Just Like Meghan Markle, Parents Hear Comments About Their Children's Skin Color From Family Members

Racism doesn't always look or sound like we think it will. Sometimes it even comes in the form of a questionable remark from someone you love deeply.

An image of Meghan Markle and her son Archie on a colorful background.
Photo: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

The world watched in awe as Meghan Markle and Prince Harry dropped some major bombs in their jaw-dropping interview with Oprah. Chief among them were accusations that a member of the Royal Family made some racist remarks about their son's skin color. It is difficult to shock Oprah but shock they did. She could scarcely mask her horror as Meghan referred to these comments as "concerns and conversations about how dark Archie's skin might be."

Their interview has been fraught with controversy, but love them or loathe them, one thing is clear. Their words have shed light on and opened up a much-needed conversation about a topic that until now has not been widely discussed: racism within one's own family as it pertains to children's skin color.

Judging by the onslaught of personal stories shared on social media, their remarks have clearly resonated with people who've experienced something similar. Immediately after the interview, the internet became ablaze with parents inspired to speak their truth and tell their own tales of friends, relatives or even acquaintances making ignorant or rude comments about their mixed-race children's skin tone. Many shared examples of how colorism—discrimination by which those with lighter skin are treated differently than those with darker skin—is rampant within their own families.

Hurtful Words or Implications

We spoke to several parents (whose names have been changed to protect their privacy) who've experienced problematic encounters with family members that run the gamut from a casual offhand observation to an overt racial slur.

Despite how large or small the perceived slight is, the pain inflicted can be equally damaging. Microaggressions—a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group—can be just as detrimental because they almost fly under the radar and thus go nearly undetected.

Holly, a mother of two from Tempe, AZ says her mother-in-law frequently makes comments that irk her, but they're subtle enough that she gets away with it. "My genes are really strong so I bet they look like us," she would say hopefully when Holly was pregnant. Now that Holly's kids are born and do appear more Caucasian than Hispanic, her mother-in-law often speaks excitedly about how they look like her side of the family. The implication is that she is happy and relieved they look white and not brown like Holly.

Many strangers freely comment on mixed-race children's appearances, whether it is trying to guess what race the child is or blithely pointing out that the child in question does not like they fit in with that particular race because their skin is either too light or too dark.

Holly explains that it's one thing to be asked ignorant questions by a complete stranger, but quite another to be wounded by a family member's words. She reveals the worst part is hearing cruel words from someone you love and respect and says it's a more damaging blow than if it came from a stranger. "It is difficult to reconcile how someone who is supposed to love you and your child unconditionally would make disparaging remarks about something as sensitive and innocent as a child's skin color," she says.

This can be especially hurtful if they mention it directly in front of the child. Children have no control over their skin color and hearing such vile words from a loved one can cause irreparable harm to their self-esteem and feelings about their heritage.

Many times, the offending comment may come from someone who is not even aware their comments were perceived as rude or racist. When Kumbirai, a mom of three from Dallas, TX, gave birth to her first child — a boy who is half African American and half Italian — a family member made what they thought was a light-hearted, humorous "joke" that will forever stick with her, "You gave birth to a zebra."

Starting a Conversation

Some report feeling rage at first but then feeling something akin to pity for the person later. Kumbirai says after the initial fury simmered down, she realized she actually felt sad for this family member and their tiny worldview, "I guess they truly don't know any better. I realized a lack of enlightenment is very common for people who don't travel outside of their sphere or try to get to know people outside their culture," she says.

Many report that their spouse/partner's reaction to their family member's comments impacted the way they feel about them. If their partner brushed off the comments and tried to minimize the situation, they felt betrayed. Holly states that she was initially annoyed with her husband for not rushing to her defense when his mother made hateful comments, "He's white so it didn't upset him until I explained it to him from my point of view. He is much more woke now and aware that as a white man, he doesn't get to have an opinion about why marginalized races or a POC would take offense."

Many parents we spoke to express the shock and betrayal they feel from dealing with an upsetting encounter but don't quite know how to turn their pain into productivity. Kumbirai says she was furious and couldn't believe the ignorance but didn't know what to do about it in the moment, so she was left reeling.

If a family member does say something offensive, it is critical to tackle the problem head-on and not allow quiet resentment to boil. If brought to their attention, the person might be horrified their words caused pain so confronting them could be constructive. According to Psychology Today, beginning an honest dialogue is a crucial step to resolving familial conflict and moving towards mutual understanding and acceptance.

These comments cut deep and can leave emotional scars and animosity that can last a lifetime if not dealt with properly. For some, racism and bigotry are so entrenched in a family that the best course of action is to create distance from it. Sometimes, as in Harry and Meghan's case, the healthiest thing you can do for yourself and your family is to walk away from a toxic relationship.

Looking to a Brighter Future

As people continue to have these tough conversations with loved ones, coworkers and friends, these topics will become less taboo, and change will be on the horizon.

Racism doesn't always look or sound like we think it will. Sometimes it even comes in the form of a questionable remark from someone you love deeply. But these comments prove that there's simply nothing appealing about racism, even when it has fancy titles and is adorned with a shimmering crown. For there is no beauty to be found in ugly words.

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