Annika has been saying things this past year about her skin. Negative things. Mostly she says she wishes she was white and had “hair that falls down” (straight hair).
Every time, it pains me. I grew up wishing I was taller; had better hair; or bigger/smaller boobs (depending on my phase of life), etc. etc. But disliking the color of my skin never entered into the picture. You can change your hair color and texture (temporarily), lose weight, and adjust clothing to make yourself bigger or smaller, so when you’re young and experimenting with your looks, one can achieve temporary perfection occasionally (very temporary). I’ve tried lots of different looks over the years.
But you can’t change your skin color. No matter what Michael Jackson tried to convince us that was true, it just isn’t. The only thing you can do is learn to love it.
I have no idea how to teach Annika to love her skin color other than to love it and hope she mimics me. So, what I’ve been doing is inserting comments about beautiful brown skin. Showing her images of beautiful brown people and pointing them out when we see them in real life. Talking about beautiful brown skin.
I’ve never really mentioned my own skin much, except in comparison to hers. But the other day, I was putting on sun block and Annika asked me why I was putting it on. Without thinking, I said something like, “Well, I really don’t want my skin to get tanned.”
“Why mama? Don’t you want to have brown skin?”
Whoa. That stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly had this realization that while I was telling her all the time how pretty brown skin is, I rarely mentioned mine on its own. And I had never explained that while I think brown skin is pretty, I wasn’t necessarily wishing for my own (brown skin).
So I said to her, “I think brown skin is beautiful. But I’m not brown. I’m white. And I think I look pretty with white skin. We’re all beautiful the way we’re born.”
She seemed to like that and went about her business of watching one of her current favorite television shows, “My Big Big Friend.”
Last week I was interviewed for a research study being conducted to study white mothers who have biracial children.
It was thoroughly enjoyable and very casual. The interviewer, a white mother of a biracial son, is writing her dissertation and might eventually produce a documentary on the topic.
Her research is strictly on white mothers of biracial children and their interactions with people at school. The interview was very casual, conducted over Skype and we essentially just talked for about 90 minutes. (I think it was only supposed to last an hour.)
We talked mostly about our various interactions with the general public and our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about race and skin color, and how those have changed (or not) since having our children.
Our feelings on many of the topics were similar. There were plenty of “YEAH! I KNOW, RIGHT?!” moments, which was awesome. Even when you have friends who are biracial moms, these conversations still don’t happen very often because we’re all parents who have busy lives and when we get together we don’t all sit around talking about our kids’ skin colors. So it was fun.
One of the points she made during the interview that I absolutely loved was how it’s so important for white parents to talk to their white children about race, skin color, and racism. I thought I knew all the reasons it was important but she brought up something I’d honestly never even thought about.
There is a whole new generation of white kids out there who will grow up to fall in love with a person of color. We did. And yet, it’s not something that parents necessarily think to talk to their kids about.
There’s lots more on that topic, but I’ll let you save it for a conversation with her. Or the possible documentary. Just something to think about.
Jennifer Chandler is doing this study for Cardinal Stritch University and is looking for more participants. If you wish to participate, contact her directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
When Annika was a baby, I once casually mentioned to Toyin that I’d like to dress her as Snow White for Halloween. He rolled his eyes and scoffed, “You can’t dress a black child as Snow White!” He was joking, mostly.
But even so, that year, I dressed her as a kitty cat, because she could say cat.
Oddly, Toyin doesn’t remember that conversation, or perhaps, remembers it differently than I do. A few years later, when Annika was 3.5, one of his family members sent us a Snow White costume for a Christmas present, which we both enjoyed watching her get excited over and immediately put it on and dance around. By that time, it was no big deal. Or was it? As I watched her pull it out and realized what it was, I flashed back to that conversation, when all of this was so new.
Thinking about race and skin color enters into the most mundane of choices when you have a mixed race family.
If the opposite had happened, let’s say my white daughter wanted to dress up as say, Diana Ross, I would probably be thrilled with her choice, glad my child was so multiculturally aware and being the raging liberal that I am I would brag about it to all my friends.
So when my brown-skinned daughter wants to dress up as a white character, coincidentally, also Daphne from Scooby Doo, why do I feel mildly ill at the thought?
I posed this question on my Facebook page a couple of days ago and got the same thoughts back at me that I’d been thinking myself.
The gist of the commenters said what I’d been telling myself, “She can be whomever she chooses. It’s not about race. It’s about what she likes to watch on TV. It’s no big deal.”
