“What color are you?” Huh? “What. Color. Are. You.?” Me? I’m shopping at Pier 1 Imports in the home fragrance aisle and see a young, blonde girl about six years old looking up at me. “What color are you? Are you brown?” I’m wondering how to answer this question. Should I pretend I didn’t hear her? Do I answer? She’s so cute and it’s an innocent question. I go for it. “Well, yes. I am brown. What color are you?” Before she can answer, her mother clamps a hand over her mouth, mutters some unintelligible apology and hauls her off to another part of the store. I sometimes recall this episode as I think about D2 and the kind of global citizen I want him to be. At my company, we are rapidly expanding overseas, and have opened offices in Russia, Ethiopia, India and soon South Africa and China. We talk about the kind of employee we need to take us into the future; one who is multi-lingual, mobile, globally-minded with strong learning agility and a high tolerance for ambiguity.
Despite the resurgence of anti-immigration legislation and the vitriol and polarization we see in today’s American political scene, it’s undeniable that American society is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual. At the same time, globalization is bringing the world to our doorstep in ways we never imagined. The upheaval in the Middle East, led by a huge wave of young people, is a powerful reminder of the changing demographics of our world. The question I ask myself every day is how can I best prepare D2 to live in this world? I want him to be comfortable around all kinds of people, from many different types of backgrounds. I want him to be able to speak and connect with them – and not just in English. It’s how I grew up in my suburban San Diego neighborhood in California. Today I live in a mid-sized town in North Carolina and I struggle to make sure my son is exposed to the kinds of diverse people and ideas that I hope will shape his world view. I feel an urgency to be vigilant about this because his peers are not just the kids down the street, but children in China, India and other parts of the world.
So I’m challenging myself and other parents who are trying to cultivate their children into citizens of the world. Let’s not shelter our children. Living in a small-town or a homogeneous community is no longer an excuse for lack of exposure to people, customs and ideas not like our own. If we want our children to thrive in the emerging global workforce, we have to step out of our comfort zone to give them the kinds of experiences that will help them succeed where ever they may land. This may mean looking at our own lives and challenging our own world view and long-held beliefs. How? Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Examine who’s around you. Do you socialize with friends of different races, ethnic and religious backgrounds? We can model for our children a more inclusive and global perspective just by who we choose to be around socially.
- Travel. What better way to teach your child about the richness of the world than to see the world. I didn’t start traveling overseas extensively until I was 19 years old. I want D2 to start much earlier. I’m planning to take him to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil for his sixth birthday.
- Eat. Pray. Play. Whether you travel or not, one of the most powerful ways to experience another culture is through food, religion and art. Some of my fondest memories as a child in San Diego were hanging out with my Egyptian neighbors and eating many meals with my friend Noor and her family. I’m also grateful that my mother worked hard to expose us to art museums and festivals from a very young age. I plan to do the same for D2.
I wish that mother at Pier 1 had taken the time with her daughter to introduce herself and ask me where I was from. I wish she had helped her daughter answer the question, “What color are you?” and perhaps even given her more context for how to talk to someone who looks different from mommy and daddy. That mother missed a powerful teaching opportunity. The world’s not black or white any more (never really has been) but black, white, yellow, red and all shades and hues in between. I embrace it. I’m ready and I’m making sure my son is ready. Are you?