This week, I counsel a woman concerned about her Multiracial Nephew, whose light skin has led him to the conclusion that he’s White.
I need a way to explain to my light-skinned, four-year-old nephew that he’s not White. His parents are both Mixed-race but browner than he is, as is his little brother. I don’t know where he got it from but, when I tell him he’s Black and White, he won’t have it. He tells me I’m White too (I am the same complexion he is). Don’t know how to explain it so he understands.
This is a question that comes up for so many caregivers of Mixed-race children who are light-skinned and appear to be as White as any White person. Remember that children this age are both concrete thinkers and naturally ego-centric, meaning that they comprehend the world just as it appears, and just as it affects them personally. It is completely logical and understandable that your nephew thinks he’s White. He’s calling it like he sees it in the mirror, which is age-appropriate. This makes your job of explaining race and identity a little trickier than it would be if he had browner skin like his little brother.
Children this age learn about themselves and others through observation, experience and endless questioning. Who is like me? Who is not like me? What does it mean to be alike and different in these ways? These questions come from healthy curiosity and a desire to make sense of the world by categorizing everyone and everything in it—themselves included.
With young children, it’s always best to start slowly and listen to the question they’re really asking. In this case, it sounds like the question is: Why do I appear to be White when you tell me I’m not White? It is interesting that he is talking with you about this rather than his parents. I am guessing that he is using your similar skin tone as a jumping off point for discussion.
You can talk with him about the fact that African Ancestry gives people the brown in their skin, but that some people wind up with more brown, like his parents and brother and some wind up with less brown, like the two of you.
You can also acknowledge geography and the continents, noting that people whose ancestors come from Europe tend to have pink skin and straighter hair while people whose ancestors come from Africa tend to have dark-brown skin and very curly hair. You can say, “Our ancestors come from both continents, so in our family we have many different shades.”
My community of Multiracial Mom experts came up with some wonderfully creative ways to explain this:
“Look at images of light skinned people online and explain that “we” come in all different colors.”
“Mix paint colors together. Start with white and brown, then add red and yellow.”
“We used coffee and added different amounts of creamer to represent our different shades of brown.”
“We used Neapolitan ice cream!”
These physical demonstrations of color blending are great because kids this age are experiential, visual and tactile learners. You may hear him refer back to your demonstration as he’s digesting the material: e.g. “I’m butterscotch and my little brother is rocky-road.”
Of course, we’re only talking about the physical manifestations of race, not the socio-political implications of racial affiliation. That is something that will come about through family discussions and real-life experiences. Keeping lines of communication open is crucial as your nephew grows.
Lay the groundwork for discussions about color and race, then let it steep.
Kids this age do best with small amounts of simple information that their busy little minds can digest in their own ways. When your nephew has had enough of this conversation, he will probably change the subject, start fidgeting or run off to play—even if you don’t feel you’re done explaining. This is okay. Just be aware that he will probably come back later to ask more questions, clarify the situation in his own words, or otherwise keep the dialogue going.
Don’t be surprised if, after mulling it over, this little guy concludes that he is White after all. This doesn’t mean he’s abandoning his heritage or rejecting his roots. It just means the processing is ongoing. Give it time and keep talking with him, as I’m sure his parents will too.