50 shades of brown: Raising Mixed Kids in a Colourist World

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.


What was your advent calendar like this year?

For Christmas this year I wanted my girls to experience a chocolate free advent.  So I began looking around early to see if there were decent alternatives that were equally as exciting for two expectant girls looking for their chocolate fix.

Thankfully, I wasn’t struggling for inspiration. Type advent calendar into google and you come up with all sorts of ideas. From diy-ing it yourself to religious inspired pin ups and more. I was so inspired in fact, I decided to do two. For the visual countdown that both my two year old and four year old can understand, I decided on a Santa’s beard calendar. Each day, they glue on a cotton ball to Santa’s beard marking one more sleep closer to Santa’s arrival.


Then, to add some meaning to our Christmas and in hopes that the girls understand the Christmas story, we bought them the Playmobile Nativity scene. It doesn’t actually come as an advent calendar so I have been boxing one piece for them everyday to create the scene. This is a real hit and it’s been great to see both of them excited to find what’s waiting for them each morning, then being able to play with the miniatures each day.


Next year though, I want to incorporate more of the giving part of Christmas than the receiving.  I found this list of 50 acts of kindness for kids at advent on pinterest which is great. It includes ideas like: bake  goodies and give them to your neighbours; write a letter telling your brother/ sister how much you love them and; make a christmas card for your teacher. I intend to add a few of my own and make it personal to my child(ren).

Here is another idea from Thirdculturemama which is also  about exploring advent globally and remembering others across the world.

A friend of mine recently posted a picture of this advent calendar which looks really great. Learning how to say hello around the world! IMG_6866

What were your ideas for advent this year? I’d love to hear from you.

‘What are you on about??’

“Clear!”, he shouted as I clutched the wheel heading into more oncoming traffic. “What are you saying?! What does that mean?”, I shouted back. In desperation, the two of us just looked at each other, dumbfounded that the other seemed to be talking a different language.

“Pull over!”, my-then-boyfriend-now-husband said in exasperation as he realised I had no idea what he was on about.

Dutifully, I pulled over. Why didn’t he just say that? I remember thinking.

That was 10 years ago, our first realisation that although both of us spoke the same first language, lived in the same country and had many things in common, our upbringings were hugely different. And despite all of our commonalities, our differences were a much bigger challenge than we’d thought. “Clear”, I soon discovered, was a Nigerianism meaning pull over or pull to the side.

My husband and I herald from four parts of the globe as far apart from each other as you can get. My father is from Iran, my mother from England and I grew up in Canada. My husband is born and raised in Nigeria, with exposure to British colonial and cultural norms.

In any relationship, the challenges of ‘getting serious’, considering where is ‘home’, family, finances, gender roles, religion and raising children are all big questions. Throw cultural differences into the heap and you can almost feel as if you’re speaking different languages.

For us I think those big questions were obvious and we did tend to talk about them a lot before we said the big I do. But it was the little things that we didn’t consider and that we’re still discovering about each other. Things that research on this subject just doesn’t seem to explore.

It’s how we both think, the inherent ‘street wise’ instinct hubby has just from living in a country where ‘hustling’ is the norm. I lived the stereotypical suburban life in small town Alberta where locking our door during the day was unheard of. As a result, my husband is much more observant of people and things and subtleties than I am. Whether that’s just our personalities I hasten to guess. But after travelling to Lagos and being chastised for handing over my passport to a customs officer in uniform and not keeping my eye on what he was doing with it, I realised I have much to learn about being streetwise.

I am also much more verbal than my husband. Again, this could just be down to personality because I know I am definitely more into chatting than he is.  But again, after spending some time in Nigeria, I realised people are expected to learn by observing rather than by explanation or asking questions. In my early twenties, I lived in Ghana and was so curious about everything I was experiencing. So I asked. It was my friend who was showing me the ropes who finally explained, ‘stop talking and just watch’. I often think back to that moment when my hubby and I are arguing over something I don’t understand.

Raising children in the way we were both brought up can become another battleground. Questioning what one partner might take for granted as normal becomes an accepted part of your everyday. Simply because ‘that’s how I was brought up’ and ‘how can you question it?’ just doesn’t cut it.

Take our debate about piercing our daughter’s ears when our eldest was born. I knew it was a cultural tradition and pretty much every Nigerian girl has their ears pierced when they’re born- including all my nieces. But cultural tradition wasn’t enough for me. He wasn’t able to give an answer as to why it was important and in the end, he conceded it might be better to wait. We now face the often unpleasant comments from other Nigerians questioning why aren’t her ears pierced and how can we tell if she’s a girl or not? Never mind that she’s wearing a flowery jumper or has on a frilly top.

