Brown Skin


September 6, 2007 by multiracialsky

I’ve been trying to come up with a response to this recent question/comment Janine left at my Reading About Race post:

You mention your kids developing raced awareness as toddlers. My daughter (now almost 3) has begun to do so, and despite our efforts from the start to provider her with positive presentations of non-white folks, she just this morning told me, “white babies are better.” If you could share any insights that served you in helping your kids counter this kind of thinking, I’d sure love to hear them.

Earlier this week Dawn had this post about her daughter (who is three and transracially adopted) saying she wished she (a) didn’t have brown skin, and had ‘pink’ skin like her parents, and (b) had grown in her (adopted) mother’s belly.

There was also the adoptive mother I met a few weeks ago who told me one of her elementary school children has said (more than once) that they wished she hadn’t adopted them from Korea, that they wished they weren’t Korean.

Society sends a really strong message. The best kind of person to be is (1) White, (2) male, and (3) heterosexual (and Christian, and middle or upper class). I could go on and on–but I think those first three are the loudest messages.

We cannot shelter our children from these damaging messages. (Having my kids at home fulltime, with no T.V., provides a modicum of protection, but it’s only a matter of time.) Thus, I am heavy on the other side of the scale–(1) people of color, (2) women, (3) homosexuality/bisexuality. We have more dolls of color than White dolls. We have more photos and pictures of people of color (non-family) up in our house than pictures of White people.

I will not buy a children’s book or game (with pictures of people) if it does not include people of color and both genders; we already have plenty of all-White ‘old classics’ in our collection. We looked long and hard to find a monster truck book for our son that included people of color, and ice hockey books (for all our kids) that included girls and children of color.

When my kids play ‘wedding’ (they are still upset that I wore a short dress and my husband didn’t wear a tie at our wedding) I remind them that there could be two brides, or two grooms, or a bride and a groom, or you don’t have to get married at all if you don’t want to. (The ‘two brides’ plan works out well because it’s usually the two older girls who want to play anyway.)

This pro-active equality is part of our family conversations. Every day. My husband and I decided not to purchase bikes for Jaja and Rico from a company that showed only White children in its catalog. And we talked to the kids about this decision; we looked at the catalog with them. We do not order clothes for ourselves or our children from catalogs that include only White models, or even simply a ‘token’ model of color (we cancel them so they are not on view in our house, either). Jaja decided she would like to write a letter to Playmobile, because you cannot buy people of color (not counting the incredibly stereotypical ‘Native American’ sets) in the United States. (On ebay I found a discontinued Black family set that used to be available in the U.K.)

After walking up to the house from my in-laws’ pool, brides with their beach towels held around their faces and trailing behind them like trains, my kids sat on the deck in their bathing suits while I started making lunch. “I wish I had brown skin,” I overheard Gretel say, stroking Jaja’s arm. Rico and Jaja giggled.

“You can’t have brown skin,” they told her, “You can only have tan skin.” And then they went through who in our family has what color skin, much like they recite (almost every day) who are the girls in our family and who are the boys.

Near the end of their discussion, I stuck my head out the door. “Nobody can change their skin color. It’s something you’re born with. You get it from . . .”

“Your birthparents,” Jaja interrupted. (She’s obviously heard this one before.) *

“And your ancestors, like your grandparents or your great-grandparents,” I added, because sometimes multiracial people do not have skin color like their parents.

This is the only way I know how to counteract society’s false messages about race (and gender and sexuality)–through massive front loading. So far, none of my children has expressed a real desire to have a different skin-color, to be a different race or gender, to have been adopted or not to have been adopted. They also haven’t communicated or acted out any beliefs that one race or gender is ‘better’ than another.

One of my deepest held beliefs is in the inherent equality of all people. There are things about my children that they were born with, that they cannot change; their skin color is one of the most obvious. Everyday we look at (in real life, and in books and photographs) and talk about people of all different skin colors and a variety of ancestries. Skin color and race are topics on our table alongside gender, sexuality, class, religion, and adoption. My kids don’t really talk about what or who is ‘better’ than something or someone else.

The only real preference they have these days is in regard to compliments. Jaja wants to be told her lego structure or art project is ‘pretty’. Rico wants to be told his is ‘cool’.

The world is creeping in.


* NOTE: In our family, we say that all people/children have birthmothers and all children have mamas. For some children their birthmother and their mama are two different women, and for some children their birthmother and their mama are the same woman. We’ve also talked about birthfathers/daddies, as well as children who have 2 daddies, 2 mamas, single parents, step-parents, foster parents, or parenting grandparents.


6 thoughts on “Brown Skin

  1. Janine says:

    thank you for this thoughtful response to my query. we have also made conscious and ongoing efforts to frontload positive concepts about our mixed, queer family and her mixed, queerspawn self for our daughter. we’ll continue to do so, and i think it must help to have overt, positive perspectives to balance the negativity coming from the overculture.

    even given our efforts in this vein, i expected that overcultural negativity would make its presence felt. honestly, i was just very much hoping my daughter would be older than almost-3 when it did. i’m glad your family has been able to create a positive space around these issues, and i know we’ll continue to work to do so as well.

  2. Leila says:

    Regarding the child believing that white babies are better. My daughter said pretty much the same thing today. She was comparing babies-my little sister’s baby,who is pretty dark, and my little sister’s friends’ baby who is high-yellow. I was curious, so I asked her why. She said because of the color, but when I became suspicious, she changed her answer. This made me so sad because I have always tried to instill in her the love of her brown skin, but yet she doesn’t seem to love it. She always thinks that lighter with long hair is better. This is scary because she’s only 5. I don’t know what to do. Maybe you, or someone else can offer some advice.

  3. Venkatesh Mandalapa says:

    Insightful read. I have always thought that kids growing up are enormously influenced by their parenting. I appreciate your effort in the parenting department and hope that your kids grow up to be like you. Thank you!

  4. Debra says:

    In response to young children commenting about color. I had the same discussion with my daughter when she was 3. She is now 15. Young kids/toddlers want to have things or be like others they know. In my family we are white and my daughter was born in Guatemala, so her skin is the color of cinnamon. My then 3-year-old told me she hated her hair (raven black) because she wanted blonde hair like me. I told her that there are many different hair colors. My hair is blonde, her brother’s hair is red, her sister’s hair is brown and her Daddy’s hair is black. “Yay!, she said. “I have black hair like Daddy.” And she happily skipped away. I believe that comments about wanting to be like someone have more to do with wanting to belong than with racism. She also started to notice ethnicities on TV commenting one day about an Asian child who “looks just like me mommy!” And she did. When the kids are young they start to notice differences and unless they’ve heard racist talk it is not about racism. Of course, starting the racism conversation early is a big help in warding off sterotypical thoughts and comments. Just my two cents!

  5. margaret says:

    I’m trying to be mindful of the messages I send my kids as well and I try to make as many choices as possible for them that show brown skin is good and beautiful. We were shopping for bedding recently for DD and Daddy told her she had a choice between Dora the Explorer and barbie or cinderella…something with a blonde white woman. She wanted Dora right away and I attribute that to us having lots of other “dora” stuff and watching the show and letting her see how cool dora is. If the kids were home with me all day I’d have the chance to limit their exposure to all things white moreso, but they are at a daycare that has children who are of every race and many different ethnicities. I trust that our daycare providers, who themselves are different shades, are providing positive images for the kids.

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