Child Wants a Different Skin Color

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May 2003

I am requesting advice for my sister. My 6 year old niece (who has a white mom and black dad) has recently been saying, brown is not her favorite color. When my sister addressed this and said, everyone is the same underneath and daddy's brown. She gets exasperated and says she knows everyone is the same underneath and she loves her daddy, but she just doesn't like his skin color. Until she was four, my niece lived in Africa where most of her friends were black and the minority were white. Two years ago, the family moved to Connecticut and now almost all of my niece's classmates/friends are white. Is this just a normal stage for a 6 year old inter-racial child figuring out the whole race thing (or for a child whose friends are now a different race than what she's been used to)? Or is she possibly reacting to racism she's been hearing from classmates, etc. And if so, any suggestions for dealing with this? Another part of the issue is that my niece (and her younger brother) tend to pass as white (some/most of the time), which is another reason her comments have caused her parents to worry. They don't want to over-react but at the same time they want her to be proud of both of her races, etc. Thanks for your help. Cynthia

My sister went through this when she was about five years old. She is now nine. My 12 year old brother also had some indentity issues when he was about 8. They are both half black and half white. I think this is totally normal.

When Kelsey was five she wanted nothing to do with her black dolls and hated her ''black hair''. She only wanted to play with white dolls and would ask if I could take her to get her hair done like mine. (I am white). When people would comment on Austin's lovely skin color, he would announce that he was ''BROWN!'' and refused to accept that any part of him was black.

After about 7-months Kelsey totally forgot that she had even refused to play with her black Barbies and Austin came around after I told him that lots of people are a bit of this and a bit of that. I gave him examples of famous people who were half black and half white and he was fine.

I think this is just how a child learns about identity and about themselves. I wouldn't be too worried, just listen and don't try and convince the child to accept their shunned identity.

My family is a virtual rainbow of colors and ethnicities. My sister Kelsey, all nine years old now, pointed out just last week that my child (I am expecting my first with my husband who is Chinese) will make our larger family look like a Model UN Committee. And she is totally thrilled.

Good luck! Deniene

Usually somewhere between 4-6 years old, kids realize that people have different skin colors. Soon after, they realize that our society places differential value on various skin colors (regardless of WHAT is taught at home). In families where there is a range of skin colors (multi-racial families or ''brown/black'' families whose members have varying skin hues) I think it is very common for ''strange'' comments to be made at this age. I remember as a child of 5 saying to my parents that the ''reason'' that they liked my new sister better than me was because I was white and that they (my parents) didn't like white people! (my skin is much lighter than my parents and my sister - I inherited very light African-American features, including blonde highlights from 2 of my grandparents). This totally shocked my parents who had raised me in a mostly white environment and who had close friends (to this day) of European ancestry. My guess is that I picked up on some of the unconscious tension that my parents felt living surrounded by white people (I ended up having to be taken out of the local public school in Massachusetts because of rather unwelcoming attitudes).

On the other hand, my brother who was 7 years younger than me and was also ''light'' was scared driving through Washington DC right after the riots in the late 60's(he was 5). When my now 7 year old sister laughed at him, he said ''easy for you, you look like ''them''!! So, race, ethnicity, and color is very complicated and your child picks up on alot of ''information'' and attitudes that you might be unaware of (think of tv - so many of tv images of brown people are negative - either clowns or criminals - or just not present -think of the popular Pokemon, Yu Gi Oh series).

So, I suggest making sure that your child has alot of postive ''brown'' images, art on the walls, on tee shirts, from teachers, family friends, videos, books, etc. Raising healthy ''brown'' children in the U.S. dominant ''white'' culture takes sensitivity, thought, and conscious effort - whether the children are from multi-racial families or from all ''brown'' families. anonymous this time

hi, i have a close friend who is also biracial (her mom is white, dad black). at a young age she once came home and told her mom that her ''real'' mom was black and even gave her a name. this of course, brought her mother to tears!

now (we are in our late twenties) she feels awful that this ever happened! but recalls that some other young black girls were teasing her about having a white mom and told her that wasn't her real mom.

anyhow, many of my biracial friends confront personal/societal conflict about their family. there are a lot of tough emotional issues that the kid will deal with into adulthood. i think one of the best things you can do for biracial kids is to have a big diversity of friends for her and that the parents interact with.

she may indeed be reacting to teasing from kids. people still react when they find out my friend's mom is white because people do not often see biracial families on t.v. etc. so she will have to continue to deal with these issues as she grows up. or people just don't assume the two are related at shops, restaurants etc...

perhaps ensuring that she has a lot of positive interaction with black family and friends will help alleviate any of the concerns or comments from her friends and reassuring her constantly. i am sure she is torn because she loves her dad but doesn't want to seem so out of place with her friends. if you have a relationship with some of the other kids parents, i'd try talking with them about it too - not accusing their kids of the teasing, but just bringing up the discussion.

good luck anon

I am a biracial girl who spent most of my childhood trying desperately to ''pass''. Like your niece, when I was six we moved to an entirely white area and suddenly I became quite aware that I was different. All it took was a few taunts about my skin color, and hearing a few comments about black people in general and I was completely ashamed of my background.

At first when people would ask about my ethnic background I was simply evasive. Id mention my greek grandmother and hope they'd leave me alone. In fourth grade my dad came to see me at a school play. After he left the boy who I had a crush on came up to me and said ''doan beat me massah''. I hit the boy so hard he cried, and was so absolutely devestated that I avoided going out in public with my dad until I was 14.