More than 10 years later, our lives have taken us to Nigeria and back, to Edmonton, Canada for long extended stays and now back to London, England. It’s been good for us to spend time in each other’s ‘homes’- learning more about each other than we ever could have just through communication. But England offers us something neither of these countries can. A neutral ground for us as a couple where we’re both just as lost as the other trying to decipher things like ‘what is the real pronunciation of ‘neither’?

We’re making choices as we go and sometimes the simplest of tasks or events can lead to debate. It’s often exhausting and I have to admit I do sometimes envy marriages between people who’ve grown up together in the same town and who can relate on so many levels. But as time goes on, I think my husband and I are both beginning to grow having been confronted with the question why. Consciously unravelling and exploring exactly who we are and why we believe in certain things can be uncomfortable. But isn’t all growth?  And with more consciousness comes understanding, empathy and compromise. Characteristics that hopefully our children will learn to value.



Check out these incredible greeting cards all about mixed girls and goddesses

In just a few short days since launching this blog, I feel absolutely whole again, as if I’ve found what I’m passionate about and can begin creating a community that shares, inspires and grows together. Starting this blog has been life changing and meeting creative minds and supportive friends such as Joanne Stevenson above is only the beginning.

Joanne’s story is inspiring. With two little girls of mixed heritage herself, Joanne quit the corporate ladder to pursue her artistic talent. Her paintings as well as her line of greeting cards are incredible- the reason I’d like to share her website so you too can be inspired!



The Middle child

Ask my brother and he would love to tell you how he didn’t get the same attention and love that my parents gave me and my sister. He’s the middle child and can seriously wax lyrical about how hard-done-by he was.

Fast forward a couple of decades and now I have three. My husband, third of six, also very aware of his ‘middle child’ status is keen to ensure our second daughter never feels deprived.

From hand me downs to sweet-giving to birthday parties… everything we say or give to our oldest is measured against whether we can do it for all three.

And this is harder than it looks. When the oldest grows out of her scooter and it’s still in great shape, why shouldn’t we pass it on to the next one? When one is old enough to go on a sleepover and the other isn’t, why should the eldest be held back?

It’s all gotten very confusing to me and I know we’re going to make mistakes along the way. But I am very aware of it and noted recently that  my middle child’s first and more powerful statements as a two year old is (with arms crossed firmly over her chest), “it’s not fair on me!”

I, being the youngest, undoubtedly had the stereotypical childhood of ease and indulgence as my parents were more relaxed with parenting, probably tired and much more ready to grant me that freedom.

Conventional wisdom about the middle child suggests middle children are neglected, misunderstood and undervalued. Their place in the birth order suggests parents are tired when they come along, having gone through the emotional turmoil of joys and fears with the first and willing enough to lavish it on when it comes to the youngest because they know it’s their last.

My middle daughter has all the hallmarks of what I thought marked the middle child. A feisty spirit, the constant feeling that she’s being hard done by- fighting for her place from both her older and her younger sisters-and fierce independence. Whether or not these are traits that will follow her until adulthood, I already feel guilty these first two years of her little life.

In researching for this post, I thought I’d come across a bunch of research that would back up my instinct that the middle child is less likely to succeed. But apparently I was wrong.

Research instead (and there’s a whole lot of it on birth order) suggests middle children are given attributes such as empathy, articulacy, independence and creativity. Having to negotiate with those both older and younger, they learn the art of compromise, loyalty, and the ability to see the others’ point of view. Take one of the modern geniuses of our time- Bill Gates. His ability to think outside the box and take risks are trademarks of a middle child.

Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy- heck, 52% of American presidents were middle children- well over their representative numbers.

In the same Swedish study, middle children were also found more likely to stay married. 80% of married middle children stayed together while only 50% of youngest children did.

So we can stop worrying. I certainly will. My child is fierce and she will fight harder to make her voice known but she’ll turn out okay- just like the millions who’ve gone before her.

One thing I know I can’t avoid however, is the tale she’ll tell when she’s grown about how her parents gave her her sister’s old scooter…

Taye Diggs had the audacity to call his son ‘mixed’

Attacked this week was Hollywood actor Taye Diggs over his son, Walker (6) whom he shares with his former wife Idina Menzel. Menzel is caucasian and so it follows their son is biracial. But Diggs had the audacity to say he is mixed.

To Americans, this is equivalent to Diggs denying his own black identity, refuting his history and ignoring the one-drop rule which has defined American race politics and identity. The likes of Tiger Woods and Lewis Hamilton are often slammed for their refusal to identify solely as Black. Instead, they purport they are indeed mixed.

