And That’s How He Learned His Colors

14 Nov

You should have seen the look on my face when my four-year old walked into our house after school one afternoon and loudly exclaimed, “Mom guess what I am, I am brown!”

I was expecting him to come home and tell me what book he read at school or how many time outs he got at school but this I was not ready for. I quickly put on my curious cap on and began questioning him about what he was talking about and tried underplaying the comment by asking him if he ate chocolate, or dirt at school that probably made his mouth brown. But he quickly geared the conversation back to what he exactly meant to say which was, “Mama look at my hand and my face I am not white, I am brown.” I was surely not ready to have this conversation with him at 4. I had no fall back plans and no possible logical explanations for the future of where this conversation was heading.

In retrospect I might have overreacted a little in my head. My initial reaction was anger of course as to why and how this could have been introduced to him and who might have told him he was brown. But then of course I had to put on Mommy gear on and pretend like I was a grown up. I began doing some research on the how’s, when’s, where’s of introducing this very touchy matter of race to children. I have to admit that I went in with a lot of skepticism, but after reading a few very eye-opening articles on the matter I am happy to admit to myself and you that I am not as closed as I was when I my son accidentally forced me to visit the subject.

The crux of my initial reaction is rooted in my philosophy that children are colorblind and any initiation to the matter is environmentally derived. But you see I was wrong, there are tons and tons of research in the area, which disprove my theory. Children see differences around them from as little as six months old.  What made it take a positive spin for me was looking at it as just another social category. Imagine it just as a label to categorize people like we do with any other aspect in society. Children like to form patterns to fit into their life-learning puzzle. They see differences in hairstyles, heights, looks etc within their family members but they are all the same color, they make similar associations in other settings as well. When something does not fit the puzzle they notice the difference and move on. This is where our crucial role comes in as parents, the ability to let them move on without muddling their little heads with more differences and prejudices that we have as adults. It gives parents like me a positive spin on it. Not every aspect of race or color is negative.  Psychologically the word race prompts an immediate sense of discomfort. We as a society have dealt with so much history based on race that it only seems logical to be a little wary of it.

I grew up in a country where we were all brown and we were all Indians, but if you can imagine a whole color spectrum of shades of brown that is how many shades you had within that one country. A fairer shade of the same brown was considered supreme.  There is a whole cosmetic industry dedicated to creams that would make you fairer than the skin color you were born with. I am not condemning it.  My point of sharing this is that I am no alien to it even though I grew up in a country where everyone around me was the same race as me. An interesting incident comes to mind when I speak of India, a very close relative of ours remarked the minute she first laid eyes on our newborn son that he was not as fair-skinned as his parents were and that was alright because he had other beautiful traits in him that masked the lack of color. I was angry at that time, a mixture of new mom hormones and immaturity on my part I tried defending his color to her. But looking back I have to laugh at myself and wonder.

Why do we have such a love/hate relationship with the subject? Why do we cringe as a society every time it is brought out in the open? Why is it not polite dinner conversation? Why do we fear it so much? Is it because we harbor underlying prejudices of our own that we are too ashamed to face ourselves?

Lets be honest we all have opinions some strong some not so when it comes to this subject. I considered myself very liberal and often thought I was born in the wrong decade. I secretly live in the Hippie era and would love to have been raised a flower child but I am diverting.  As a parent you are put in very sticky circumstances that force you to reevaluate your foundations and what you stand for.

After several conversations with myself and reading a lot of material on it I have come to the conclusion that I will not whisk the matter under the carpet when my son wants to know more.  I will not give him reasons as to why it is OK for him to be the color he is or is not. I think we are what we are and the way we were intended to be.

Being brown or being white or being black or being yellow is all beautiful, we are just like the rainbow in all its glory, we live it and experience the beauty around us. If we were not all different imagine how dull life would be. And that, he needs to know as well.

I understand and am truly apologetic if this post caused any discomfort to any of you readers, but this is reality for me. I know we all have issues that we face as parents but I think an outside perspective on subjects like these make the job easier.

References: Children Are Not Colorblind; How Young Children Learn Race by Erin N. Winker who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Renu Venkataraman: I was born and raised in Mumbai, India. I lived in Dallas, Texas for almost 15 years and worked as teacher for special needs kids for 10 of those years. I moved to Chengdu in September 2011 with my husband, two kids and our miniature dachshund Zen. I’m looking at motherhood under a very different light here in Chengdu. It has brought a sense of positivity and purpose to my life in many ways I can’t wait to experience and share with all you other Multicultural Moms.

3 Responses to “And That’s How He Learned His Colors”

  1. jmlindy422 at 11:19 pm #

    I hate being called white, but that’s what my society calls me. My daughter is Chinese. We’ve always said her color is coffee with cream. I’ve had people tell me she’s too dark to be Chinese (a Filipino woman) and she recently learned the term “yellow” from a Chinese boy. She still thinks she’s the color of coffee with cream and she knows it’s not a compliment to be called yellow. She doesn’t even get where it comes from ’cause she doesn’t know any yellow people.

    The thing I find it very sad in my work with children here in the States that so many children of non-Western European heritage, even those that were born here, don’t know that they are American. The say that I am American, but they don’t believe it when I tell them that they are. Almost 100% of my students are Indian. They say they are Indian; I always correct them if I know they were born here. They then say, “I’m Indian American.” That’s terrific. I want them to know that people of all colors and backgrounds are American.

    • natasha devalia at 9:59 pm #

      That’s interesting Janice. As a teenager I was intrigued how East Asians, South Asians, Africans, Europeans etc. who’ve lived in Canada for generations, even much shorter periods of time 😉 call themselves Canadian. It’s wonderful to feel that belonging. Part of the problem with it being that straightforward for many might be personal, how easily people feel they can let go of their past or family traditions / heritage??

      I find that Indian families stick to their heritage – food, customs, language. I just met third generation Malaysians of Punjabi heritage here in Chengdu, and they are giving their children punjabi language lessons. They have never been to India. It’s interesting that they are able to keep up their language and culture of course, but then how can one adapt.

      Personally I don’t think I’ve figured out what I would do if I moved to a place like Canada. My mum actually did grow up in India so I’m not so far off. My father however is third generation Zambian. And the thing there is that it’s not like in the US or Canada where you can be any colour and be a citizen. In Zambia in fact, what I noticed in my last trip, after a decade away, was how people refer to others by their colour, the whites, the blacks, the indians (there is a local word that covers that), There is even a term for mixed black and white people which is “coloureds”. All these terms are used with relative ease. And yet at the same time I found that there was a kind of respect for each others ways.

      Just yesterday Leila said that she was the same colour as her Chinese ayi, and that I was black like Pocahontas.

      Not going anywhere in particular with all of this. Just some thoughts.
      Thanks for the great post Renuka!

  2. natasha devalia at 3:24 pm #

    Thanks for sharing the article about children not being colour blind. It’s eye-opening, and good to know a better way to deal with this than the typical “we don’t say that,” or “sshhh”. Just a few days ago Leila looked at a picture of an Indian man doing yoga and asked “why are his arms dirty?”. I thought she was referring to the hair on his arms!! so i talked about that, I now realise that she was probably talking about his brown skin colour. Amazing for me considering that I am brown Indian myself, with hair on my arms!

    I suppose it makes sense because yesterday she said that I was “black like Pocahontas”.

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