Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Colour Brown

About four months ago (about six months home from Ethiopia), I knew with sudden clarity that it was time to initiate conversations with our kids about skin colour...and to verbally recognize the difference between Seth's and Lizzie's skin colour and Geoff's/Matthew's/my skin colour.  The kids had been home for long enough, their language was good enough, and it was clearly, clearly time.

The moment of my realization caught me off guard and unprepared.  The kids and I were walking out of a building after the boys' weekly gym class and I was holding the door open for my kids to walk through; I continued to hold the door for a man passing through just behind us.  Seth looked at the man's face as he walked through the door, did a double-take and then just outright stared.  Then, just as the man was walking by, Seth said in a tone of disgust "dat man's face blackBleh!"  I hope the man didn't hear Seth, but I'm not overly confident...I can only hope that Seth's accent made his words unintelligible for someone walking a couple of feet away.

I was dumbfounded.  Speechless.  Mortified.  I had, of course, been expecting differences to be noted between dark and pale skin; had been mentally bracing myself for a day when my kids will experience some manner of discrimination from a white kid; something like that.  But I had never ever thought, in my naive little mind, that the discrimination might come from my own kid, and be directed at another person of colour.  It's probably true that the kids had, at that point, seen many more people who looked brown like themselves, rather than someone whose skin was inky black.  Clearly the man's appearance took Seth aback.  But his reaction was something that I was in no way prepared to handle, despite a friend having told me before that she had witnessed this before, when in Eritrea (a country adjoining Ethiopia) some years ago.

That evening, when putting Seth to bed, I made my first foray into a real conversation about skin colour by exploring with him a little bit his reaction to seeing the man after gym class - it was somewhat complicated by the fact that Seth's language was still a bit of a challenge, particularly around concepts.   He said that in Ethiopia black skin wasn't a good thing, though he didn't know why.  I was actually encouraged by his uncertainty about why this might be his view, because it gave us opportunity to talk about what kinds of things really made a person nice or not nice ("bleh"), and we talked about the differences in skin colour between him and me and what that might (or might not) say about the kind of people we are.  He concluded that even though he and I had a different skin colour, he thought that "we both ok" and I casually extrapolated that conclusion to his perception of the man he'd seen earlier in the day.  My hope is that this was a non-complex way (a starting point) to give him something new to think about when it came to his evaluation of skin colour.

Since then, we've had numerous conversations about skin colour differences.  Frankly, it's been hard for me to raise the topic.  In part it's been hard because I've been dealing with a child whose starting point was an assumption that black skin was automatically a bad thing; it's hard to start out from that baseline without making him feel shame, but start there we did because I want him to really and truly internalize  what he comes to think/believe about differences in people and not just squelch behaviour because I've shamed him into it.  It's a slower process for sure.  The other thing that's made it hard for me to have these conversations is because I don't really know how to.  It seems to me that we don't actually talk a lot about race/colour/differences in our society...or maybe it's just me.  It feels awkward to me.  And because I don't know how to talk about it, I worry that I might say the 'wrong' thing, or that I might offend someone; and in the case of my children, I worry that I might inadvertently teach them in such a way that they won't feel about themselves (or others) the way I hope they will.  Does all of that make sense?

All of the awkwardness I've felt has led me to understand about myself that I'd be far more comfortable just assuming that Seth (and Matthew and Lizize) is ok with things as they are. But I remember reading in that book Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, by Sherrie Eldridge, that parents must not assume that just because our kids don't raise such issues that we can be complacent about it - we need to initiate the conversations.

That totally makes sense to me.  It's not like Seth and Lizzie don't notice things such as skin colour differences.  Seth certainly did that day.  They also notice now, too, that strangers in a store pick us out as a unique-looking family, and sort of get that it's because we have different skin colours in our family. And if they don't think to raise the topic, or feel comfortable doing it, it's up to Geoff and me to do so.