Tiger who is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Thai, one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American, and one-eighth Dutch jokingly refers to his ethnic make-up as “Cablinasian” (a syllabic abbreviation he coined from Caucasian, Black, (American) Indian, and Asian).

Obama, however, perhaps for simplicity’s sake when running for American president knew that identifying as one-half anything would hurt his political ambitions. He opted early on to adopt an entirely Black identity. And without any of his white relatives alive to contest, he’s been largely accepted.

Although the one-drop rule was invented by white segregationists who were keen to keep their racial blood lines ‘pure’, African Americans themselves are fierce critics of the multi-racial category. To this day, only 7 percent of Americans identify as multi-racial (when many believe the numbers are much higher).

American sitcoms, dramas and day time soap operas still exhibit same-race couples. And when there is an exception, it’s usually a show looking to make major ripples (like the sitcom Ellen in the early 2000’s when they featured a same-sex kiss). British tv, on the other hand, features inter racial dating as naturally as any other couple. It’s refreshing to see.

To me, the one-drop rule seems outdated and completely against an individual’s right to define his/herself. I get the argument that yes, he will  be seen throughout his life as Black and his experience probably largely defined by living as a Black man in a racist world. But, we have to start somewhere don’t we? Walker will be influenced by both his parents and that will complete his identity. He shouldn’t be forced to choose just because the world does it for him. Let me know what you think by commenting below.

Be sure to read Diggs’ latest book ‘Mixed Me’ which is about a biracial family. I’ll be ordering it soon for my little ones and I’ll be sure to include a review.  Well done Taye for stepping up, speaking out and writing about it.


“Mummy, I hate my sticky-out bum”

Those words were uttered by my oldest daughter followed by floods of tears on her way home from school. “Why can’t I have a ‘flat’ bum Mama?”, she asked through sobs.

I can’t tell you how much pain I felt in that moment. My daughter is four years old.

I mean, I knew it was coming. I have three daughters. Indeed, body image and consciousness sort of go with the territory. But I expected it later, much later- when we’ve put in the groundwork.  When she knows that yes, she may be curvy and more shapely than the stick thin models she sees in magazines and online, AND she is beautiful.

In that moment, I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. You see, to a 4 year old, most 4 year old girls, their most important role model is their mother.  It’s why my little one tries to play house and mama to her babies and tell off her sister, and plays kitchen and… the list goes on. Her mama who has ‘vanilla’ skin, a ‘flat’ bum (much to my dismay), and straight hair. In other words, I look nothing like her.

I thought about the millions of pounds men and women spend on bronzing their skin, on adding volume and curls to their hair and, more recently, to inserting bum implants to achieve the curvaceous figures sported by the likes of Beyonce, J-Lo and Shakira.

But I couldn’t really say all that. Talk about too much information.

I just had to hold her. And validate her. And tell her over and over how beautiful she is. All in the middle of the street as I promised to buy her a new P.E. kit that wouldn’t accentuate her derriere.

A friend of mine pointed out angrily, why do we even engage? Should it matter? Because when we do, we’re just reinforcing the point to our daughters that looks matter. Why are we talking about their beauty and how they look at such a young age. Her boys never look in the mirror and strike a pose or ask, ‘how do I look Mama?’ So why do mine?

I stopped engaging in the nature vs. nurture debate a long time ago, beaten as it were by nature. I was a tomboy and wanted my first born, whatever the gender to follow in my footsteps and love sports- most of all, football. As God would have it, I have the most girly girl daughter you could have. From a very young age, she was choosing pink, asking for princess dress up outfits, posing in her tiara and insisting on wearing high heels. Whether or not she was pre-destined to be like that I can’t answer but I can say that I did fight it tooth and nail.

My Suzy Q will never have a flat bum. I don’t think she’ll take after her Dad and have a stick thin figure either. But she needs to know that she is beautiful. She absolutely has to. I will never forgive the magazine and advertising industry for letting my daughter doubt her sense of self so early on in her little life. (I have to admit, I unashamedly resorted to showing her pictures of Beyonce and Shakira in poses from behind).

But I know now, I have my work cut out. I can never slack. Exposing her to as many amazing strong black female role models that look like her is important. Not just because she’s a girl but because she’s black and mixed and deserves much more than the world has shown her at 4.

At at time when parents are spending more time than ever with their children, if you were ever in doubt, here’s the reason why we need to be there for our daughters at every moment, no matter how old they are.

If you’re looking for resources or books that reinforce a healthy body image for your sons or daughters, check out these books: