This week, I counsel the Multiracial mom of a boy who experienced color shaming by a playmate, as the other boy’s White mother stood silently by.
My four-year-old son recently played at a friend’s house. Ever since, he has been talking about Brown/Black skin/hair being bad. I have never heard him speak like this before and we have never really had a conversation about looks. Instead we tell him that you should judge somebody by their behaviour and actions. The family of the boy he went to play with is a similar set up to ours: the dad is dual heritage like me, so our children are one quarter Jamaican. The mum (White) admitted that she had overheard a conversation about skin color and hair between the children. To her, it seemed harmless, so she did not intervene.
Neither I nor the other mother knows exactly what was said, but my son has come away feeling that he is bad/naughty because of the way he looks.
My question is, do I keep my son from playing with this friend? How do I address the issue with the parents? I feel uncomfortable that they are promoting this way of thinking in their household.
I don’t blame you for feeling uneasy about letting your child play in a home where your child has been the victim of color shaming. Whatever the other child said, the combination of his words and his mother’s failure to respond has made a big enough impression on your son to impact his self-concept.
What Is Color Shaming?
Color Shaming is the Act of Putting Down a Person of Color by Connecting Negative Traits with the Target’s Skin Tone
As infuriating as this incident may be, you might look at it as an opportunity to begin having conversations with your little guy about the meaning of race and color. It’s something that will come up for him again and again, no matter where you live, so it’s a good idea to equip him with age appropriate language that he can use to stand up for himself against ignorance and ultimately even malice.
There are two pieces to addressing the incident you describe—during which you weren’t present, but about which you heard after the fact. One is handling your son’s bad feelings. The other is dealing with the friend and his family.
First, regarding your son: Try to draw him out. Get him to explain exactly what happened (to the best of his four-year-old memory) and how it made him feel. (Bad, sad, ashamed.) Your goal is to teach him three things:
- Not only is there nothing bad or shameful in having Brown/Black skin/hair, these things are beautiful. These physical traits come from our proud ancestors in Africa who lived in warmth.
- Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t understand or see the beauty in Brown/Black skin/hair. They may even say unkind things about people with Brown or Black skin. We don’t always know why. People who say mean things often do it because they feel bad about themselves and want to believe they are better than someone. If someone with lighter skin tells you that Brown skin is bad, remember that they are saying it to make themselves feel better.
- If another child is putting down dark skin, make sure to tell me, or another grown up that you trust. Often other children are repeating things that they don’t understand but that they have heard at home.
Of course, your number one priority is your child and his well-being. But this situation also presents an opportunity to educate the other mother about the dangers of Color-shaming children. This for her child’s sake, since you have shared that he is also Multiracial.
If This Mother Fails to Challenge Color Shaming Statements, it is Possible that her Own Multiracial Boy is Internalizing Painful, Negative Messages About Brownness
You have a choice not to address the color shaming with this mother. You have the choice to keep your child from playing in her home again. You can invite her son to play in your home, so that you are present (and pointedly eavesdropping) whenever your boys interact. You also have the choice to terminate your family’s relationship with this family altogether. However, since the boys share an ethnic and racial mix, it can be incredibly validating for them to grow up together. You will have to weigh the pros and cons of maintaining the friendship.
If you choose to explain the problem of color-shaming to the other mother, I suggest treading carefully. Since this woman is part of a Multiracial family and has a Multiracial husband, I imagine she considers herself non-biased and educated when it comes to race. This belief, combined with the fact that you are calling out her son’s behavior, may lead to defensiveness on her part. Stand firm while acknowledging what an uncomfortable situation is this. You might say,
“It’s hard to bring this up, but it concerns both our brown boys.” (Even if her son is lighter-skinned than yours, he still has African ancestry that may become more apparent as he grows up). “I am concerned that the conversations the boys are having about skin color and hair are making my son feel ashamed about his racial appearance. I’d appreciate it if you would alert me when you overhear their conversations about skin color. If you aren’t comfortable intervening, I am happy to help you find words to say.”
It is enough for the other mother to jump in and counter her son’s misinformation by saying “Brown skin is beautiful. The two of you are such wonderful colors.” Or, “The color of your skin has nothing to do with your personality.” She can keep it very simple. If the boys have questions that she does not feel equipped to answer as a White mom, let her know you are happy to step in.
If the boys’ friendship is worth preserving—if you believe that a friendship is possible between you and the mother as well—this won’t be the end of the discussion, but the beginning of a learning and growing process for everyone involved. If, on the other hand, the mother is resistant and refuses to hear you, if the color shaming continues or escalates, I advise you to help your son find some new friends.
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