‘I Want My Son to Come Home Alive.’ Two Pediatricians Share Their Personal Experiences with Race in America.
By Bianka Soria-Olmos, D.O., FAAP
As the tragic events of the past few days unfold across the nation, I can’t help but think when I first learned about race as a child.
My light skin and eyes may not give away my Mexican heritage. They may not show how proud I am of my parents, who migrated from Mexico as school-aged children with their families. But my physical appearance didn’t shield me from learning that I was different from other kids.
My parents learned English as a second language. With it came a distinct accent, which I discovered was, at times, the cause of background snickering/and laughs, as well as day-to-day reminders to me about what made us different. These occurrences continued well into my adult life. My father spoke with pride about his daughter going to college, graduating with honors, and successfully completing medical school.
Sadly, his remarks were often met with disbelief. The responses he endured included, “There is no way you have a daughter that is a doctor. You are a construction worker. No way!” Those memories serve as reminders that racial biases and stereotypes continue to exist for me, and sadly for many of you.
These stereotypes and biases inevitably led to unacceptable actions.
While I watch the events of the past week unfold and talk with African American friends, colleagues, and neighbors, the difficulties that come with talking about racial bias come to light.
These are difficult and uncomfortable conversations that need to happen. The first step is acknowledging that racial bias and other biases exist. Please don’t shy away from talking to your children about them.
I find myself struggling with turning the TV off when coverage about the protests that have ensued following the racially charged recent events. I knew my curious 6 year old would ask, “Why?”
Unlike the other ‘why’ questions that are part of the life of a parent of a 4 and 6 year old, I knew this one deserved a better answer than “just because.”
I’ve gained perspective on how to prepare for questions from my children by listening to a fellow mom and Cook Children’s pediatrician, Amani Terrell, M.D. Dr. Terrell has been a mentor to me in more ways than one as I learn how she’s personally addressed the topic of race for her own teenage, African American son.
By Amani Terrell, M.D., FAAP
This is my son, Elijah. Here he is doing something he loves: fishing. He also loves video games, Legos, Nerf guns and pizza. He’s 13 years old. We’re having those difficult conversations like alcohol, drugs and sex, etc. You know all the same conversations all parents talk to their teens about. The only difference is that I also have to talk to him about how to avoid getting senselessly murdered.
Shouldn’t my son be able to ride his bike to the local fishing hole and fish by himself? Of course. Have I let him do that? No. Call me overprotective, but I want my son to come home alive. And I would expect that in 2020, I wouldn't have to worry about this.
Three decades ago, as an elementary school child, I was one of two black children in my grade. There were only four black kids in the school, three of whom were my brother, sister and I. My white classmates were mostly nice, but occasionally would make insensitive remarks like “Why don’t you wash your skin? It’s brown because it’s dirty.” Or “If you’re black, why don’t you live in Africa?”
Sometimes they would assume I was related or dating the only other black child in my grade. Other times, they would stick my hair up when I wasn’t paying attention because it would stay up by itself without hairspray.
I got used to my name being mispronounced. I’ve been called Armani, Amanti, Amy, Amanda, Imani and so many other wrong names that I finally stopped correcting people. It left me hating my dark skin, kinky hair and unusual name. I wanted desperately to be a white girl with long flowing hair, and I begged my parents to change my name to Tracy.
It was my hope that I wouldn’t have to raise my own children in a world where they would be judged by the color of their skin, yet here we are.
Given the recent racially charged murders (most recently Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed while running through his neighborhood, and George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer who crushed his neck during an arrest. Both men were unarmed.) and the ensuing protests and riots, many parents and children are feeling a wide variety of feelings, including hurt, anger and fear.
It’s no secret. Black males are at a significantly higher risk of being killed by law enforcement (2.5 times more likely, in fact). The racial disparities don’t end there. Black Americans are more likely to experience inadequate access to health care, appropriate education, reliable food sources and stable housing. I used to think that having a high level of education would exclude me from racial profiling, but it hasn’t. Even as a practicing pediatrician, I have been followed in stores, stopped for traffic stops for no reason and have had patients request a white doctor.
I raise my kids to know that at some point in their lives, they may be perceived as threats, and this is based entirely on their skin color. I, like many other mothers of black children, keep my children close to home. Above all, I want them to be able to experience the world around them with the freedoms that others may take for granted, but I fear for their well-being, so I keep them close.
As parents, we all want what’s best for our children. I imagine a world where one day, we don’t have to be concerned about racism. To do that, we need to have open discussions with our children about racial bias.