The point of all that background is that yes, your niece's reaction is ''normal'' for an interracial child, and yes, she's probably probably experiencing racism, and yes, your sister should be concerned.

I wish my parents would have spent more time talking about racism, and especially how bad it hurt me instead of trying to convince me that we were all the same on the inside when it was completely obvious to my 6 year old self that white people got treated better than black people. I wish my parents had acknowledged my shame and talked to me about how bad it hurt.

I also wish I had more positive MIXED role models in my life (the mixed part is really important, because by the time I started to not like my dad's skin color I was in complete denial that I was black). What I wouldn't have done to have Halle Berry to aspire to, or a mixed friend in elementary school.

What changed was finally getting a couple of positive role models. When I got to highschool I met two beautiful and confident mixed girls who I could share my experiences with and who made me realize that my heritage was something to be proud of.

Today Im culturally a total white girl, and to look at me you'd never guess my heritage. I'm pretty confident that I've recovered from all the childhood pain. I barely ever think about race (I suppose that has a lot to do with living here) and have absolutely no problem hanging out with my dad (I even let him wak me down the aisle ). Could be worse I suppose, but I wish I hadn't completely extinguished my black side. Susannah

Your post struck a deep cord in me, jolting me back to our reality around this time last year. In response to your query regarding the source of you niece's reactions, I must say, all of the above. Her reactions are a reflection of the negative images our society imposes on people of African descent, indeed all peoples of color. Our daughter is now an almost 6 year old. We are an Afro Caribbean/African American family. She is a dark brown girl, with lots and lots of big beautiful hair. She has been lavished with compliments since birth by our very large extended families. As such she has gone out into the world with very positive views of herself.

We relocated to the Bay Area 2 years ago, and enrolled her in a private school. Therein our troubles began. She was one of two Black girls in her class, the other being biracial and very fair skinned. They became instant friends and simultaneously the target of various racial comments. E.g., ''we will play princess today but you two can't play because princesses are not brown''; or, being called slaves twice by other children in the class. The two girls were deeply hurt and ceased playing with the offenders for a few weeks. But the deeper problem was that even after they seemed to recover from the treatment, negative comments about being Black girls began to emerge from them. My daughter (who incidentally has a Caucasian grandfather) began saying regularly that she hated being brown and that she would much prefer to be a blonde, blue eyed princess; indeed that she would be happier if she looked more like her white grandfather than her black grandmother. The other child began telling our daughter that she thought that Black people were dirty and that is why they had been slaves. Needless to say, this was deeply disturbing to us and we called a meeting with the teachers and the parents of the offending children. Naturally, everyone was horrified that this could happen at such a ''progressive'' place. This naturally is all relative.

We sometimes send our children very negative messages about people of other races and cultures without intending to teach them our prejudices. Children however, are very perceptive and will pick up on our true intentions. So this notion that children say things accidentally, or that their comments are ''weird'' is a destructive one, riddled with denial of our roles in helping to create these images. These comments are not merely ''weird.'' They are emerging from very real places and it would be wise to try understanding from where the signals are being sent. They certainly are coming from the outside; from television and other media, from friends, neighbors and other sources that reach our children. However, they might also be coming from family and other people close to our children. Some of these messages are very subtle and we are unaware of them even when we are the offenders. My favorite term to describe this phenomenon is ''naive racism.'' It refers to the subtle ways we have of negatively assessing people of other cultures unconsciuosly. When we are not aware of it, it is impossible to address. Thus, it is very important to recognize what influences come from the outside, but more importantly to understand the influences in the home and from other family members. We teach our children to descriminate against other groups as well as sometimes self loathing in the very way we behave toward others and ourselves. Patricia Williams (law professor at Columbia University) coins the phrase, ''teaching hate within the context of love.'' This teaching of hate I believe also encompasses self hate.

Therefore, while understanding and acknowledging the racist behaviors that others impose on our children of color, it is very important to recognize our roles as well in affirming racist beliefs. Please understand that this in no way indicts you or your relatives, but merely suggests additional sources for resolving the problem. To counteract any negative images, I suggest like some of the other readers, surrounding your niece with positive images of Black people, of other people of color, and of people of all races would be a first step. It is also crucial to show her how important self love is by loving yourselves as you are, for who you truly are. It is important to look to the outside to resolve our issues of race/culture discrimination, but also important is to look within and be sure that we are giving our children positive examples and sending empowering messages. It is a given that our children will encounter a less than hospitable world out there as regards their race, thus it is important to cushion the blow with our love of self. Best wishes. anon

I've missed reading the last few advice digests, and while others have doubtless replied with more wisdom and support, I'd like to add that I found ''white'' and ''black'' to be terrible terms for literal-minded small children. My daughters were boggled by this dichotomy, and we ended up having many discussions about skin tones, particularly about the range of tans and browns all around us. We held white and black paper up against ourselves, compared our own tones (forearms against bellies to see the effect of the sun), discussed how a ''black'' person may be lighter-toned than a ''white'' person, and talked a bit about heredity and hair colors as well. I told my own childhood stories about admiring the browner Irish-American family down the street (yep, Irish) because they tanned while I burnt, and how I envied my African-American friend's hair because her ponytails never came undone like mine.

When they started kindergarten, they also heard the ''dirty skin'' concept and dismissed it as absurd. I feel that these early discussions opened up the concepts of race, skin color, and family and were a good preparation for school - where they make friends with no attention to ethnicity. (But to my daughters most boys are still icky.) Rachel