How My Childhood Experience With Racism Helped Me Explain My Different Skin Color to My Toddler
My daughter was only 2 when she asked me why I’m darker than her. Because of her white skin, I know she’ll never have the same experiences with racism I did growing up, but I’ll be sure she understands why they were wrong.
"D is for duck," I tell my daughter as we play in her nursery, stacking wooden blocks embossed with pastel-colored numbers, letters, and animals. "Quack! Quack!" I screech as I playfully tickle her belly. Oh, those deliciously sweet giggles. They are absolutely infectious.
She laughs more as I tell her that "pato" is how you say "duck" in Spanish. As I cuddle her in my arms, she pinches at the fading heart tattoos on my wrist—one branded with a "G" for my mother Gloria, the other inked with a "J" for my father Jaime. Her tiny fair fingers make her way to my arms. She examines my beauty marks, the black hairs on my skin.
"Mama, what color are you?"
She rubs my arm and looks at me with doting eyes. I didn't really know what to say. I was surprised that this little daughter of mine, who was not even 2-and-half, was noticing that my brown skin is not like her white skin.
"Mama is brown, baby."
She looks at her milky, smooth arms and legs, and then looks at me.
"Why are you brown, Mama?" Her blue-green eyes were inquisitively staring at me, and she wanted answers.
Learning from My Childhood
Growing up as a first-generation daughter of immigrants, the color of our skin and culture was not heavily discussed in our home. Sure, my parents spoke Spanish and it was my first language, but there were never any discussions about our race, ethnicity, and culture. At least not until I grew older and was able to embrace my Hispanic culture.
Around the time I was 9 years old (circa 1989), my parents moved our family of six from our three-bedroom apartment in Rowland Heights—a small suburb in the Los Angeles area that was predominantly Asian and Hispanic/Latinx—to Upland, California. I remember arriving at our new track home community and being absolutely enamored. I had never seen a brand-new home, and I was elated at the fact that I would soon live in one: four bedrooms, two-car garage, backyard, and all. Little did I know, that those cookie-cutter stucco homes that so perfectly lined our street would one day symbolize conformity to white fragility and distance me from my culture.
My parents' decision to move was urged by the fact that they didn't want me and my three brothers to become "cholas and pachucos," as my mother would later share. For the next nine years, our brown Latinx family of six would live in this homogenized, lush, beautiful town that was about 70 percent white.
While I have wonderful memories of growing up in that town, I also have many painful ones too. Memories where I would downplay my Hispanic origins and the fact that I could speak Spanish fluently. I would ignore "playful" racial slurs directed toward my Mexican culture so that I could fit in. I would shrug off the remarks over my thick, curly hair, in which many of my "friends" and peers would name-call "nappy" and/or "pubic head."
Jokes about our skin color were the norm, especially during the summer when we were at the beach every weekend and became two shades darker. I often wonder: had my parents spoken more to us about our race, culture, and ethnicity, would we have been less apt to accept the racist remarks from our peers as playful?
As immigrants, my parents were also struggling to be accepted. They had experienced even bigger injustices and acts of racism—experiences we would finally learn about as we became independent adults. During that time, my parents thought it was best to just not talk about it so that we would fit in. They wanted the absolute best for us, and part of that meant conforming so that we could be presented with the opportunities that many white people are handed on a silver platter just because of the color of their skin.
I can't blame my parents, but I want to have more open discussions with my daughter. Despite her coming out of me with white, pink skin, the same color of her father who is of Irish and Welsh descent, I want her to be very aware of my family's culture and ethnicity. I just did not expect to start these conversations with her at 2 years old—even though studies show babies recognize differences in skin color and hair textures as early as six months.
Teaching My Daughter About Diversity
I did not know how to answer when my daughter asked, "Why are you brown, Mama?" Telling her simply that we are all different colors, like a rainbow, and that all colors of skin were beautiful wasn't enough.
I scooped her in my arms and placed her on my lap and told her, "Mama is brown because Nana is brown from Peru and a lot of the people that live there have brown skin. Some have white skin, some have light brown skin, and some have dark brown skin. They are all different and they are all beautiful colors. Abuelo is from Mexico and a lot of people that live there also have brown skin. Some people from Mexico have white skin, but Abuelo's skin is brown like Mama."
Our conversations about skin colors went on like this for a few weeks. Like a broken record, she would ask the same questions over and over again. It was exhausting, but it was important that I answered her questions and educated her.
Despite the broken-record effect, I'm thankful my daughter wants to learn more about our family's different hues. Some of her favorite books such as This Little Trailblazer and her collection of Lil' Libros have been aiding us in showing her examples of dark-skinned people and their positive contributions to society, and the fight for equality. As we add more books to her shelves, we plan to include books specifically about race.
Now, when she watches some of her go-to shows like Dora The Explorer, Doc McStuffins, and Daniel Tiger, my husband and I are quick to point out the different skin tones and features of some of the characters.
I'm learning that I also have to add more diversity to the toys she plays with. Right now, she's getting into dolls and role playing. She has some Frozen dolls, stuffed animals, and Peppa Pig figures, but not enough humans of color. Our next step is to add some dolls and toys that are racially diverse and promote anti-racism.
We are fortunate to live in Los Angeles, where many of her park and play-space buddies come from a variety of races and ethnicities. Studies show that children living in a homogeneous neighborhood show preferences for faces from their own racial group while infants in heterogeneous environments do not.
As I lather gobs of sunblock on my daughter, I've been slowly explaining melanin to her. She doesn't quite understand it now, but she will. It's vital that my husband and I have these early conversations about race and skin color with our daughter so that when she goes off to school and is exposed to stereotypes or misinformation, she doesn't just smile it off. Instead, she will be equipped with factual knowledge from which she can positively lead a discussion.
I'm learning, just as my daughter is learning. I've never felt so much love for the color of my skin, culture, and ethnicity. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and tell 15-year-old me that one day all your repressed feelings and shame will be released, and it will be cathartic. I wish I could tell her that one day, you will feel proud and confident about your roots. I wish that young girl had the knowledge I'm giving my toddler.
Because of her white skin, blue-green eyes, and honey colored curls, my daughter will never experience what I have. Her friends may wonder why I'm darker than her, they might even mistake me for the nanny, as so many often do on our trips to the park, but this little girl will know her roots. She will know that she is also Hispanic/Latinx. She will learn about her Aztec and Incan blood. She will speak my first language (she's already learning Spanish). She will not suppress her DNA due to ignorance. She will know what her mother's melanin means and why it's important.
- RELATED: Raising a Black Boy in America
"Brown skin is beautiful," I share with my daughter.
"Peach is beautiful," she replies.
I hold her closer and explain, "Peach is beautiful too, baby. You and Daddy have white skin that looks peach. All the different skin colors are beautiful."
"I like all the colors, Mama."