- Children learn about racial differences from an early age and learn how to deal with and react to these differences from their parents.
- As early as 6 months, a baby’s brain can notice race-based differences.
- By age 2 to 4, children can internalize racial bias
- By age 12, many children become set in their beliefs.
- However, children exposed to society will develop racial bias if parents do nothing.
The AAP goes on to say, "talking about race is not racist. It's OK - and it's important. Here are some tips on talking to your child about racial differences and racism, while remembering it's important to keep your child's developmental readiness in mind:
For preschoolers: At this age, your child may begin to notice and point out differences in the people around you (i.e., at the grocery store, at the park, etc.). If your child asks about someone's skin tone, you might say, "Isn't it wonderful that we are all so different!" You can even hold your arm against theirs to show the differences in skin tones in your family.
For gradeschoolers: This is the age that is important to have open talks with your child about race, diversity, and racism. Discussing these topics will help your child see you as a trusted source of information on the topic, and he or she can come to you with any questions. Point out stereotypes and racial bias in media and books such as villains or "bad guys" in movies.
If your child makes comments or asks you questions about race based on school incidents or something they read or watched: Further the discussion with questions such as, "How do you feel about that?" and "Why do you think that?" This is also helpful if your child heard something insensitive or if your child experienced racial bias themselves. Before responding to his or her statement or question, figure out where it came from and what it means from his or her perspective. See Talking to Children About Tragedies & Other News Events for more information.
From one mother’s heart to another, I implore you to teach your kids that we all come in different colors, and we need to appreciate the beauty in that diversity.
Being there for your children during these difficult times and answering their most difficult questions helps fulfill my duty as a mother, but also as a pediatrician and advocate for ALL children.
You can find relief in the realization that the answer will look a little different for every family. All we can hope is that these conversations will lead to efforts that will help each child thrive in our world full of bias.
I hope this will lead to children learning from each other’s differences and growing up into individuals that will be kind and show compassion for each other regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, and disability/ability.
Maybe, they’ll even grow up to be a doctor proud of their own differences.
To read Cook Children's official statement regarding racial bias, click here.
Other resources on this topic:
- Talking To Children About Racial Bias (AAP article referenced in this article)
- The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health (AAP)
- Beyond The Golden Rule: A Parent's Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice
- Teaching Children Cultural and Racial Pride
- How to Talk to Your Child About the News
Get to know the authors
Bianka Soria-Olmos, D.O., FAAP
Bianka Soria-Olmos, D.O. FAAP, was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, so Cook Children's has always had a special place in her heart.
She came to know Cook Children's when she was just a kid herself. She went to the medical center a number of times with her active younger brother, who needed care following several mishaps with broken bones. The visits inspired her to decide, "I want to be a Cook Children’s doctor one day."
In pursuit of her dream, Dr. Soria-Olmos attended Texas Christian University (TCU) for a degree in biology and to fulfill the pre-medical school requirements. After graduating from TCU, she chose to stay local and attended medical school at University of North Texas Health Science Center/Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Worth. She completed part of her pediatric clerkship at Cook Children's, learning about pediatric medicine by attending rounds with pediatric hospitalists. It was then she knew she wanted to be a pediatrician.
She began her career with Cook Children's in 2014 as a pediatric hospitalist caring for sick children admitted to the hospital. Today, she works at Cook Children's primary care office in Haslet. Her special interests include child safety, child development and asthma.
Amani Terrell, M.D., FAAP
Amani Terrell, M.D., FAAP, was born and raised in Fort Worth, TX. As the daughter of two doctors, she was fortunate to have role models who encouraged her to push past racial and social stereotypes in order to achieve academic and professional success.
She knew she wanted to go into the medical field as a teenager. She was a student athlete in high school and held the 5A state record in the 3200 meter run for several years. In college, her desire to become a doctor helped her make the difficult decision to decline several athletic scholarship offers in order to focus on her academic studies.
Dr. Terrell graduated with honor from the University of Texas at Austin. She then attended medical school at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. There, she developed a passion for caring for children after going on a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, where she helped provide medical care to children and families, some of whom had never seen a doctor. Dr. Terrell then completed her pediatric residency at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and returned promptly thereafter to Fort Worth to work as a hospitalist at Cook Children's Medical Center. After 6 years of hospital medicine, Dr. Terrell transitioned to primary care.
Dr. Terrell loves what she does and feels blessed to be able care for patients and their families, as well as learn from them as they grow and develop.
On a personal note, Dr. Terrell still enjoys running. On any given day, you might see her running around her neighborhood with her dog and her 2 kids.