Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sweetie got me thinking..

My dad and step-mom are in town this week, henceforth known as Papa and Grandma N., so A+A+J has been having a lot of extended family time. It's been a lot of fun. It has also been the most intensive time that J has ever spent with her cousins, my brother's kids. His oldest, I'll call her Sweetie, is almost four and full of questions. Sweetie loves her baby cousin. In fact, both Sweetie and her one year old little brother, let's call him Cub, (can you tell I'm moving towards a more pseudonymous approach to blogging?) spend a good portion of the time we're together angling to touch, hold, or pet on J. It's very sweet.

Now, four year olds are very observant, so both Sweetie's mom and I have been wondering when and how she would notice that our baby J is a different ethnicity than her Uncle Andrew and Aunt Alissa.

"Auntie Lissa," Sweetie said to me the first night of Papa and Grandma N's visit, "why does J's hair stand up like that?"

"It's curly," I replied.

"Oh." She said. "Maybe she needs to wash it."

I'll admit it, my knee-jerk internal reaction was shock. What??

"Why do you say that, Sweetie?"

"Well, when Cub's hair gets curly mommy says it's because it's time to wash it." She explained.

Of course. Cub has that fine, straight white-baby hair that curls up when it gets greasy. Sweetie didn't think there was anything wrong with J's hair, she was just comparing it to the other baby she knows. My niece lives in a pretty white dominated part of town, and doesn't go to daycare. She hasn't had very many opportunities to meet and play with brown kids. We had a good little talk about how beautiful J's hair is. And also how her bald spot will eventually grow back, when she stops sleeping on her back all the time, a matter that, as it turns out, was bothering Sweetie much more than the curling.

The next day Sweetie and Cub came over for the morning so their mom could run errands. J went down for her morning nap and the other two cuddled up to me for some storytime. We read Whose Knees are These, which features some very beautiful brown knees.

"It's that little boy, they are his knees!" Sweetie pointed out at the end of the book.

"Da!" Proclaimed Cub, having his say.

"That's right," I said. "He has brown skin like baby J."

"I don't have brown skin," my niece observed.

"No," I said. "You have pink skin."

"No I don't!" She giggled, looking at her skin. "I have skin colored skin!"

"Really?" I asked her. "You know there is more than one color for skin." Sweetie looked baffled. "Baby J has skin colored skin, too, right?"

"Oh." Sweetie looked thoughtful. "Yeah, I guess so."

So the next book I reached for was The Colors of Us, recommended by a reader here. We had fun thinking up delicious names for the colors of our skin.

I feel like this is good practice - Sweetie's questions about skin color and curly hair are totally normal expressions of curiousity about something she doesn't quite understand. She won't remember these conversations, she's too young. But hopefully she'll notice the next time someone tells her something is "skin colored."

So the thing I'm thinking about is, how can I create a home life for J where she doesn't grow up thinking her skin is "brown" and my skin is "skin-colored?" I think it starts with the language I use now, talking about skin color and hair texture and other differences in affirming and truly descriptive ways. There's no "regular hair" or "normal nose" or "normal skin color." Maybe, just maybe, there isn't even a privileged "normal" anything.

Just some thoughts. Not completely coalesced yet. Thanks Sweetie, you sure got your Auntie thinking. ♥


  1. You're already on the right track by reading great books like Whose Toes Are Those. We love that book! Have read it about, ummmm, a million times ;) We just try to expose Miles to books, and pictures, and people of ALL skin colors, and use positive language (like you were talking about)...and keep at it! It's a lifelong process, I think.

  2. hmmm, perhaps Sweetie didn't even notice that J's skin was not the same color as her own. My friend (white) has adopted 3 children from Vietnam (all have quite dark brown skin and straight black hair). Her high school aged neighbor hadn't realized they were adopted - he thought they looked like their parents (the husband does have dark hair but that's it). When his mom mentioned the skin tone he said "Well, they look like Miss Debbie when she's tanned."


  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. Reminded me of why I hated "skin-coloured" bandaids.

  4. Great post! It's amazing how early white children (without any malice, of course) begin to think of themselves as 'normal' and others as 'different'. There isn't a 'normal' hair color for European Americans so we're clearly capable of more finely detailing skin color into shades of tan & brown.

    If there's one thing I've learned it's to never underestimate the importance of identifying and verbalizing similarities and differences in a positive way. We comment on hair color, eye color, and skin color as well as on favorite activities, foods, etc.

    Something I remember well was my own 4 year old saying that princesses couldn't have braids. Despite the fact that we don't watch TV or see Disney movies (or read the books), she had already internalized the predominately white princess culture. Since then we renamed a single afro puff as 'princess hair'. The name stuck and ironically my 4 year old (white) daughter will lament that she can't have 'real princess hair'.

  5. it's my understanding that by the preschool age kids start to notice skin color so sweetie is likely right on the cusp of this. your conversation with her is timely.

    another book that i've recently seen that is very good is "the skin you live in".

  6. I feel the need to comment on this, because it hits close to home.

    My mother is white and my father is black. I grew up in a predominantly black/hispanic neighborhood, and went to predominantly white private elementary school.

    I got hit from both sides, especially with my hair:

    The black girls in my neighborhood though my hair was ugly because my mom kept it curly (partially due to the fact that she thought it was really lovely that way, and partially because she did not know anything about relaxing hair on a child. My dad was not in the picture to help her out with black hair and it's culture either)

    The white girls at school didn't understand my hair, and why I had to wear it in a braid every day because it would fro out obnoxiously if I did not.

    I spent a lot of time envying other people's hair growing up. It was a source of heartbreak for my mother, because she didn't know what to do either.

    As a result, I put my poor hair through hell. And at 29 years old... I no longer want anyone else's hair but mine, and I so long for how my hair was back in the days before the world made me self conscious of it.

    I know how awkward it can be being bi-racial, and having parents who don't look like you. I would not change my life or my experiences for anything. I know you probably have tons of support/resources here on the web, but if you ever have questions or need advice on certain situations, please email me!