Butterscotch, chocolate, vanilla, hot fudge and caramel. No, not the local ice cream shop menu, these are the five sweet sensations my four year old uses to describe her family’s skin tones. It’s cute because she’s sort of matter of fact about it.
Just as ice cream comes in different flavours, so do we.
Fortunately for my daughter, she started to become aware of skin colour in a country where the majority were dark-skinned black. We were living in Nigeria when she had just turned two, she went to an international school where many children were from mixed cultural backgrounds and it was normal to have parents from two, sometimes 3 or 4 different racial backgrounds. So she had a very healthy sense of diversity.
Unfortunately, however, I soon discovered a new ‘ism’ that is not far from racism in its harmful effect. And it’s what awaits her as she does become more conscious.
‘Colourism’ is the term widely used to describe what happens within non-white racial groups when lighter skinned people are favoured, considered more beautiful and often more successful because of it. It is just as pervasive, if not less subtle, as discrimination is in the northern hemisphere. And just as painful to witness.
Our experience in Nigeria on the whole, was positive but it did have its setbacks. My daughter was noticed by Nigerians everywhere, not because she was smart or funny but because she had ‘beautiful long curls’. After my second daughter was born however, we experienced something slightly different. My middle daughter has auburn hair and lighter skin. For a mixed child, my older daughter is relatively dark. When the comparisons started, right in front of both of them, I started to become conscious that even within the black community, there will be questions.
To be honest, I’d never even thought about different shades of brown until I had my first child. It was soon after her birth here in England that the comments came. Nothing negative but certainly people noticed and commented that she was darker skinned, a recessive gene inherited perhaps from my biracial background being half Persian.
A year later, we travelled to Nigeria on holiday and I was waiting in the airport with my daughter. A woman approached and asked if she was mine. I answered yes. With a look of disapproval, she sneered that my husband must be ‘very dark’. I didn’t understand what had just happened but soon realised I was meant to take that as an insult. For me, it was perhaps just a fact. ‘Thank you’, I said naively.
Colourism still exists… no matter how far we’ve come
Skin colour politics still dominate many developing countries left over as it were, from colonial or even slavery days in America where lighter skinned folk were favoured by colonials and often educated and bestowed more prestigious jobs. While darker skinned people were given the back breaking work. The legacy of their colonial pasts still persists in places like India, Latin America and Africa where you might see lighter skinned celebrities and news readers. Even soul-destroying skin bleach products are still in rampant demand. While more labour intensive jobs remain mostly filled by darker people.
In the West, it’s definitely more subtle and only persists, as far as I can tell, in the positively spun comments made about mixed race babies being the most ‘beautiful’ and ‘so cute’. Understandably, there is a still a lot of anger within the black community that the concept of beauty is still very much dominated by light skinned black folk with loose curls.
I can say that my daughter is singled out here but more so because of her curly black hair which ‘drops’ while my middle daughter’s hair is a much thicker texture and grows more like an afro style might.
All of my three have different skin shades and I love the way my darling daughter describes us in delicious flavours. But I’m also very aware that she is beginning to notice skin shades in greater depth. She notices that many of her role models are ‘vanilla’- her mother, her teachers, her swimming instructor, Elsa and Anna… Sure, she has a few black mentors but her life is dominated by folks who don’t look like her.
My sister’s children, who are mixed South Asian, Iranian and a quarter white are both very light skinned. Her oldest is even able to pass as white. This, in itself, brings with it other issues where people assume a darker skinned mum might be the nanny and not her parent.
How do we encourage our children to love the skin they’re in?
Living in London is probably one of the most diverse places we can go to expose our children to people of all different ethnicities, skin tones and racial backgrounds. Although white people are the majority, with effort, our kids will have many people to which they can associate positive attributes to darker skin: their dad and extended family being major players in that.
When my kids ask the inevitable question about why they don’t have lighter skin, I want to have an open discussion about why that’s important to them. We’re conditioned from a very young age to see skin colour. And that’s okay. But the social meanings and how we educate our children is up to us.