“Look both ways before you cross the street.”
“Don’t touch the stove.”
“Choose your friends wisely.”
“Always wear your seatbelt.”
“Don’t talk to strangers.”
Sound familiar? That’s because parents and adults are known for teaching children how to survive in a potentially dangerous world. Parents know that if they don’t teach their children to look both ways before crossing the street, their children might very well die in the process of learning that lesson on their own. (An answer to the “I have to learn from my own mistakes” mentality.) Most parents know that if they don’t teach their child about sex, lots of other people will be all too happy to teach them.
Aside from basic survival skills, good parents know they also have to teach their children social skills and moral behavior. “No, Tiffany, it’s not okay to scratch your brother because you wanted to play with his toys.” We teach kids to play nice, to share, to clean up after themselves, to tell the truth, and to help old ladies across the street. I would include giving up your seat to the elderly, but parents obviously don’t teach that anymore.
Parents know that each child has a particular nature. Most parents know that it’s their responsibility to nurture.
My question: So why do parents neglect to teach their children how to value all skin colors (ethnicities, languages, etc.)?
Just as we have to nurture a spirit of giving and sharing in most kids, just as we have to nurture a spirit of hard work and responsibility in most kids, we also have to nurture a spirit of acceptance and appreciation, even love.
Below, I present my ideas on what might assist in nurturing such a spirit in our families, especially young children. I have no degree, no personal experience, and no professional experience in raising children or in psychology. I think, though, that this could be useful.
How can we foster in our children, a spirit of acceptance, appreciation, and even love for all shades of human skin?
1) Sort out your own attitude/feelings about colorism.
This way you can lead and teach by example.
Ta-Nehisi Coates posted about “Dark Girls” on The Atlantic in June of this year. As a kid Coates expressed preference for “light-skin girls,” and in the post he recalls his emotions after being scolded by his mother when he was twelve:
“I remember being really pissed off at my mother at first (“It’s my choice!”) Then a few weeks later, as I turned it over in my head, a bit embarrassed (“I wish I hadn’t said that”) then deeply ashamed (“I wish I didn’t think that”) and finally incredibly curious (“Why do I think that anyway?”)”
Know what you think, feel, and believe about skin color. Dig deep, because we all have that “I’m not a racist” ego we must deal with. Consciously, you might tell yourself “I’m colorblind,” but notice when you’re compelled to comment on how pretty a child is (or their hair or eyes). How does the child usually look?* Notice what you see every time you close your eyes and imagine your ideal mate, or your ideal children.
Before we can heal the world, we must begin to heal as individuals. You don’t have to be perfect to help others, but at least try to be aware of your imperfections and blind spots. I’m not saying everyone’s a closet racist, but if you resist self-reflection, maybe there’s something you’re afraid to face.
If you find that you had/have skin color bias, you can use yourself as a starting point in discussing skin color with your kids or other young people.
2) Talk candidly about colorism with your children.
They don’t need a lecture. It could be as simple as letting them hear you work through your own color biases. Like Coates, you may point out examples of when you expressed bias in the past and how you’ve changed/are changing. It could be as simple as looking at family photos with your kids and saying, “It’s wonderful that there are so many shades of skin in our family.”
Example: While watching a movie with his family, James notices some colorism at play.** Though the movie is supposedly “targeted” to African Americans, all the major female roles are played by actresses who have very fair skin. Some have light colored eyes and long wavy hair. A few dark skinned women make appearances in roles that are clearly less flattering (gum smacking, loud trash talking, psycho baby mama, gaudy clothes and makeup, hyper-sexual, etc.) James is slightly uncomfortable but lets it go thinking that his kids are too young to be aware of such nuanced casting issues. Then James notices that his kids burst out in uncontrollable laughter at the ridiculously comic performance of a dark-skinned character. He cringes, but thinks, it was funny, and the director intended for people to laugh. Surely they would have laughed no matter what color the character was. The movie ends with the leading lady riding off into her happily ever after, validated as the fairest of them all (and she’s quite smart and witty too, and skinny).
Everyone seems to have enjoyed the movie, but James wonders how it influenced his kids’ thinking. He finally decides to say, “That was a fun movie. I wonder what would’ve happened if [funny character’s name] had switched places with [main character’s name].’”
