Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A conversation about skin color

Well, this afternoon we had a conversation, the kind that many adoptive parents dread. Anya Rashi was sitting at the kitchen table doing a Perler bead project. Out of the blue, she said, "Mom, I wish my skin was white like yours."

Inside my brain, it sounded something like this: "Aaaaaughh! Despite our best attempts, we have raised a child who is not comfortable with her beautiful, brown, Indian skin! We are failures at parenting!" Thankfully, although she is very perceptive about other people's emotions, Anya Rashi cannot yet read minds.

What I actually said was, "Hmm. Why is that, sweetie?"

Anya Rashi: "Because it looks funner to be white."

Me: (WHAT??!) "What do you mean?"

Anya Rashi: "Well, most of the kids at my preschool are white, so it just seems like it would be more fun."

Me: "What about A___, I___, and B___ in your class? They don't have white skin."

Anya Rashi: "No, they don't, but I still wish I had white skin."

Me: "How come?"

Anya Rashi, pointing between herself and me: "So we could look like each other."

Me: "So you wish we looked like each other . . . because we love each other?"

Anya Rashi: "Yes."

And then, I'm not kidding, she starts belting out a song from the movie "Mulan." A movie which she has not even seen -- but she heard this song on a Disney CD we checked out from the library. The lyrics go like this:
"When will my reflection show
Who I am. . .

For real.

So, I recovered my wits and said, "Do you know that people with different-colored skin can love each other and be a family?"

Anya Rashi: "Yes."

Me: "And do you know that I love you?"

Anya Rashi: "Yes!"

Me: "And that you're my favorite 5-year-old on the whole planet?"

Anya Rashi: "Well, my favorite 5-year-olds are A___ and K___ from preschool."

And then we went on naming other favorite people, and ended with me saying, "You know what? I'm glad you tell me what you're thinking about. I love that."

Yikes -- these conversations pop up out of the blue. The first time we talked about skin color, Anya Rashi was three years old. We were looking in the mirror as I helped her brush her teeth. She said out loud that we didn't look like each other, so I asked her what was different about us. After talking about our skin, hair and eyes being different, she stuck out her tongue and said, "But our tongues are both pink!" And then she was done with that conversation.

Since that first time, we've talked about skin color many more times, and I hope we are building a pattern of being able to speak freely about the ways we look different from each other, and how our family looks different from other families. This was the first time she said she wished she had white skin, though -- that kind of threw me for a loop.

We've had conversations about skin color when she sees other people of color at a our sons' school, at a store, etc., when we've read library books about people of color, or she sees people of color in a video or on TV. Or just when it's on her mind. Children are absolutely not color blind, which is a good thing, because the world they're going to be living in is definitely not color-blind either.

We have two books that I love for encouraging conversations: "Amazing Grace," about an African-American girl who wants to play the role of Peter Pan in her class play, and "Martin's Big Words," about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Once after reading these books aloud, my middle son said, "It's a good thing that we don't have to worry about racism anymore." I love his sweet, pure heart -- but his comment also reveals the reality that race is something Caucasian adults and kids aren't forced to deal with very often.

So how are you handling the topic of skin color with your children? Have they brought it up, or have you chosen to introduce it first? I'd love to have everyone chime in about how they're navigating this subject, and share what's worked well (or not!). Edited to add: And I really do want to hear from everyone -- if you're a Caucasian parent with Caucasian kids, it's just as important for you to be talking about race/appearance and racism . . . and if you don't have kids yet, please also chime in about what you plan to do.


Fenwick 5 said...

Hasn't came up yet...:) You handled it very well,you changed the negative that she was feeling into something positive. I can say the most honest serious statements when you least expect it:) Oh how they are so sweet but like a sponge. Gidget

Julie & Patrick said...

Oh yes, the skin color conversation. Devi still mentions it fairly often, but Treya is not there yet. I think you handled the situation beautifully. We basically say the same things. If I had a dime for every time I've said, "You can tell me____?" and let the kids fill in the blank with the word "ANYTHING?" or "I may not always love your behavior, but I love you, no matter what" or answering why her skin is not the same color as mine with "because God saved the beautiful brown skin just for you!" These things get said so often in fact, that now they give me the big eye roll too. I love that!

I love these deep conversations that come out of no where or the thoughts that come out of the quiet. It just makes me dream about the strong and wonderful women these girls will grow up to become one day.

Love, love, love that she broke out into song!

Emily said...

Nancy, I REALLY appreciate your post. Being a mommy to my beautifully brown skinned daughter has really made me realize how much I can take for granted being a white woman. Asha doesn't have words yet for talking about these things, but I see her looking at her arm sometimes, when it is next to mine. I don't want her to feel as though there are topics in out family that we don't talk about, or that there is something "wrong' about our differences. So I point out her 'beautiful brown skin," and "Mommy's pink skin." I emphasize that hers is lovely, while also acknowledging the difference between us. Sometimes she touches her arm, then touches mine, then moves on to something else.

I also catch her staring at other brown skinned people when we are out and about. Again, so as to make room for the topic, I comment about how that person has brown skin like Asha.

I want you to know, that I store away all the bits of wisdom you pass our way when you share stories like this one :) I pick out certain phrases, certain ways of explaining, so that one day, when Asha does have the words, maybe I will too! Emily :)

Candice said...

Funny that we were facing this topic at the same time! Today I turned Micah's hands over and placed mine palms up under his. He was excited that they both looked the same.

I think you are doing the right thing by focusing on the fact that we are all created different and just the way God wanted us to be. Then, being intentional about having friends and family of all different shades and colors! This shows us what God's family in Heaven is going to look like!

Brad and Renae said...

I think you handled this great. Since we don't have Lauren yet - not sure what I'd say....but I was at an adoption support group - and the topic was Transracial Families - the speaker told a story of having everyone in their family actually having a unique color that they found in a crayon box -- let's face it, "white" people aren't really white... they said, "mommy is kindof like this peach color similar to a real peach"... "daddy is more like vanilla - like icecream"... each person they compared to show we all really have varying shades of skin color - they related each person in the family to a wonderful food (and I guess there is a children's book that does the same)... I found that interesting. She's a board member for an adoption agency and travels all around - so I felt pretty assured of the approach. Thanks so much for posting this - to get us thinking about this more and more. Your daughter is absolutely beautiful - inside and out!

Chad and Jess said...

Those conversations are starting with Ethan. Thanks for posting

Fox family said...

We have the same discussion at home with our princess. Many thanks for this testimony

Fox family said...

Thnk you for your message (in french !) on our blog. Its always a pleasure for us to follow the story of childrens from india and to exchange our experiences or our point of view.

Friendly yours
The Fox family

Sarah said...

We are very fortunate to have a lot of friends of different ethnicities. It also helps quite a bit to have more than one child who have similar skin color with one another!

My daughters still have commented about skin color, though. They want our skin color to be the same. Once, when Lily was about two, she said that we were different colors. I put my arm next to hers, and said that we weren't actually all that different in color. Lily then asked (quite seriously), "Mom, are you Chinese?!"

Building Bridges to Orphans said...

Oh so good to help me get preparred for the day this happens in my house. Thanks for posting and I enjoyed reading the comments. Love to turn things into humor I think I'll remember the pink tongues and stick my tongue out! How wonderful that you have created an atmosphere where she trusts you to say what she is feeling!!!!

indiamama said...

I really like this post. Everyone in our house is a different shade! I'm the only "white" person, everyone else is a shade of brown. My boys have brought this up, not because they want to look like me but because they want to be more like their friends. It's really important to have these conversations and I like reading how other parents handle them.