Forced to reckon with how I feel about my color
By Norma Newton as published in The New York Times’ Parenting Section
Photo by Carolina Adame
Breaching colorism with my little girl sent me reeling back into my childhood shame.
Our bedtime routine that night started off like so many others, harried but mostly sweet. After making our way through brushing teeth and getting into pajamas, my daughter and I lay down on her bedroom floor to sing songs, the final step before crawling into bed.
When I tried to curl up next to my 4-year-old, though, I sensed her hesitation. She wiggled her little body away from mine each time I inched closer. “Do you not want mommy close to you, sweetie?” I asked, assuming she was initiating a game to extend our nighttime ritual. Her light-brown eyes locked in on me as she brushed her honey-colored locks aside with her hand.
In a casual on-the-edge-of-sleep voice she cooed, “Your skin is dark. I don’t want you to touch me.”
My brown Indigenous Latina body stiffened; I labored to breathe, outraged and confused. She rendered me speechless.
Did my daughter think I would contaminate her pinkish, almost golden skin? Had she already begun to decode what our culture adores and what it abhors? Had I unknowingly conveyed negative views of brownness, causing her to absorb them? Did she intuit my lifelong ambivalence about my skin color?
Some 35 years earlier, after being teased by white classmates because of my brown skin, I ran home from school crying inconsolably and pleaded with my mother: Why am I not white? Can I be white, like them? Her laughter is all I remember from our exchange.
Growing up in 1950s Mexico, among the calcified disdain for its Indigenous past, left my mother without the skills and necessary self-reflection to guide me through the maze of color consciousness. These were tools she never thought twice about as a working-class immigrant in racially stratified California, with no spare time to ruminate about skin color. Perhaps because my mother was left to make meaning of her dark skin on her own, she could not help me make meaning of mine.
History now threatened to repeat itself. If I didn’t say something soon, I feared my daughter would resent me for leaving her alone with these undigested feelings, or worse, I would grow to hate her for saying what she did. I wanted to run away, to shield myself and her, from the cultural realities that had crept into her bedroom.
But I forced myself to engage with her. I was determined to muster language and a parenting style different from what I’d known. I had to dig in, without making her feel ashamed or burdening her with how deeply wounded I felt.
“What’s wrong with my skin color, honey?” My hue is raw almond-like in the winter, darkening to an unpeeled macadamia nut shade by summer’s end.
“It’s ugly,” she blurted.
What spilled from my mouth next was false, though I wished it wasn’t: “I love the color of my skin.” I desperately wanted her to believe me, and maybe even a little more than that, I wanted to believe myself. Yet having been silenced by laughter and left alone to process years of slights, by both white and Latinx individuals because of my color, I was submerged in shame.
The truth is: I have a fraught relationship with my brownness. Tortured, actually. Some days I take pride in being brown for the rich history it reveals. The story of my Purépecha ancestors’ creativity, strength and resilience, my skin color is testimony of a legacy that not even Spanish colonialism could entirely erase.
Other days, I wish I could walk through the world carefree, without being dismissed as hired help by white mothers, or receiving suspicious glances by these women as I leave the park with my too-light-to-possibly-be-mine child. Love, hate. Sometimes something in between.
And here it is, within the confines of my own home: daughter and mother playing out what goes on in my world, in our culture, daily.
Seemingly repulsed, she scooted even further away. I inched closer. She stuck a stiff arm out to stop me, as if to protect her porcelain skin from my muddied shade. Could she smell my shame? I felt pulled to apologize for being ugly in her eyes, for being brown. I yearned to tell her I understood why she disliked the way I looked, and to share that I disliked myself sometimes too. I resisted.
All I wanted to do was peel my skin off, to hang it up for someone else to wear. Anything to avoid the absolute humiliation and reminder that my pigmentation made me untouchable in the eyes of someone I loved so much, someone I assumed would accept me in the same unconditional way I accepted her. Someone I made. Someone who could have looked like me but doesn’t.
I figured the unexamined nuances of my relationship with my melanin would be lost on her, so I kept my words simple and held back my tears. “What skin color do you think is beautiful?” Without pause, she chirped, “White! Like daddy’s belly.” She coveted the whitest part of his body, the color furthest from mine.
I repeated, “I love my skin color.” She said nothing. Her silence felt equal parts dismissive and contemplative. I was unsure if my words had seeped in.
Was I the only brown mother being shunned by her light-skinned preschooler?
Parents who differ in hue from their children rarely discuss moments like these publicly, leaving gaping holes in the understanding of family lineage, cultural history and development of self-esteem. Nonetheless, studies show children as young as 3 months old are aware of racial differences and, by preschool, children begin selecting playmates based on race. Studies also show that young children, across ethnic backgrounds, demonstrate a preferential bias toward white dolls and objects.
Apparently, my 4-year-old articulated precisely what researchers know to be true for children her age. Plain and simple: White is best. And therefore, I am not.
Confronted by her unintentionally harsh words, I was forced to reckon with how I feel about my color, a reality that has pained me for decades. And it’s time. In order for my daughter to see brown as beautiful and normal, I need to believe it too.
Since that night, I’ve reached for positive examples of dark-skinned people in books, art and history, collecting in my home and heart reflections of brown beauty, brown greatness, to share with my daughter. My plan also includes expert support: child whisperers to counsel me through race conversations with my kids and personal therapy to facilitate deeper self-examination.
I’m evolving. I can’t honestly say I wholeheartedly love the color of my skin every day. But I can say that our hurtful interaction woke me up to something that deserved examination. My daughter’s perspective on skin color is also changing. We still have occasional bedtime chats about color, although her attitude around the topic has softened. While she continues to explore skin tone, her uneasiness with darkness has subsided, making space for her to recognize the beauty and humanity in brownness.
It turns out, my need to hear affirming words about my skin was as pressing as my daughter’s need to hear them from me. By guiding her through the complexity of love and color, I’m also educating myself.