I don’t want to write about this. I shouldn’t have to. This struggle should no longer exist.
But today my 5 year old daughter told me that she doesn’t like my dark, brown, skin.
I am not the darkest of dark. I have seen blessed others with skin hues darker than my own. Yet, I can’t remember a time that I haven’t been aware of my darkness. Even in 5th grade I had friends that called me “blackie”, a slur (that I didn’t understand to be a slur at 11 years old) that rhymed with my actual name.Within my own family, of 4 girls I had the darkest skin, and that was made well known to me by my siblings.
It’s taken a great deal of time for me to truly love the color of my skin, the dark chocolate brown that it is. I haven’t felt alien or ugly in a very long time.
I am regularly told that my daughter looks just like me despite her skin being much, much lighter than mine (due to her father being white). I regularly relish in such compliments because of the extreme difference in our skin tones. I suppose if I were to be honest with myself, I still feel a level of insecurity in that, meaning, I don’t expect people to be able to see our shared facial features, only our stark difference in skin tone.
Lately, I’ve seen a good number of white people on social media saying that to declare things such as “Black lives matter” and “Black Breastfeeding Week” or “BET: Black Entertainment Television” only divides us further as people. In their sincere ignorance I can understand their point, being unaware of the fact that as black people we cannot ignore racial differences because we live in it constantly. Being a white person, you could live an entire lifetime and never feel out of place racially because the culture we live in is predominantly white centered. To be white is the “norm”. To be otherwise is “different”. And that’s how I’ve felt, and many black people have felt their entire lives. Different, in the negative sense of the term. Different, wrong. Different, incorrect. Different, not right. Different “What’s wrong with you?”. Different, weird. Different, freak show. Different, “You need to change to fit in.” Different.
I appreciate the progress our culture has made. We’ve come a ways. When I was my daughter’s age I hardly saw any black girls in the tv shows I’d watch. And if a black girl or woman was included, their hair wasn’t allowed to be the natural curls they were born with. It was usually awkwardly straightened. Just today my daughter was watching a really cool cartoon we’d never seen before called Princess Knight. The premise of the show is largely in the title: It’s a cartoon about a princess who is also a skilled knight and is able to help her friends whenever they’re in need. What stood out to me (beyond her being an awesome knight as well as a princess) is that her skin color was brown! And it wasn’t just a tan brown, she’s a good solid BEAUTIFUL shade of brown! And I immediately pointed this out to my daughter, “Look! What color is her skin!? Isn’t she beautiful!?”
Again, someone might say that I am a part of the problem by focusing on differences, but as a white person can you imagine growing up and never seeing yourself portrayed in the media. Whether we like it or not, the media shapes a large part of us. Imagine growing up and never seeing a version of yourself in tv shows, commercials, magazines, newspapers, music, government leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers all dark skinned. A part of me responds to that with, “THAT WOULD BE AWESOME!” but I would never wish such a thing on non-brown people because growing up that way, never seeing someone that looked like me, stunk!
I hated my coarse hair growing up! I wished and dreamt and dreamt and wished for long, flowing hair, but I wasn’t born with that. I was born with ebony black, coarse, tight, curls. And all I ever saw being portrayed as beautiful or successful growing up was white girls and women with long, straight, flowing hair. Growing up that way, it was consistently reinforced; I was “Different, unaccepted.”
This conversation with my little daughter, barely 5 years old, began a day earlier. She was watching one of her favorite shows and suddenly declared, “I don’t like brown.” I can’t even remember what was happening in the show for her to declare that, but in that moment I knew exactly what she meant. My heart jumped, but I remained silent for a moment and thought carefully before I responded, “What do you mean? Why don’t you like brown?”
“Brown is just not my favorite.” she said.
“Well it doesn’t have to be your favorite. Brown isn’t my favorite color but I still like it.”
“Yeah, but it’s not my favorite still.”
“What about mama’s skin? Mama’s skin is brown.”
“I know but it’s just not my favorite.”
