“I want to be white!” said my beautiful, brown-skinned daughter.
I had heard about moments like these. About how difficult identity can be for transracial adoptees (kids with a different racial make-up than their adoptive parents). But nothing prepares you for your child’s pain and anxiety over their skin color.
I had just braided Dari’s hair with lavender beads that clicked when she moved her head. When she arrived at our home from foster care at 18 months, I admit that I was a disaster at doing her hair. But now she was 4, and I was proud of the compliments we got from other moms. I thought I was doing everything right to make her feel beautiful. At home in her own skin.
But clearly I wasn’t doing enough.
Dari frowned at me and said it again, “I wish I was white!” Then she collapsed in tears on my lap.
Before her arrival, I tried to prepare myself for being a white mom to a black child. I read every article I could find and joined Facebook groups on transracial adoption. My husband is black and Dari also has an older biracial brother. I know she was placed with our family, in part, because she would have a built-in connection to black culture. She has positive adult role models of color — family, friends, even her doctor. We live in a diverse neighborhood and I made sure that she wasn’t the only child of color in her dance class and preschool. I bought books featuring brown-skinned children, and most off all, I told her that everything about her was beautiful, especially her skin and hair.
Right away, I noticed how difficult it was to find dark-skinned toys and dolls, but I made sure she had them. I’ve driven all over town trying to find a Nutcracker ballerina with brown skin. I ordered our African-American angel tree topper off Etsy. I made sure my daughter’s princess pajamas had at least one brown princess on them. My daughter has Barbies in every skin tone and with every hair texture. Her baby dolls are black, Asian and white. When she was younger she seemed to show a preference for her light-skinned dolls. I worried.
“Should I stow the white ones away?” I asked my husband.
“Just give her time,” he told me. And he was right. Before long, I couldn’t detect any preference. She was playing with all of her dolls, no matter their skin tone.
Like most little girls, Dari developed an obsession with Elsa from Frozen. She had to be Elsa for Halloween — and she wanted the wig. That was another dilemma. Should I cover up her beautiful hair with synthetic blonde?
Because that’s what she wanted. And because of course Elsa can have brown skin. My daughter was only 3, but I took it as a chance to teach her that not only could she be Elsa, but anyone else that she wanted to be. I told her that she exuded Elsa’s essence, the snow queen’s strength, and her powerful love. These were the things that mattered — in addition to the aqua gown and that blonde hair.
By Dari’s 4th birthday, she’d had enough of Elsa. We gave her a doll that looked just like her. The same skin tone. The same hair texture. She also got a collection of matching outfits for her and the doll. But she seemed disappointed when she opened the gifts.
“We’re two black girls,” she said sadly.
Where was she getting this from?
How was she learning that being black is bad or less? I did know of an incident in her preschool class. A white boy had told her he didn’t like her dark skin. Could that be it?
My child didn’t love herself, and my heart was broken.
I knew that I was working against a powerful cultural bias. It wasn’t one single thing; it was a bias that permeated everything. It was that kid at school. It was Elsa. It was having a white mom. It was a living in a world that favors and promotes white skin and white girls over everyone else. She was so young, but she had figured it out.
It seemed out of the blue, but it wasn’t. And now she was crying because she was black.
I wanted to heal her. I wanted to teach her that black is beautiful, good, powerful, wonderful and amazing. And she was all of those things.
But it wasn’t working for me to just rattle off those words. Kids will take their mom’s admiration, but the truth is, they want it from the larger world. Especially as they get older.
I needed to get specific.
“What about Princess Tiana?” I asked her, “She’s so beautiful! And Doc McStuffins. Who is smarter and kinder than her? They’re amazing. And they’re black.”
Dari perked up a little bit. She knew I was right.
Now I had her attention. She loved those characters.
“What about Annie?” My daughter loved the remake with Quvenzhané Wallis. “They’re all black girls and they’re wonderful.”
Now my daughter was smiling. Yes, she also watched a lot of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, and stuff with fairies, but I was so grateful that these characters were out there. That these media role models were there for her. It’s so important.
And then the biggie popped into my head. I can’t believe I didn’t think of her first.
“What about Dorothy?” I asked.
My daughter loved The Wizard of Oz. We had to replace her first pair of ruby slippers when she outgrew them. But nothing stole her heart like The Wiz Live. She had watched it over and over.
“There’s no one like Dorothy,” I told her. “She’s strong and beautiful. Just like you. And what about her singing voice!”
My daughter had sung along enough times to know that it was true.
Of course, this is not going to be my only conversation with my daughter about this issue. I’ll be working against negative stereotypes and a media influence that is overwhelmingly white. Just like I am.
But my daughter, and other children of color, need more positive role models — especially in the media they consume. When she’s older she’ll have Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis. But she’ll also need role models like Malia and Sasha Obama. And movie stars. Pop stars. More princesses. Scientists. Astronauts. She’ll need those positive mirrors.
I’m trying to teach her that while we have different skin colors, mine is not better. It’s different, but not in any way that matters. What matters is Dorothy’s strength and her incredible voice, Doc McStuffin’s brains and kindness, and my daughter’s wit, style, bravery, compassion and intelligence. She’s smart enough to know that there is something about her that’s not celebrated in the same way that white girls are.
We all have to do better with our children. Even our white children. Make sure you don’t have the kind of kid who doesn’t like dark skin because maybe he never sees it at home. Be certain that your kids, whatever their color, understand early that the face they show the world comes from the traits within. And for parents with children of color, I know it’s going to be an uphill climb, but we can do it.
We have to make certain that our kids love the skin they’re in.More On