James’ kids look at him funny and reply in utter disbelief:
“No way, dad. [funny character’s name] is too stupid and ugly.”
“Yeah [main character’s name] is so smart and like really, really pretty. OMG she’s so awesome.”
Even though “it’s just a movie” James sees that his kids don’t have the critical thinking skills to see it as “just a movie.” He takes this opportunity to help them develop some critical thinking skills, hoping they won’t internalize the latent message that light skin is good and dark skin is bad.
He says, “You know when actors and actresses play in movies, they can play any part. Right now I could pretend to be a stern judge,” and he makes a stern face and pretends to bang a gavel. “Or I can pretend to be a silly clown,” and he does a wobbly dance with a crazy face.
The kids laugh and join in the fun. One of them says, “I can pretend to be Spiderman!” and shoots pretend cobwebs from his upturned wrists.
James is excited that they’re getting it. Now he must relate this to skin color. “So just because someone plays an ugly or stupid character in a movie doesn’t mean they are stupid or ugly. [Funny character’s name] could play the role of the most beautiful princess, or the most successful doctor, or the smartest politician.”
James’ kids still look skeptical, so he keeps it real with them. “When I was your age I thought only light-skinned girls with long hair could be pretty and smart in movies and in real life. But I learned that wasn’t true. Now I see that all skin colors are beautiful. No matter what I see in movies or on TV I know they’re just acting, and [funny character’s name] is just as beautiful and smart in real life as anyone else, including [main character’s name].”
James’ kids take this in. They process it. He lets it go for now, but the seeds of critical thought, acceptance, and appreciation have been planted. He can continue to nurture them as they grow.
3) Give them positive exposure to all skin tones.
One inspiring mother wrote an article on New Latina titled, “I’m White, My Daughter is Latina, and I Buy Black Dolls” by Chantilly Patiño. She eloquently sates:
“Maybe it’s not a big deal to some, but for a woman who’s raising a daughter of color, it’s important to me!
I’m aware my daughter is Latina…yeah, she’s not black, but I don’t want her to grow up like I did. Not seeing positive images of people of color…including (but not limited to) people who look like her. If I look back to my childhood, the only positive image I can recall is the Cosby show…and that’s a shame. I still love that show, but even today…programing like that is hard to come by.
I buy black dolls for my daughter because I want her to understand the value of everyone, regardless of color. I buy black dolls because I know that the media is filled with negative images and it presents a challenge for our kids to grow up feeling good about dark skin. I buy black dolls because I want to change the norm.”
WOW!!! Go Sister.
Because colorism and racism are so prevalent, we don’t have to try hard at all to find positive exposure to lighter skin tones. So, survey the experiences your child typically has and see if they include enough positive exposure to darker skin tones. If not, I have suggestions for how to create positive exposure to darker skin tones. This is the practical, get it done today, type of thing. You probably know what I’m about to say. I suggest that you share the following things with your kids, depending on their ages, to nurture their acceptance of all skin tones, especially darker skin, since that exposure is more likely to be lacking or negative:
picture books with positive images of characters with dark skin
chapter books with well developed, dark-skinned characters
magazines with images of and articles by people with darker skin
festivals that expose them to the heritages of dark-skinned people
museum visits that teach them about the history of dark-skinned people
outings to locations known to draw diverse groups of people
quality time with family and friends of many skin tones, including darker ones
dolls with darker shades of skin
television shows featuring dark-skinned people in lead roles, or positive and substantial supporting roles
movies featuring dark-skinned people in lead roles, or positive and substantial supporting roles
I’m sure there’s more, but this is what I’ve come up with for now. Feel free to add suggestions in a comment.
*I think colorism is most acute in people’s reactions to babies and young children. Adults are more likely to comment on the relative prettiness or cuteness of children. When colorism is present, dark-skinned children usually aren’t lauded for their beauty, but as they get older, they may be recognized for having grown up to be beautiful women or handsome men.
**Two excellent examples of biased casting of the nature described in James’ story are the movies Coming to America and Guess Who. I remember watching these films, Coming to America as a young child and later Guess Who as a young adult, and feeling physically sick about the blatant colorism in their casting of female characters.
With love, from Sarah L. Webb
What’s in your hand?