And so, we've begun.  Since the incident with Seth after gym class, I've been initiating conversations about colour versus race.  I don't think he understands the difference between colour and race yet, and didn't believe me when I mentioned that he would be considered "black" by most people who see him.  He thinks of himself as brown, and I'm just going with that for now - until I know his perception of skin colour is a little more balanced.  I've asked him how it might have felt to that man after gym glass if he'd heard Seth's comment about his skin colour, and how Seth might feel if someone ever says something like that to him; we've talked about all kinds of things that make people different and the ways in which people are the same/similar; we've talked about the things that make people interesting to us (skin colour as well as what a person is like on the inside); we've spent time talking about how we can tell what a person is like on the inside in addition to looking at the outside; we've noted what it's like to live in a family where there are two skin colours; and we regularly talk now about what's beautiful about different colours of skin and hair, and what we like/dislike about our own colours.

I also, just once, mentioned to Seth that, just like he said "bleh" about that man's skin colour, there will be people in his life who will say or think that about him; I don't think he's quite ready for that direct a conversation yet, but a seed was planted for future conversations that we will need to have.  It makes me terribly sad to know that I need to prepare my children for the certainty that there will be people in their lives who will judge and reject them for/by the colour of their skin; that there will be people who will be scared of him as a teenager only because he's black and might be wearing a hoodie; that people in law enforcement might treat him differently because of his race or, worse, treat him brutally.  I've thought about Treyvon Martin so often in the past few weeks.

These brief conversations with Seth, and knowing a little of the kinds of conversations to come, have given me the tiniest of windows into how incredibly difficult it must be for generation after generation of parents of colour who have had to talk to their children, whom they would give their life blood to protect, about such things as racism and discrimination.  How can a child possibly come to grips with the fact that someone might want to hurt them (emotionally, physically, sexually) simply because of the colour of their skin?  Sadly, embarrassingly, horrifyingly, that 'someone' is most likely to be a person who wears the same colour of skin that I do.  Maybe it is me.

This is a huge area of learning and growth for me and I am muddling my way through.  But I was encouraged when, about six or so weeks ago, I met Seth's new Sunday School teacher, a young man in his teens whose skin is similar in shade to the man we'd encountered in the doorway two or three months earlier.  I met the new teacher on the day that he began working with Seth's class, after Sunday School had finished for the morning.  I have to tell you that my first reaction upon seeing him was to worry about what Seth might have said.  I introduced myself to the teacher, and asked how things had gone; apparently they went very well, and Seth had apparently wanted to wrestle with his teacher (a little too much!).  I didn't feel brave enough to initiate a conversation with the teacher about race, but I do think it might have been wise to chat with the teacher about Seth's earlier reaction, in the hopes of reducing the odds of Seth hurting his new teacher's feelings or the relationship.  Thankfully, though, the relationship seemed to be off to  a good start and I was saved a conversation that I didn't feel ready for.

Later that day, I had a chance to sit down with Seth and ask him what he thought of his new Sunday School teacher.  He said he was "nice."  I asked what he meant and he told me a couple of nice things that his teacher had done/said.  I then observed out loud that his teacher had black skin, in contrast to the colour of his own skin, and in contrast to mine.  Seth agreed.  I asked if he'd noticed, and Seth said "yeah" in that duh kind of voice that only kids can do so well.  I asked what he thought about that and he said it was "fine."  He then noted that his teacher's skin was very dark, and different than his own, and then added that "he was very nice to me."  It was another good opportunity to talk about differences and likenesses between people and how God had created us all different - inside and out.  In the weeks since that first meeting with his Sunday School teacher, Seth has come home with lots of good things to say about his teacher, and I'm thankful that he is experiencing someone that has such a positive impact on his life.  But I know that this is just the beginning.

I've also had a few race-related conversations with Matthew (in fact, those started before his siblings came home from Ethiopia), and I've just recently begun such conversations with Lizzie.  Though she is younger, she is becoming cognizant of the differences in skin colour and I have noticed her occasionally looking longer at people of colour.  Then, just recently, when holding our arms up together and noticing the differences between her colour and mine, I referred to the different colours as brown and peach.  She said "no, Mommy; your skin is like peach, but mine like chocolate!  Yummy chocolate."  I agreed with her and said that maybe this is why I love to nibble at her, because she looks and tastes delicious to me.  She laughed and we proceeded to nibble at each other's arms.  I asked her if she noticed people with brown skin, and she immediately talked, in her somewhat broken vocabulary, about a little girl in her Sunday School class who has brown skin like hers.  Given that she has only attended Sunday School a handful of times (usually she stays with me), I could tell that this had impacted her.  She said that she liked it.  Then she added that Seth had the same colour skin as her and that "was good in our family."  (I thanked God in that moment that we had two Ethiopian-born children.)