And they are right. I was right. I went ahead and ordered the costume. She wants to dress as Daphne for her Scooby Doo themed birthday party. I will not say a word when she puts on the costume as I didn’t when she dressed as Snow White. When she dressed as Ruby Gloom/Tinkerbell.
I think what all these thoughts are telling me is this.
It’s not that fact that my child wishes to dress up as a white character. It’s the fact that most characters are white. It’s that there are so few reflections in the media for her that she only sees white.
It’s true that what we see reflects back on us, in all walks of life. And if the equality in children’s programming was more balanced, I would have less of an issue with it. But it’s not.
Basically, there’s nothing wrong with my child. What’s wrong is societal messages and media reflections. It’s time to change that.
I can’t do much with that. Sure, I could lobby and join groups that support media issues. But honestly, I’d rather spend my time being a mom and doing the best with what we’ve got. In time, all of this will change. I know it because I see it happening.
Every generation keeps the talks going along and eventually, equality and fairness will win out in the racial divide. I believe that wholeheartedly, although, I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime.
But for now, what I have to do is go out of my way to ensure that my daughter see whatever reflections that are there.
I’ve started coming up with a list of non-white characters that I will do my best to insert into her regular viewing. I’m not going to try to cut out white characters, but do whatever I can to show her that the others exist.
Off the top of my head I can think of exactly one black female cartoon character that Annika watches semi regularly.
Years ago, long before I met Toyin and long before Annika was a sparkle in my brain, I have this vague memory of being introduced to the idea that it’s important for people to be properly represented in the media.
This notion came by way of watching an interview with a Hispanic comedian who talked about his goal of finding ways to have more Latin faces on mainstream television, not just in their own shows, but in pop culture.
Initially, knowing me, I probably rolled my eyes. But it didn’t take long for the message to sink in when I began studying communications and found out just why representation is important in the media.
I could go into a long, boring explanation, but the gist is, media is part of our culture. Culture provides a reflection. And when you are not reflected in the media, there is a sense of loss. We are constantly looking for our reflections somewhere. In our parents, in our friends, in our daily lives. And that includes media. (It also probably explains a lot about why Facebook is so popular.)
There are people who will say that it doesn’t matter what’s on television, internet and magazines. That it only matters what’s inside. And I agree that it is important to have a solid sense of self. But what we see in our daily lives reflects back to us. Especially children, who are still building a solid sense of self. And since we cannot protect them from everything in the world, what they see in the media DOES matter. And it’s important that kids see positive things to reflect on.
While I’ve known that all this stuff is important, and that there are negatives reflected in the media, until the Trayvon Martin case and subsequent articles on the philosophy of our culture, I hadn’t done much research on what the media reflects back on black women.
According to this study, “Media, in short, are central to what ultimately comes to represent our social realities.” And, “… how we come to understand and perform gender is based on culture.”
The study goes to say that the majority of the representation of black women is either hyper-sexualized -think music videos, bitches and hos- or the traditional “mammy.” This study, btw was done on media from the mid-to-late 90s up through the mid 2000s.
The biracial female is raised up in status, making her the most desirable with lighter skin and typically straight hair. But she is also a “tragic mulatto.”
The study goes on to say that men of color are often just as guilty of perpetuating these stereotypes, as they are typically working for industries run by white men.
The study moves on and discusses other races, Asian women are exotic, yet subservient and ready for sex. Hispanic women are also exotic, but often portrayed with as little culture as possible, acting “white” or they are in very traditional roles, like maids (think Jennifer Lopez).
And Native American women are recast into a Western context, ignoring their culture completely.
Overall, none of this is all that new to me. But it burns a fire anew inside me to do my best to ensure that Annika gets as many positive characters inside her media intake as possible. It’s going to be hard though. She has recently taken a huge interest in fairies. And guess what, yeah, there’s only ONE black one.
I got my very first Annika-hand-crafted Mother’s Day gifts this year thanks to some very special and awesome preschool teachers.
On top of these awesome gifts, four years ago I also got the best gift ever, my daughter Annika.
Along with Annika teaching me about motherhood, she has also taught me about learning to think about some of the racial issues in this country and how they affect our society.
Today I’m guest posting over at another blog. Empatheia, written by another mama to biracial kids. She’s a great writer and a teacher, as well as being a mom to three kids. Her blog often discusses the disparity in our schools, as well as racial issues. She’s one of my internet buddies. So read my post and then please browse some of her articles. I promise you will leave feeling enlightened.
