. I’ve chalked it up to cultural differences…although one Latina mom (actually, the teacher) said her son may not be able to come because their car was totalled in an accident and they were limited to bus transportation because of financial reasons. Next year I’ll be much clearer about the need to RSVP, including not using the term “RSVP”, since there might be confusion about what it means.
    Regarding MLK, they learned the basics on January 15 and then had a homework assignment to color various pictures of MLK that night. The lesson seemed to focus much more on fairness than on color. Interestingly, my son — who hasn’t yet seemed to notice race, or at least the implications of it — was firm that he had to color MLK’s skin the same color as the skin as his Ethiopian friend (whose parents also haven’t RSVP’d yet…oh well).
    All in all, I’m heartened by the fact that my son is enjoying himself in such a multicultural environment and that being surrounded by people who look different from him is not a big deal.

  6. landismom Says:

    I’ll echo the suggestion of other commenters who said you should call the parents–I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of the phone call where the invite didn’t make it home, and I know that we would have offended the parents by not RSVPing, but totally by accident.
    It’s hard, when you don’t know the address to mail it, or the kid’s home numbers, though.

  7. Highheelsbackwards Says:

    One more point — I also wonder whether we’re talking about race or class here, or maybe a combination of both. I don’t think you can separate the issue of class and education from the discussion of diversity in our schools and communities. Any thoughts?

  8. Lee Says:

    At my kids’ very diverse school we invite the entire class to have about 8 kids show up. I’ve only had one non-white kid to a party. He didn’t RSVP.
    My four-year old recently attended a joint party given by two classmates on a Sunday night. The entire class was invited. The next morning the class activity was to list who went to the party, how many boys, how many girls, etc. I was horrified as several of the kids have NEVER been to a classmates birthday party. I wonder if I should say something to the teacher.

  9. Elizabeth Says:

    Wound up with 9 kids, including one sibling tag-along. A couple who didn’t RSVP showed up anyway, a few who said they were coming didn’t. It was a hit in any case.
    One parent did call and ask for directions from the bus stop, and we prevailed on her to call us for a pick up. It’s not that far, but it was a cold day, and it’s a big hill.

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