This is a challenging area for me, and I am really working on it.  I have not lived in my children's shoes and I don't know from personal experience what it is like to be brown in a sea of white in this part of the world...or in my neighbourhood.  I don't know what preconceived notions I have about people of colour and what issues I will have to grapple with as my children age and undergo experiences of racism or discrimination.  I've heard many people say, over the years, that they simply don't notice skin colour, but I think that's hogwash.  Of course people notice colour; we're (mostly) not colour blind and certainly I can see that my children notice colour, too.  How we choose to act as a result of that observation is a much more interesting topic of conversation, IMHO.  I need and want to be prepared to work with my children: that may mean helping them, as they get older, find mentors who are people of colour; it will mean helping them prepare for the inevitable experiences of discrimination that they will suffer; it will mean protecting and defending them at times, and educating others at other times; it will mean being a 'soft spot to land' when things happen that wound them.  I don't frankly know what it will all mean. But I will do whatever...and I need to prepare myself to actually do whatever.

I think my two younger children are beautiful, and the richness and lushness and depth of their skin colour is part of what I see in them that is beautiful.  But more importantly than what I think, I want them to love and appreciate themselves for who God created them to be - inside and out.  I want them to appreciate the variety and beauty of God's creation as they look to other people and so I need to continue to figure this stuff out in order to prepare (myself and) them for a world that isn't always a just one.  They are already viewed as a little different because they are (obviously) children of adoption; their race is another point of distinction that will impact their lives.

I hope even in writing this I have not offended anyone with my words or intentions or actions or assumptions.  I am out of my depth here and I welcome feedback that will add to my knowledge and understanding.   But I refuse not to talk about it, and am becoming more comfortable talking about it, because I believe to my core that to stop talking about it would be the greatest discourtesy to my children...all three of them.


  1. I love this blog posting!
    1. On my recent trip south I encountered many mixed race couples, couples with 'obviously' adopted children of another race, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed observing how love overcomes any perceptions about racial differences.
    2. I recently read a research article on racism that concluded that 100% of us are racist, i.e. biased toward people of our own race. The difference then, is how we choose to process those thoughts/feelings and, of course, how we ACT (or don't) on them. This was reassuring to me, as I've experienced and heard stories of reverse-discrimination. Even, as a large woman, getting on a plane and finding my seat, I've seen so many ways of people reacting to me that I know discrimination can be instinctive as well as provide opportunities to expand one's world-view and enjoy differentness in the variety of human shapes and sizes and colours.
    3. For 3 years I lived in a neighbourhood where I was a minority. In a huge grocery store, I could be the only white person. At first this was disconcerting and I must admit I felt very conspicuous and insecure about it. Though I never stopped being aware of my minority status, it eventually took up less retail space in my brain when I was out and about in the neighbourhood. I think it's vital for any of us in a majority of one kind or another to experience being a minority. It changed me.

  2. Thanks for the above, Joanne!
    I loved all three parts of your comment, though the part that grabbed me the most was about how your minority status during those three years began to take up less retail space in your brain while out and that, and it adds a nuance to my thinking about these things.
    Many thanks!!


  3. My daughter was SHOCKED the first time she saw a very dark skinned Sudanese man walk into a restaurant. She couldn't believe someone's skin could be so dark in comparison to hers.
    Unfortunately, at 6 years old, we've already had some tough days with comments that have been said to her by peers about her skin. We're learning together. She's such a strong girl...
    Great post, Ruth.

  4. We are looking at many of the same issues, periodically yet continually. A good book - Shades of People. Dont remember the author right now.

  5. Hi Ruth,
    This is Jackie, sister of Katie (of the Bidclan blog). I enjoy (addiction) to your blog and have often thought I should let you know that I read it. Love your books list too.
    Here are the titles of some lovely picture books that might help you have this skin colour conversation with your children. They are from an article I recently wrote for teachers who are interested in using picture books to raise questions of peace and social justice with children. If you're interested in the whole list, send me an email with your email address and I'll attach the article with the whole bibliography.

    Hooks, B. (2004). Skin again (C. Raschka, Illus.). New York: Hyperion Books for Children.

