Posted by: Kristin W | February 2, 2011

On the Nightstand – I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World by Marguerite A. Wright

As promised, here’s my first book review.  Please keep in mind that I’m no literary critic, just a mom who likes to read.  This book was one of the first I read after we started the adoption process, so forgive me if I’ve forgotten a few of the finer points.

What it’s about:  This book is a research-based explanation of how children develop race awareness and beliefs about their own race.  It is broken up into three sections – preschool, early school years, and middle childhood/adolescence.  (Full disclosure, I did not read the last section, as I figure I’ve got many years before we get to that point, even with my current kids.)  What follows are my thoughts on the first section, since that’s where we’ll start.

What you need to know:  There were several fascinating points in this book – things I’d never stopped to think about.  For example, during the preschool years, most kids don’t recognize that skin color is permanent.  They believe that they will change or that they could change if they wanted to.  In one activity, the author had children choose a photo of a baby that most looked like them when they were a baby and some select children of different races.  They choose babies for other reasons, such as “she’s cute.”  Understanding that skin color is permanent is a milestone.

Preschoolers also can’t sort pictures of people by race.  Given a set of a pictures and ask to group the people together, three-year-olds are more likely to sort into groups like “brothers and sisters” or “friends.”  Four-year-olds are most likely to sort by boys and girls.  But, even when prompted to sort by race or color, they have a hard time.  This reminded me of when my son was smaller and I would ask him to describe another child (as in “which kid was mean to you?”).  He would describe what the kid was wearing, where he was sitting, what he ate for lunch (seriously, one time he told me, “You know, he’s the one who always has Cheetos in his lunch!”), but he would never use skin color.  I was often surprised because, frankly, I would have led with that in some cases, since that would have greatly narrowed down the options.

As parents, there is a whole chapter of suggestions for parents on how to raise a racially healthy preschooler.  Many of them are valuable, but there are a few that stand out to me.  First, provide the basics.  “Children who are raised in a nurturing environment where they feel loved, supported, and valued have the best chance of developing a healthy self-image.”  Whew…

I also liked the recommendation that we follow our children’s lead in talking about race.  Unless preschool children bring up the subject of race, you need to be careful bringing it up, since this is not their natural way of thinking about things.  I wonder about this, though, in families like ours where there are multiple races under one roof.

There is also discussion about exposing children to a variety of books and dolls, and not limiting them to only those of their own race.  You want to have plenty available, but “it is important, even in our race-obsessed society, not to forget that the main purpose of toys is to give children the opportunity to have fun.”  Of course, there is also a discussion about color-neutral toys like Barney.  Having raised two kids in a Barney-free home, I’m fine without that.  But maybe you want to hear mind-numbing, sickening sweet lyrics all day long, and that will somehow help your child in the long run.

Finally, there is a reminder of the importance of carefully selecting the child’s preschool.  This is a tough one, because you’re not really there and don’t know what racial attitudes the teachers hold that might rub off.  There are pros and cons of both a black preschool or a multicultural preschool.  As someone who has looked at practically every preschool in town, I will say that this is something I struggle with, as sometimes the choice is between diversity and quality.  That’s a sad state…but a soapbox for another day.

Would I recommend it: Absolutely.  I found that as I was reading it, I was thinking about when I first noticed racial differences or the racial attitudes I heard in others.  I hadn’t ever really considered how children begin to see themselves as racial beings.  It was fascinating to read some of the examples and activities that were used in the research.  As a white parent of African children, I think this will give me a better understanding of where my kids are in the development of their racial identity.  And, of course, it was helpful to read with my older kids in mind to understand the stages they have and will go through.

I know a lot of you have read this one, so chime in with your thoughts.



  1. Like you this was one of the first books I read WAAAAAAY back when we began this process. Thanks for the recap. I too found this book very interesting for all the reasons you stated. It’s fascinating and terrifying how impressionable and sponge-like little ones are…that it’s up to us to raise them and help shape their attitudes, self-esteem, outlook and understanding. Since you are already a parent maybe this didn’t freak you out as much b/c you have already done such a stellar job =)

    Thanks for this reminder. I am going to get back to drinking wine and having a dossier freak out.

  2. Great review! I finished this one about a month ago and haven’t had a time to pull my thoughts together. I found it interesting and fascinating, and it made me think about things in a new way. For example, I’m not sure anyone in my life ever explained to me the difference between skin color and race. Ever!

  3. I did not read it, and at this point my time is pretty crunched. Smart to read it now. I did appreciate your review. Gave me lots of interesting thoughts.

    I did look at two very diverse daycares, and unfortunately they are nowhere near the quality of the predominantly local daycares full of Caucasian kids. I am dead serious. I so wanted them to go to one that had many African-American children. Anyway, hopefully it will go well. ugh…

  4. Downloading now!!!

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