Monday, August 2, 2010

Brown Like Me...

Disclaimer: This post does not contain any mind-shattering revelations about race or ethnicity. In fact, in the end, this post is pretty inconclusive. But this is what is happening in our lives, and I would love to have some respectful input from others who are parenting children of a different skin color.

In our family, we have never focused much on the fact that Anna has brown skin. We readily acknowledge it, but we have never set out to point it out. We talk about colors and say that Anna's skin is brown and Abigail's skin is peach. But we also talk about Anna's brown eyes and Abigail's blue eyes, and the fact that both girls have pink lips and white teeth. It never really seemed to matter too much to Anna, and I really didn't want to push the idea of race on her before she was ready (although Abigail and I have talked about race quite a bit.)

Recently, though, Anna has been very excited when she sees other people who share her same skin tone. She is surprisingly accurate, too, pointing out people that are nearly the same skin tone as she is. "Look, Momma, she is brown like me!" Anna will exclaim, pointing at another little girl in line at W*lMart. She does not group herself with other Black children who are lighter in skin tone than she is- only those whose skin tone is within a shade or two of hers.

We then talk about all the nice things about person that she sees. Sometimes the person is a child, and we talk about her awesome braids or cool beads or fun clothes. Sometimes it is an adult, and we notice other things, like their purse or hat or the fact that they have such a nice smile. Sometimes we do point out things that aren't nice (one time we watched a little girl Anna's age throw a fit and kick her mother. That went into the NOT NICE category.) Her awareness has opened a door for us to begin to talk about race in the most elementary ways with her.

I am very sensitive to the way Anna is developing her ideas of race and her self-identity as a girl with brown skin whose family has peach skin. I want to help her create a healthy view of herself- one that is not limited or defined by the color of her skin, but also acknowledges and embraces her beauty as a Black child. I want her to be able to have a positive view that the color of her skin makes her unique in our family, but does not make her alone, isolated, or different. I also want her to be able to freely self-identify as an Ethiopian just as much as she does as an American or African-American. At the same time, I want her to be able to embrace the values and cultural norms that make our family ours. I don't know how to do this, and to be honest, I don't know if anyone really knows how to do this- there are a lot of theories, but very little that is proven.

The other day we were at the salon getting Anna's hair braided. Abigail and I stick out like sore thumbs with our fair skin, but I love that place! I love that the ladies sit and talk and laugh and carry on- something that you don't really get in a typical "white" salon. I enjoy talking to all the ladies there, and I feel that there is mutual respect and friendliness between us.

While we were there, the Tyra Banks Show started, and the topic was skin bleaching. I had heard of this practice, but really didn't understand it or think it was necessarily common. I certainly didn't think it was something that was practiced on children! While watching the show, Abigail and I were so upset! There were such lovely ladies and adorable children who felt the need to lighten their skin color because it was "better" in some way. Often, they could not even describe why they believed lighter skin was better, but a few described reasons such as getting more attention from the opposite sex, feeling more beautiful or being more conventionally beautiful, or believing that lighter skin was more socially acceptable or related to your ability to be successful. The mother of 3 young boys who uses bleaching creams on them daily said that she thinks lighter skin "makes a better presentation" and she felt it was important for them to have lighter skin to have people form a better opinion about them. The most troubling part was that these young children (ages 8, 6, and 4, I think) actually believed this about themselves!

The ladies in the salon were horrified, but could understand why the women on the show felt the way they did. They didn't condone the behavior, especially not when the mom was putting bleaching cremes on her children, but they understood it... they had certainly heard comments to the effect of "it's better to have lighter skin." Or the infamous "she's pretty... for a dark-skinned girl." These thoughts were a new reality for me... sure, I had heard that these things happened, but I had never seen or experienced anything like it, even though I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood and had friends of all different skin colors. It is still blowing my mind, and I cannot wrap my head around what I even think about all of this, even weeks after the fact.

So, why am I writing this post? Really, I am not sure. It is just so... much. I desperately want Anna to love the skin God gave her as much I do. I love her chocolaty skin, and the patina that makes her skin look like so soft and touchable. In fact, I think her skin is so much prettier than my own fair skin that shows every vein and blemish, and gets blotchy when I am cold or nervous. How do I help her see this and love this about herself, when apparently popular culture is sending the opposite message? Is it enough to talk about all the black women with dark skin that we admire? Are Michele Obama, Oprah, Condoleezza Rice, and Maya Angelou, not to mention historical figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges enough?

More importantly, how do we help change our culture? Because whether your child is the only brown-skinned child in your family or simply the darkest-skinned in a family of many brown-skinned people, they need to hear the message that they are beautiful just the way they are. And while popular culture is making some strides in this area (see: Grace Jones, Rachel Williams, Ajuma, Alex Wek, or Krista, the winner of cycle 14 of America's Next Top Model), the majority of black women who share Anna's skin color are not known for their beauty.

I don't know. And this post is getting rambly. So I will leave it at that.


Whitney said...

Just my two cents, but I have lived in Africa, have African children, and currently work with African refugee teens. One thing I wanted to mention is that the people in the TV show were not necessarily wanting WHITE skin, but wanted LIGHTER skin. The vast majority of African girls I know do indeed want fairer skin, but they want fairer "brown" skin and not peach skin like ours. This is somewhat similar to me (pasty Caucasian) wishing for skin that is bronzer than my own.

I don't mean at all to minimize your concern, but just wanted to mention that it can be an American/Caucasian misconception to assume that Africans, Asians, and African-Americans who use bleaching creams and desire fairer skin do so because they want to look like US, when in fact they often do not.

Good luck teaching your girls about these tricky subjects! Best of luck!

graceling said...

Whitney, I agree. On the show, none of the ladies wanted to be white or look white, they just would rather be a "Tyra-color" than their own color.

Some of them related it to wearing weaves or wigs or straightening their hair to get a different "effect." They didn't want something totally different, just enough of a change to be noticable.

Whitney said...

OK, I see. So you already understood that. It took ME a while to realize! :) However, I felt better realizing that it wasn't the "white ideal" that they were seeking. Of course, sadly, it's still an "ideal" and that ideal isn't their natural beauty! So I certainly understand why you feel concerned.

You sound like a wonderful Mom, so I do believe that you will impart a positive self-image to both of your daughters.

Kim Foo said...

interesting to think about. thanks for sharing your thoughts. i didnt even know there was such a thing as bleaching cremes.

Anonymous said...

I am of mexican decent and have two teenage sons. My son's father is of mexican and native american decent. My youngest son has silky, beautiful, dark skin - the darkest in our family. He has always had such a dislike for his skin color. I wish it wasn't an issue, I wish people wouldn't comment. Since the day he was born I've heard "Wow, how did he get SO tan?", "He's REALLY dark." "My kid's were asking why ___ has such dark skin." And the worst of all is his own father calling him "dark chocolate boy." As if dark chocolate is a bad thing. It infuriates me and makes me sad at the same time. He has sometimes worn long sleeve shirts during the summer to hide his dark skin. I always remind him that dark skin is beautiful and what many people seek! I remind him that many people spend a lot of money on tanning lotions, tanning beds, spray tan, etc. to achieve what he was born with. Sorry for the loooong post. I think you are an amazing mom and do a wonderful job with your girls! I'm sure you don't need advice, just keep doing what you are doing!!