    Katz, K. (1999). The colors of us. New York: Holt.

    Lester, J. (2005). Let’s talk about race (K. Barbour, Illus.). New York: HarperCollins.

    Spier, P. (1980). People. New York: Doubleday.


  6. So much to think about, isn't there? The visible racial differences in our family are more subtle, but we still stand out - folks ask where the kids are "from" (and they don't assume Canada, actually, unless they have an aboriginal connection themselves - we have had guesses about Hawaii, Peru, Southeast Asia, etc.), and our kids themselves don't really seem to notice anything yet. I do occasionally note when we see other folks who look like them, and comment on the similarites in skin tone, hair, and eye colour (as well as the differences with Geoff and I). They usually say, "Oh!" and move on. When I speak about their first mother, I often also describe her appearance and how it is similar to our kids. It doesn't come up often, but I do it partly to normalize the topic for me, and help make sure it is an "ok" topic for our kids to raise with us when they start thinking about it on their own.

    I also recently purchased a book called "Shades of People" - all photographs of children of all backgrounds and complexions - so much text all, so great for child or parent-led discussions and observations.

    Oh, and your post reminded me of this one, which is both funny and thought-provoking:

  7. Excellent post Ruth. I think race is something people are so uncomfortable talking about, and it NEEDS to be talked about, because I don't believe there is anyone out there who does not judge others based on differences. I remember in one of my university classes talking about how it is only in recognizing and acknowledging our judgements, that we can begin to examine and question the assumptions and stereotypes that we have.
    It was so disconcerting to me to be a minority when I lived in West Africa. I remember getting so frustrated at the assumptions made about me based on my skin colour, and how all of us white girls were thought to all look alike because we were seen for our skin colour and not individual looks (regardless of our height/weight differences!). It was the first (and only) time in my life, that for a brief moment, I understood what it meant to be a minority and what it meant to be so conscious of my skin colour. I agree with Joanne, that once we knew each other, we did not notice colour as much.
    As hard as these conversations are, you are so wise to start them now. In fact, you've reminded me that I need to have some similar coversations with my girls about the importance of what is inside a person, rather than what is seen on the outside.

  8. Great blogpost, Ruth. Thank you for bringing the topic up because it's something we don't talk about enough as transracial adoptive parents in Canada, IMO. Please keep blogging about this! :)

    If you are ever looking for tools to help with discussions with the kids, I've created a resource database on various topics related to race on this Yahoo group:

    Thanks again for your blogpost. I think this topic is vital to the long-term emotional health of our kids.

  9. This is a great post to reflect on Ruth. My son is only 18 months old, and I've thought about this often as to what to say to him. Usually I'm struck dumb-founded. I don't know what to say, when to say it. I know it should start now-younger the better IMO. It's just how??? I think this post is great cuz I feel like we are all in the same kind of boat. Keep up the great posts on this, I think I can learn a lot from you, and also the comments on here!

  10. Thanks for all of the comments, and for the great book suggestions and for sharing bits of your own stories/experiences. I love hearing all of these things. We need to keep this conversation going.

    Jackie, a special note to say I'm so glad you commented (and thanks, also, for the book ideas) - and yes, I love knowing that you're here!!

    BLessings all,


  11. This was an interesting post. My daughter felt very different from me because we had different skin colors. I didn't even notice that she was tan and I was lighter. Strangers would say to me that she must "look like her father". ( I am single) I would always reply that I thought she looked like me - dark hair and eyes. In retrospect I guess I had unicorn dust in my eyes. I wish that I had made sure that we had spent more time with other families of many colors and eye shapes. I think it would have given her more of a basis for what families are, look like etc. And one more thing, not all kids "get" things from talk. My daughter doesn't. She needed to see it, move it, breathe it... Example- At around 11 or 12 she was going through the "Why did my mother give me up? Why did you take me from my country?" time. I had talked about this for years but I finally found some video of Romania in 1990 and tah daaaa, she understood the poverty and pain that she came from. Anyway, I always seem to get long winded. :)

  12. Ah, so interesting how different kids are! One thing I've noticed for sure about all three of my kids that until they're actually ready to learn/experience/believe something, they don't really 'get it.' I so appreciate your perspective, and thanks for sharing it!! And don't worry about whether you're long-winded - you're talking to the long-winded queen here!!!