When I first heard the term “swirling” I rolled my eyes.
I’ve really gotta stop doing that. Because last week it came in handy when Annika said something that freaked me out and I suddenly realized what a delectable term is in the biracial/multiracial world. It’s one of the few cultural terminologies I’ve ever heard that doesn’t come with any baggage. I like it.
So, Annika and I were driving down the road and she says to me from the back seat, “Mama, I washed my face before we left, doesn’t it look nice?”
“Yes, baby. It does.” I agreed.
“Mama, if I wash my face it will get lighter, right?”
My heart skipped a beat. What the hell? Okay, my brain said, don’t freak out. Maybe she doesn’t mean what it sounds like.
“Um, lighter, like your skin color getting lighter?” I asked.
“Yes, Mama, my skin will get whiter.”
Shit. Don’t freak out. Handle this with dignity and grace! She’s not even 4 yet. She can‘t have developed a neuroses about her skin color yet! Don’t give her one.
As I pause to think what I can say to her without turning this into a big thing, the latest images flash through my mind of her imaginary brother Freddie, who’s white; And her penchant for pretending to be the blonde/blue-eyed characters from shows and storybooks and never being the dark-skinned people.
Am I fucking up? Does she not get enough exposure to people who look like her? What the hell?!
I realize that this seems like I spent a lot of time hemming and hawing, but not really. My mind was racing.
So I said, “Honey, your skin will never get lighter. You will always be brown and beautiful. Your skin color is beautiful and you are beautiful. I think that brown skin is lovely. You have lovely light brown skin. Daddy has beautiful dark brown skin. We are all beautiful with the skin colors we were born with.”
She beams up at me and says (she’s been learning Spanish, btw), “I’m café!”
Then, she had a realization.
“Mama, I’m a mix of you and daddy! You’re white and he’s brown and I’m like a mixture of you both!” she squealed. Seriously, she was so excited.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re swirled. You know like an ice cream cone that has half chocolate and half vanilla? That’s you!”
I’ve come to realize that I no longer see the world in black and white (and red and yellow…. or really, dark brown, light brown, dark beige and light beige).
I no longer see humans with simply one background, one skin color, one mindset, one reality.
Before Annika was born, I liked to think that I was a huge liberal with an open mind and a love for diversity. And I was.
But it took my mind blooming and morphing, becoming the mother of a biracial child to fully grasp the diversity that I once accepted externally, it is now fully internalized.
Earlier this week, I was talking to Toyin about my last couple of posts and I verbalized something that I had not yet even though I’ve known it for a long time. It was, “I see biracial children.”
I see them everywhere too, with or without their parents. When Annika was a baby, I often felt alone. In playgroups and out shopping, in school, in the library, it seemed that most moms and kids were the same. As proud as I was to be Annika’s mom, I often wished I was able to easily mix into the crowd, without a need for explanation or wondering what other people wondered.
But now, I realize that biracial kids are really everywhere. They are seeping out of the cracks of society. I love to see the older kids, especially girls, because it gives me a window into Annika’s future.
People tend to really notice biracial babies, but as they age, they begin to assume racial roles from one side or the other, based on what their skin color might be.
I think that is changing.
For the past few years, I really see biracial adolescents now. I’m sure I noticed them before, but they were just like any other people whom I shared no common bond with and didn’t understand or empathize with their similarities.
I fully admit that many times, I assumed children were adopted when they may have not been so.
Even after Annika was born, crazy as it sounds, there were a few times when I wondered it, and then chastised myself for assuming anything that was so clearly not obvious, having been through that assumption on the other end myself.
Now, I fully accept that parent/child bond without thinking of it much. It does not matter whether a child is adopted, biracial, or multi-mixed from generations of race mixing.
Last week I met a mom with a child who did not reflect her mother’s ethnicity. I easily recognized her as the mother, and as we spoke, I noticed that they really looked alike even though at first glance, one might not have immediately thought that they were related.
Now when I see biracial kids with their moms of another color, I smile. Because now, when I look at those kids, I see biracial kids. I know, without wondering that the parent with them is their mom or dad because I have finally internalized how to look past the skin color. I notice facial features, hair texture, even the way biracial children hold themselves, in many cases, is different than children who come from non-mixed unions. It is uncanny. They are an entirely different race of humans that we are forming. Outside the boundaries of stereotypes. Outside the boundaries of racial profiling. Outside the boundaries of categorization.