I let it go in that moment. I didn’t want to press it and I honestly wasn’t sure what to say from there. But, not long after that her friend, Aria (name changed for protection), came over. Aria is a white girl, a few months older than my daughter, and she brought with her a beautiful, white doll with long, straight, blonde, hair. As soon as my daughter saw Aria’s doll, she lit up light a Christmas tree and fell head over heels for this doll. This caused Aria to be taken aback and I had to tell my daughter that this doll was special to Aria and that she couldn’t play with it. My daughter quickly moved passed that and ran to get her dark, brown skinned doll with endless, nearly black, tight, ringlets of hair to play alongside Aria’s doll. This gave me peace, but only for a moment. Not long after I heard my daughter rummaging in her bathroom for hair supplies. When I came to help find the hair supplies that she wanted, I found out that she planned to make her doll’s hair “straight and beautiful” like Aria’s doll. My heart sank again. I calmly explained, “You can’t make her hair like Aria’s doll’s hair. Her hair is curly and beautiful. You should leave it as it is.” Thankfully, she quickly accepted that as well and moved on, but I knew this wasn’t over.
As soon as Aria left, I sat on my daughter’s bed and scooped her into my lap.
“So, what were you saying about brown before?” I calmly asked.
“I don’t like brown. It’s just not my favorite.” she replied with her head held down.
“Well what about your skin? Your skin is light brown and it’s beautiful!”
“I know, but I just don’t like it” She reiterated.
“But who made your skin?”
“And who made mama’s skin?”
“And does God make ugly things?”
“No! He doesn’t! He only makes beautiful things! And He made you so! Beautiful!” She smiled a bit and nodded. Then she said,
“Yeah, I like my skin.” And within no time she jumped down from my lap and went on about her 5 year old business. But my heart kept turning the issue over. I felt the same hurts from my childhood creeping up and I thought about the lack of dark skinned heroines being portrayed for her to see.
And then this morning happened. The issue resurfaced as I saw her playing with her miniature, white dolls. And I thought about all of the white dolls I had stashed away in our closet waiting to be wrapped for her birthday. Lastly, I thought about the dark brown dolls I had bought her for Christmas last year. I tried to recall the last time I saw her playing with them. I couldn’t, because she never played with them. She mainly played with the white dolls she was playing with now. At least one of them had red hair, not blonde hair. Still, I had a bunch more white dolls stashed away to be given to her in just a few days for her birthday. I know she’ll love them as soon as she sees them, but am I reinforcing her negative feelings toward brown skin by giving her more white dolls?? But what could I do? Brown baby dolls are pretty common nowadays, but she preferred mini sized dolls that fit in the palm of her hand. Brown versions of those dolls are largely nonexistent. I felt stuck.
“Hey baby girl, what do you think of you light, brown skin?”
“I like it.” she said nonchalantly without turning away from her play.
“And what about mama’s dark, brown skin?” she was silent for a brief moment and then said,
“I don’t like it. Brown is just not my favorite.” still playing with her dolls and dollhouse. I was taken aback and asked again,
“You don’t like mama’s skin?” she stopped and looked at me.
“No, it’s just not my favorite.” I can only imagine the blank expression on my face at that moment. Then I asked her to come to me. She came and leaned against me.
“Look at mama’s skin. God made my skin. You don’t like it?”
“No.” she said. “My skin is beautiful but your dark skin just isn’t beautiful.” I stared at her blankly again and then quietly said,
She went back to playing with her dolls as my mind began to reel. I knew I couldn’t be angry at her. She was 5 and knew nothing of racism and slavery and rejection because of skin tone and lack of representation of minorities and how much mama had to grow and fight and pray to learn to accept herself as beautiful in spite of her dark skin and coarse hair! And how could I as her mother reinforce all those lies of “white only is beautiful” by continuing to let her watch her largely white, preschool tv shows or giving her more white dolls to play with!? And then I said to her,
“Where are your brown dolls?”
“They’re in my room.” she said.
“Go get them. You need to play with them, too.” she ran to her room and brought back 3, dark brown dolls, each of them about 3 inches tall. And she laid them on the floor outside of her dollhouse and continued to play with her white dolls.
“No! You need to play with your brown dolls.”
“But, I don’t have enough…they don’t fit.” she was right. They were kinda big for the Little People house she was playing with.
“Give me the white dolls.” she got up and handed them to me. “Now go play with the brown dolls.” She returned to where the dollhouse was, and she began to cry. And I began to cry. I was stuck. I felt helpless. What was I to do? None of this was her fault. She is just a little girl. I told her to come here once more, and I gave her the white dolls back. She took them back, smiled, and returned to her playing.
Then I wept bitterly and sobbed loudly.