Objection! – Talking with children about cultural stereotypes


“Oh no!!! Is my son really fighting the natives? Objection!” That was my thought recently when I saw my white first-grader playing a Lego video game whose content clearly perpetuated the age-old stereotype of the monolithic mass of vicious, “savage” brown-skinned “primitives” fighting the white heroic characters on a mission to find the proverbial pot of gold.

“This cannibal is a native of Pelegostos Island where his cannibal tribe believes Captain Jack is their god, trapped inside of a minifigure! He loyally serves Chief Jack – until he tries to serve him for dinner!” reads the description of the Lego character whose portrayal appalled me. Surely enough, the very ethnic group portrayed as cannibals in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the Garinagu of Belize joined with the Kalinago (Caribs) of St Vincent, Dominica and Trinidad to send a protest letter to the executives of the Disney Corporation challenging their negative portrayal in the film, based on an ahistorical 17th century stereotype that is still very prevalent and harmful.

How to challenge destructive stereotypes present in the world around us and effectively address issues of race and racism were the topics discussed in the excellent and informative workshop I attended earlier this month in Seattle. “Talking with Children and Youth about Race,” taught by Dr. Caprice Hollins and co-facilitator Ilsa Govan of Cultures Connecting, offered the following tips I would argue work well in conversations with adults as well:
  • We don’t have to have all the answers.
  • Ask questions to see what the child is thinking and to get the child to think deeper (do not assume you know until you hear more).
  • We don’t have to be profound or “seize the moment,” as if it is the only one we have.
  • We don’t have to respond immediately. It’s okay to think, research, ask a trusted adult for input first before coming back to the conversation.
  • We can learn & explore with the kids.

Most importantly, SLOW THE CONVERSATION DOWN.

I came away from the workshop realizing that many of us, whether of color or white, are the first generation to have deep conversations about race with the younger generation, finding our way. It’s good to connect with others on a parallel journey.

Disney did not listen to the advocates from the Caribbean, but my six-year-old and I have already had a few of good conversations about problematic depictions of dark-skinned native people in the media and games. More discussions will follow.

Please share with us your stories about how you teach your kids, extended family and friends’ kids, about cultural stereotypes, via the comments section below.

Or, please share with us also your own story of intercultural effectiveness, via the form on this page.

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