On being a Chinese parent: Why I believe we shouldn’t be colour-blind to race

By Lisa Twang, Jul 15, 2020

With racial tensions being spotlighted around the world, it’s been suggested that one solution to racism is to raise our children to be colour-blind: treating all people the same, no matter the colour of their skin. While teaching colour-blindness is well-intentioned, ignoring race and colour is problematic because it also means ignoring others’ identity and culture. To pretend we and our friends are not Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian, etc. is to deny the fabric of who we are, and where we came from. 

I’m a mum and my daughter Tully is four years old. As a Chinese Singaporean, I want to raise Tully to be respectfully aware of different races. 

For the final story in our series, ‘Black Lives Matter In Singapore: Is our allyship performative?’, I explore how the idea of colour-blindness is flawed, and why we need to show kids how race is a fact of life, in a way that’s free of prejudice. It’s my belief that by understanding race more deeply, and making genuine connections with our minority race friends, we can begin to empathise with them and be true allies for racial equality.

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I had my first conversation about race with Tully when she was two. We were looking at pictures of her toddler classmates when she said, “That’s my friend D. He’s an Indian boy.” 

“How do you know D is Indian?” I asked. 

“Because he’s dark, like Teacher S!” she said. “Teacher S is Indian, too.”

That day, I realised Tully was already aware of race, though I’d never brought it up. I’d believed that at her age, she was colour-blind, but that illusion shattered when she correctly identified her friend and teacher by their ethnicity. 

When Tully became aware of race, I instinctively felt that we needed to have more conversations about it. I knew that if my daughter was to be an ally in the fight for racial equality, I needed to educate her to be aware of racial issues. 

Later, when Tully turned three, her school held a Racial Harmony Day celebration, and I asked what they’d done there. “We dressed up in costumes and ate some snacks,” she said. “There was some dancing, I guess.” When I asked what exactly she’d learned about other races, she still couldn’t really give an answer. 

I knew I needed to teach Tully to embrace different cultures, because leaving her racial education to school and Racial Harmony Day celebrations wasn’t enough. But it was a struggle for me, because I didn’t feel like I knew enough about other races.

As part of the 76 per cent of Chinese Singaporeans, I grew up with privilege. I didn’t truly understand what it felt like to be of a minority race in Singapore. I wasn’t singled out for being different: no one made fun of me for my ethnicity, or subjected me to negative stereotypes about my work ethic or values.

I think most Singaporean parents want to raise kids who are open and sensitive to other races, but also find it difficult. Mums told me they “don’t want to make a big deal” of the subject, and admitted they didn’t know enough about race to talk about it. So it’s not surprising that many parents sweep the issue of race under the carpet. 

With the revival of the Black Lives Matter Movement, I feel that a lot of the lessons America is learning about raising our next generation to be anti-racist can also be applied to us here in Singapore. Race relations in the US and Singapore are fundamentally different, but I believe the principles of educating ourselves and our kids about race are universal. 

One thing I’ve realised is that avoiding the issue of race isn’t the answer, because it causes more harm than good to our kids.

“Adults often think they should avoid talking with young children about race or racism because doing so would cause them to notice race or make them racist,” said Dr Erin Winkler, a professor of Africology and urban studies in the US, in a Buzzfeed post. “In fact, when adults are silent about race or use ‘colour-blind’ rhetoric, they actually reinforce racial prejudice in children.”

Author Doyin Richards, a Black dad with two daughters, told Today Parents that parents who teach kids to be colour-blind (that there is “only one race, the human race”), often mean well. But he finds colour-blindness dangerous, because “by doing the whole ‘We’re the same’ thing, you’re dismissing what a Black kid or any person of colour deals with.’”

I also learned of the term ‘colour-silenced’: the idea that children have subconsciously been taught not to talk about or notice racial differences. It happens when kids ask innocent questions, like: “Why is that person brown?”, and we shush them or say: “It’s rude to say such things.” Parents do this because they don’t wish to offend other races, but may not realise they’re sending a message to kids that it’s wrong and shameful to discuss race.

Teaching our children about race should start around the age of two, because kids form impressions of race as babies, and can start showing racial bias by the time they’re three.

I was surprised by a study which showed how six month-old babies associated own-race faces with happy music, and other-race faces with sad music*. Another Singapore study showed how Chinese children aged three to six tended to favour their own race, while their Indian peers showed no particular preference.** 

Professor Setoh Pei Pei, who led the study, told The Straits Times: “Being a majority group, the Chinese pre-schoolers are more exposed to people of their own racial group. And children have a preference for more familiar categories." She recommended that parents and pre-schools should educate kids on inter-group harmony from a young age, and encourage more interaction among races.

When I spoke to other Singaporean mums of two- and three-year-olds, many said: “My kids are too young to learn about race, so I’m going to wait till they’re older.” But I’ve found this is precisely the time when we need to start guiding their understanding of race.

When kids are ignorant about race, they may act in racist, insensitive ways without knowing how hurtful they are. I’ve seen my non-Chinese friends being the butt of racist jokes about skin colour and “funny names”, and how it made them feel ostracised. So I don’t want Tully to repeat ignorant remarks, and I want her to know why she needs to be kind and respectful towards her friends of all races.

Instead of being colour-blind, I’m teaching my kid to be ‘race-conscious’: being aware of race and working towards racial justice.

Educating kids about race starts with presenting the facts, and reminding them to be fair and empathetic towards everyone. I’ve explained to Tully that all people come in different colours, and that skin colour is based on the amount of melanin we have. “Some people have more melanin, and others less, but we’re all beautiful,” I said. “We should always treat everyone the same, no matter what we look like, because we’re all people and we all have feelings.” 

One of my friends, Parveen, lives in the US and is married to an American with a daughter who’s half Indian and half Caucasian. She started teaching her daughter Chloe about race around the age of two, and has also emphasised the importance of fairness towards all races.

“We talked about how not everyone looks the same, and that’s okay: what’s important is the person is kind and treats others well,” Parveen said. “I use our family as an example: my husband has blond hair and blue eyes, and I have dark hair and dark eyes. We also talk about how it’s not okay to treat someone differently because of the colour of their skin, the texture of their hair, and so on.

“Now she’s four, and we talk about how everyone should get to go to school, and go to stores and restaurants without feeling scared or unwelcome.”

Here in Singapore, racial bias often takes the form of insensitive jokes or negative stereotypes about minorities (like how some races are less educated than others), rather than violence and intimidation. So I asked my minority race friends how we could show our kids to be more thoughtful about race, and they gave me some tips.

To educate our kids, we must first educate ourselves. Doing research on other races and cultures, and how to teach children to embrace racial differences, is key.

My Indian friend Neha, whose son is two-and-a-half, told me it’s not enough to give kids superficial knowledge of other cultures. “If you're thinking of explaining festivals like Deepavali to your kids, do your research and Google it first. Or else, you'll end up falling back on stereotypes or cliched info,” she said. “It’s best if you have multiracial friends your kids can learn from, so they can get truthful answers.”

To find how to teach Tully about the Eurasian community, I spoke to my friend Melissa De Silva, who wrote the book ‘Others’ Is Not A Race about Eurasians in Singapore. 

“Eurasians don’t have as much tangible culture compared to the other cultures in Singapore, which can make it hard to point out physical things like calligraphy or art to tell people about these aspects of our culture,” she said. But she brought up Eurasian cuisine as being truly reflective of the intermingling of various cultural heritages Eurasians represent, and the Kristang language, a creole of Portugese and Malay, which originated in Malacca during Portuguese colonisation.

“I’d also like more people to know that the Eurasian community in Singapore has a long history in this region. We've existed since the colonial Europeans who came to Asia had children with local women. And many of us have mixed heritage, which includes Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, Malay and Chinese.”

If you need more info on local cultures and religions, racial harmony advocacy group Onepeople.sg is a great place to start. It lists organisations like the Malay Heritage Centre, Indian Heritage Centre, and The Eurasian Association, and recommends children’s books like The Case Of A Different Face by Alhan Irwin, to teach diversity.  

When I take Tully to the library now, I look for books with racially diverse characters: something I never really thought about before. One of her favourites is A Is For Awesome! 23 Iconic Women who Changed The World, by Eva Chen. It features role models from Palestian activist Malala Yousafzai to Black makeup artist Pat McGrath. Tully loves looking at the last two pages which show women from all over the world, because “they’re all so pretty”. It makes me happy that she’s learning to appreciate different types of beauty. 

I also want to look for more local children’s literature for Tully, so we can learn more about other races through a Singaporean lens.

For our kids to have more genuine interracial friendships, we also need to model this for them. 

Interracial friendships are a great way to challenge racial prejudice in children, and help dispel negative stereotypes. I’ve always wondered how I could encourage interracial friendships for Tully, without pushing her to make ‘token friends’ with minority races. I don’t want these friendships to feel forced, like I’m trying too hard to make them happen. 

But Neha said not to worry; if my heart was in the right place, the friendships would come. She told me that if we cast our friendship nets wide, she believes our children will follow suit. 

“If you are genuine in your multiculturalism and celebrating diversity, your kids will automatically soak it up,” she said. “Putting on a show never works (children see right through it), so do what's authentic and comfortable to you. ”

“If mixing with other races is challenging for you, then it’s all the more important that you start with yourself first before expecting your kids to make interracial friends,” Neha said. “In playground settings, you can make a conscious effort to say hello to other kids of similar age, regardless of race, and encourage some common play.

I thought that was really good advice: to just be more inclusive in socialising with everyone, instead of exoticising friends of a different race. So I’m trying to expand my social circle, and Tully’s as well. 

At school events and drop-offs, I remind myself to chat with as many mums as possible. It helps that two of Tully’s best friends in school are Malay and Eurasian, and I’ve made friends with their mothers as well. I hope Tully will learn about her friends through seeing them as individuals, not just from descriptions in books or celebrations during cultural events. 

As our children grow older, we can take conversations about racial equality further, bringing up examples of racial injustices and calling them out. 

When I spoke to my Malay friend Reehana about race, she shared a TED article she’d been reading about racial inequalities in the US. “It mentioned how we need to acknowledge racial inequalities, and the historical and present-day reasons why they exist,” she said. “I agree that we need to talk about ways children can help actively undo racism, and not be a bystander when they see it being perpetrated.”

Right now, when teaching Tully about being fair to all races, I haven’t pointed out any ugly examples of racism because we’ve not yet encountered them together. But as Tully matures and starts primary school, I want to have deeper discussions about racial tensions we see in real life, or on the news. I want her to recognise that racial inequality exists in racial slurs, insensitive jokes, and negative stereotypes. Hopefully, she can learn to challenge them, and do her part for a more equal society.

I used to think I needed to know everything about race to talk about it, but that’s impossible. All we can do is admit what we don’t know, even to our kids, and go look for the answers together.

Honestly, there’s still so much I don’t understand about race, and I feel it’s a huge responsibility to teach Tully about it. But understanding what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes isn’t just one step; it’s a journey. I’ve found my minority race friends to be extremely understanding when I admit I don’t know parts of their culture, and they’re happy to explain it to me even if I get some things wrong. 

Racial prejudice takes place all around the world, but from the US to Singapore, we can all do our part to create a fairer world for all. There’s no need to be colour-blind, because seeing our racial differences doesn’t have to divide us. We can still embrace and celebrate different cultures, while remembering what makes us all the same: that we’re all human, and want to build a more inclusive society.

At the end of the day, by learning to become better allies, we can hopefully help our next generation do the same.

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Parts one and two of our ‘Black Lives Matter in Singapore: Is our allyship performative?’ series can be read here and here.

Writer’s Note:

My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about love, marriage and parenting, and I've shared my own experiences with racism while studying in Melbourne. 

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* These findings were from a 2017 study by the University of Toronto and collaborators from the US, UK, France and China, with three-to-nine-month olds.

** These findings were from a 2017 Nanyang Technological University study on racial identity and bias, comparing pre-schoolers from Chinese and Indian races in Singapore. 

***These figures were reported in a Race, Religion and Language survey by the Institute of Policy Studies in the National University of Singapore, and OnePeople.sg. More than 4,000 citizens and permanent residents were polled for the survey.

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