It’s Black History Month. Every year around this time (and other times) it brings up my own mental rambling about just how Annika will fit in to the world of African Americans, or more accurately, black Americans whose history includes oppression from their own culture.
For all outward intents and purposes she is a black citizen of the United States of America. She will be/is viewed as black, I suppose.
The irony is that Annika’s black roots do not extend back into the hideously oppressive American history that includes Jim Crow laws/segregation and slavery.
Her father is an immigrant. He has told me in the past that he doesn’t necessarily relate to the black culture of this country, not fully. He is Nigerian first and foremost. He is an American citizen, but he and his family do not hold on to a lot of the American racial injustices of the past. They can relate to it on some levels because of certain stereotypes they have encountered along the way, but they do not hold it in the hearts and bodies the way it is held for many black Americans. Their minds extend back into Nigeria when they view their past.
Since my past does extend into this country’s history, but on the white side, I do not know how much Annika will take to heart the Black History of our country.
Will she relate? Will she feel pressured to relate even when/if she does not?
When Annika was an infant and President Barack Obama was running for office, I read his book, “Dreams from My Father.” He writes about the pressure in college to conform to the world of black oppression, even when he had come from a mostly white world and had barely known his own father, who was Kenyan, and had not lived most of his life in this country.
As I read that, holding my tiny baby, I projected into the future, noting my daughter’s similarities with our would-be president, and wondering if she would feel the same pressures.
I know that our world is different even now, than it was then. And will be even more different when Annika is that age. But I also know that the culture still clings together. Many black friends have shared with me that they feel the need to continue to view the world from the perspective of how someone else views them. It is not something they choose, but is done for self-preservation.
This will not be something Annika learns from me. And Toyin will give her an entirely different viewpoint, from another culture and a skin color that looks the same, but does not relate.
I don’t worry or feel concerned. But I do wonder how I will handle this when/if she feels the pressure to collect and hold the anger and oppression of a culture that, in all reality, is not fully hers. I wonder how much she will relate. Or if she will accept that many will see her one way, but she can choose to show them who she truly is.
I just wonder.
As we go in to February every year, I start to ponder this and I wonder how much I should share with her and when it is appropriate.
It’s time for my yearly bitch about how I can’t find black/biracial/dark-skinned-in-general dolls in general stores.
My biggest complaint is with stores like HEB, Walgreens, CVS, (Wal-mart if I shopped there often enough) and Target. I”m mainly focusing on these stores because I hate to shop, I don’t go to malls, and I’m not going to pick on small, locally owned stores.
So, here goes.
Why the fuck can’t I find a doll for my daughter in a store that I shop at regularly? Is that too much to ask in this day and age?
We have a black (biracial) president. Dark-skinned populations are growing at vastly enormous rates in this country. (Don’t read the census, it’s skewed based on how they define “white,” etc.)
Here in Texas, it’s one of four states that has a “minority majority” population. Which means that white folks are the minority. Yep, that’s right y’all. We got more brown skins than white ones here. (Don’t even get me started on politics. Really.)
And yet, and yet, I still can’t find a damn brown-skinned baby doll at my local five and dime. Not even the ones on the brown side of town.
I paid three fucking times more on Amazon than I would have paid if the local grocery stores would stock a few on their pristine little shelves. Luckily she was eligible for super saver shipping, or I would been really bent out of shape.
I know that I posted last year about my joy at finding that Big Lots stocked some brown babies, which I bought.
But this year, Annika specifically wanted a life-sized dolly. She has been drooling over these girls everywhere we go.
When we first saw them in a Walgreens last summer, I started watching for them everywhere. They were on shelves in just about every store we went into for a while. Surely, the HEB on the east side of town will stock some dark-skinned dolls I thought stupidly. They did not.
Really? I mean, for real? I go into stores on those sides of town without Annika and people stare at me. (Okay, not really, but my skin color is, without a doubt, in the minority.) It amazes me that they only stock white dolls there.
The stress over this issue runs deeper still. Annika has started to show interest in doll houses and smaller dolls. Gah. I have been searching for about two years various ways I could put together a biracial family for her dollhouse. The only solution I’ve come up with is to split two families with another biracial family. Or buy them all separately.
I realize that this is not the worse thing in the world. My daughter isn’t being ousted for being racially different. Her life isn’t going to be dramatically affected by this doll obsession of mine. What this all boils down to is the fact that I hate to shop I just want my daughter to be able to find her place in the world at every step of the way and I can’t believe that stores are so fucking far behind the times socially.