I read in a book a little while ago that there have been some interesting studies done on how children perceive race. In particular the book was examining how different parenting strategies work and how children view race based on the style their parents choose. The most common idea the investigators encountered was that parents should not discuss race and that they should try to lead by example, treating everyone the same. That theory goes that parents should of course express a desire for equality and answer questions honestly but that the best way to prevent racism is to not make race an issue. It turns out that that technique does not work all that well because children raised with no negative stereotypes about race still find it to be a very important factor and when tested seemed to rate it as a more important factor in dividing people into groups than gender or age. Kids notice race and come to their own conclusions and since children often come to amazingly bizarre conclusions when given no guidance it is important to talk about these things directly.
Keeping that in mind I had a few talks with Elli over the last few weeks about race and ancestry and her perception of it is really intriguing. She clearly understood when I brought it up that the topic is extremely sensitive and important even though I made every effort to phrase the questions in a natural, casual way. Somewhere she has picked up that race is something really powerful but she doesn't very well understand why that is or how it works; even the simple idea that people look mostly like their parents was not something she entirely grasped. I tried to teach her that people that look different can trace their ancestry to different parts of the world but her concept of the world as a whole is pretty far from reality so I don't know that an understanding of where ethnic groups come from geographically is possible.
The trick to these things is that if I get too deep into a topic and too far along a chain of "why?" I think she ends up losing any sort of real benefit from the conversation. I need to explain that it isn't ok to discriminate against someone based on their race but she doesn't even seem to understand the idea of doing so, or her idea of it simply isn't being triggered by the words I am using. To talk about discrimination I need to make her understand about the sorts of things people could do, why they might do them and how this is harmful and by the end of the talk she is quite out of her depth. I could just give her some basic rules to live by but I don't think those are especially helpful if she doesn't grasp their implementation or the reasons behind them. Simply asking her to do things she doesn't understand fully is indoctrination rather than teaching so I suppose I will have to stick with basic education for now.
For the moment I will work on simple concepts like 'people look like their parents' and 'different looking people have families that come from different places' and 'you need to treat everyone nicely, regardless of how they look' and hope for the best. This is probably going to be a long process as she grows older and her horizons widen for me to slowly introduce more complicated (accurate) information about the world that she needs to know.