My 5-year-old son Mateo crushed my heart with one sentence. We were talking about growing up and he said, “When I grow up, I don’t want a beard or a mustache, and I want my skin to be white because I don’t want to be brown.”
I inhaled to fight what felt like a blow to the stomach, and to try to pull together a response. I was devastated. Had my husband and I not taught him to love himself and his skin? Did we not try hard enough to teach him about his culture and his heritage? This was not our first conversation about race, and as a second-time mother I’d answered questions and had discussions about identity with my oldest son. But I was not prepared for this. Were our family and our friends not enough to compete with the media and the world? My head was spinning.
Had my husband and I not taught him to love himself and his skin?
“Why don’t you want to be brown?” I asked as calmly as I could.
“Because I want to be white like my friends,” Mateo replied.
I quickly pointed out his friends of color and discovered that he was equating anyone who did not have obvious brown skin as white, including his multiracial and Asian friends. I explained to him his friends’ origins and reminded him of the importance of diversity. I made sure to talk about how special we were for being black and that he should be proud, but midway through my speech his 5-year-old attention span returned to his action figures and I wrapped up my conversation. In that moment I was hurting, but my adrenaline began to pump faster as I found my new mission: teaching our son to love his skin.
Right after our conversation, I looked at the Star Wars figures in Mateo’s hands and wondered how much we contributed to this with what we gave him. My husband David and I began to critique the toys that received the most play time or the shows that he liked to watch the most and I realized it was time for what I called “the blackout”: to increase the amount of toys, books, and movies featuring black characters in his life.
When my 21-year-old son Kamau was Mateo’s age I bought him several toys from a black-owned toy company, some that he still has today. Not to say that books and toys can do the job of teaching our children self-love, but I believe it helps to grow up in an environment where you can physically see yourself being included and celebrated by others. While I believe this, I must also admit that internalized racism and race envy is common for many children of color, including my oldest son and myself.
Growing up, Kamau was not as focused on being white. But as an avid fan of Japanese anime and manga, he wanted to have “a long ponytail and hair that stood up” like his favorite characters. Coincidentally, Mateo has talked about wanting straight hair “like his friends” and I recall dreaming of losing my thick, frizzy hair and having silky, blonde hair and white skin when I was an 8 year old in the early ‘80s.
Like our sons, I felt isolated and I thought that what was white was beautiful, and like my children, I had black books and toys. I also had siblings in college who were political activists trying to teach me about our culture and our history, but at the time their lessons could not compete with MTV. I never articulated my internalized racism to my family—and with a white stepfather, a white stepmother, and white stepsiblings, I’m not sure if I would have ever felt comfortable enough to do so. Outside of my oldest siblings’ efforts, there was limited discussion in my mother’s house and no conversations in my father’s house—race was just a fact.
I learned black history but somehow it felt detached from who I was, and the brilliant inventors, leaders, and accomplished people I learned about didn’t make me feel beautiful. The one moment that I remember feeling a sense of pride around how I looked was when I was about 6 and my mother had me make a “Black Is Beautiful” collage. I searched through Ebony and Essence magazines and I found images of beautiful black women. This was when Jane Kennedy, Iman, and Beverly Johnson were popular and that project made me feel proud. When I became a mother I tried to instill racial pride in Kamau, and immerse him in an atmosphere and a community where he had diverse and positive examples of black beauty.
The challenge is that there’s no guarantee that our children will adopt these ideas of beauty for themselves. It took a few years and my own journey to discover my sense of pride, as it did for Kamau. We have to try to clear a space for Mateo to make his own path.
The blackout plan was a simple plan, but I felt it was an appropriate start for a preschooler. Our skin conversation also happened serendipitously a few days before Kwanzaa, so it was another reason for Mateo to experience his first Kwanzaa. He looked forward to lighting the candles each night and shouting “Harambe!” at the end of the evening. Of course he could not completely comprehend all of the concepts and he missed some of the ritual, but I loved to hear him correctly answer “Kuchichagalia” (Self-determination) as the principle of the day to my “Habari Gani?” (What’s happening?).
As we began to teach him about the holiday, we wanted him to understand that he was a part of something bigger than himself and the family. Despite the diversity in our family, in our friendships, and in his preschool, Mateo was feeling isolated and we needed to address that feeling. During this process I also realized how much he had to learn and I used every opportunity to teach him more, from telling him that a black man invented the traffic light, to rereading him our books with Swahili words, and just pointing out the characters and celebrities that he likes that are black. Again a simplistic step, but I wanted him to find affirmative black representations in all aspects of his life. I capitalized on his interest in baseball and read to him about Jackie Robinson, and for his love of music and dancing, he watched videos of African drumming and dancing (he immediately performed his own interpretation). My heart felt a little more at ease when I read him one of his brother’s favorite childhood books and Mateo began to positively identify the black characters to me.
There were also the harder lessons, as we talked more about the Civil Rights Movement and he learned a little about slavery. These discussions were framed between the ideas of unity and justice and in the leadership of heroes like Dr. King and Harriet Tubman. I was honest but limited my information appropriately to keep him from turning his self-love into disdain for other races.
I wanted him to find affirmative black representations in all aspects of his life.
I eventually took the blackout plan to what Mateo loves most: toys. I cleaned out stores and searched online for black action figures and toys that offered his reflection for his Christmas, Kwanzaa, and recent birthday gifts. Sometimes we were a little disappointed when his black figures did not stir the same excitement of Darth Vader, but we played with him and made sure to highlight all of the selling points for these new toys until he was repeating them back to us. I opened up dusty boxes to retrieve his brother’s old toys to increase the black toy cool factor, but we were careful to not downplay his non-black toys. We know that we cannot control his preference but we are happy to give him more choices and pleased that sometimes the “brown guy” wins.
Throughout these last few weeks Mateo has decided on his own that he doesn’t want to be white anymore and that he likes being black. He requests the books that Kamau once read, which are filled with mischievous black boys, and we have discovered some new books. Mateo mentions race more often, but in an affirming way. “Everyone is special and we can’t all be the same,” he says. At 5, he will continue to repeat our words, but we know he will begin to have his own and we want him to be knowledgeable and feel proud of who he is. We know that our mission is not over and that Mateo will have his own identity journey, but we are grateful that for now our son wants to keep his skin.