I, fortunately, grew up surrounded by brown people. My mother comes from a long line of Afro-Latinos from Puerto Rico and because I mostly grew up around her side of the family — which included her African-American stepfather and siblings — that is what I knew. Even my cousins on her side are all multi-racial and/or multi-ethnic. My dad is a White Puerto Rican, but most of his family didn’t live nearby so we didn’t see them often.
In school, I did notice that there were a lot of lighter-skinned Latinos — I was always one of the darkest. But I felt more of a divide due to the fact that I wasn’t fully bilingual than because of the color of my skin. But in general, I didn’t feel touched or affected by the implicit racism and colorism that seems to plague many Latinx homes, families and communities. I honestly didn’t think about skin tone much until I lived in Mississippi for a couple of years as a teenager. That was when I began to feel for the first time how real racism really is. Then I married and started a family with a biracial man (who is half black and half white) and all of our melanin combined produced two truly brown little bundles of joy.
Our children are both darker than us and have gorgeous, spirally curls and facial features that reveal their multi-ethnic genes. I’ve thought more about color and race in the past seven years than I ever did before becoming a parent. To me, my children are my children. They are multi-racial, Afro-Latinx, brilliant, funny, energetic, resilient and completely awesome human beings. But I know that as they get older and spend more time away from me and their father, they will be judged.
They’ll be assessed based on their skin tones, their unique appearances, their cultural references, the music they listen to and even the food they eat. There will be people who make assumptions about them based on color, but before that happens I fully intend to prepare them for what’s to come. They are still little, so our conversations about race and color are less overt, but we do have them. Here are some things I’m doing and discussing to help them understand and even challenge racism and colorism.
We Celebrate Black and Brown People
We use nationally recognized events like Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month and Indigenous Peoples’ Day as an opportunity to teach our kids truths that they may not be learning at school, where those months and days are recognized but not always explained fully or truthfully. It’s important to me that they know the truth about the things that have been done to people of color and what those people they learn about in school actually had to overcome, rather than the sanitized versions that are often presented to children.
We Choose Black and Brown Role Models For Them
When we see people who look like our children thriving and succeeding, we make sure they see it too. I won’t necessarily say, “Hey, look at this Afro-Latina killing it,” to my four-year-old, but I will show her all the photos and videos. As a kid, I didn’t see many people that looked like me in the media. That won’t be the case for my kids — we work to normalize dark skin to them by surrounding them with those images.
We Choose Books With Main Characters of Color
We read a lot and because we love it so much I purchase tons of books. While we choose any and everything from the free public library, most of the children’s books I actually purchase are books that feature a non-White main character. Representation can go a long way when it comes to instilling self-acceptance in children, especially as they grow older and are more and more influenced by the outside world. For now, I have the power to fill their brains with positive images of people of color and I will do so in as many ways as I can.
Our House is Full of Toys Representing People of Color
Confession: I’ve only ever purchased two White dolls for my daughter who easily has over a dozen dolls. One of them is a cartoon vampire and the other is her second from a specific line of dolls — the first one I bought her from the line was brown. My son has action figures of The Rock as G.I. Joe, Killmonger, Black Panther and Finn from Star Wars among others. While I want my kids to know and appreciate diversity, I also know that for now, this is one more way I can help them see brown skin as equal.
We Talk A Lot
I haven’t had “the talk” with my seven-year-old son yet, but we talk openly all the time about race, racial profiling, ethnicity, cultural appreciation and acceptance, diversity, the history of minorities in America, immigration and many other topics that most young children in America don’t discuss with their parents. When my kids ask hard, often surprisingly astute questions, I don’t brush them off. I take a second to think about how I can answer them truthfully without being age-inappropriate and I do so and also allow them to respond and follow up as needed. I keep it casual and authentic and straightforward.
I Acknowledge Their Observations
During the Summer I tan well enough that I come close to matching my kids, but the rest of the year I’m at least a couple of shades lighter than them. They’ve noticed. When they mention my complexion I acknowledge that yes, my skin is different than theirs but that all skin tones are beautiful and that there are many shades of brown. Similarly, when they notice people of different ethnicities, colors or cultures, we recognize that they are different than us. If we know how that person identifies racially or ethnically, we state it and talk about some cool things about their culture.
I Teach Them That Every Person Is an Individual
I’ve been instilling in my kids since the moment they started noticing differences between people, that while some people may look different, move different or sound different outwardly, that we are all actually different. I’ve consciously taught them that no two people are exactly the same, but that we are all equal and we all have something to bring to the table. These conversations have come up when my children notice an obese person, or a differently-abled person or someone with a strong non-American accent, and my hope is that by encouraging recognition and acceptance of our differences in a positive way, it will carry over into other areas.
They Watch the News
Instead of sheltering my children from the happenings of the world, they sit and watch the news with us for a few minutes in the morning. I want them to always be informed, thoughtfully engaged, empathetic citizens who are aware of the injustices, struggles, and successes of people who are both the same and different from them and the news is a good place to start. Sometimes they ask questions and we always answer them as best we can or help them look up a factual answer.
We Hang Out with People From a Variety of Backgrounds
Every shade of the rainbow is represented amongst our friends and family. This is partially because our extended families — both mine and my husband’s — are so mixed and partially because we live in an incredibly diverse area of a very diverse town in a super-diverse state, but also because we make a conscious effort to connect with the people around us regardless of how different they may seem from us, even when it’s uncomfortable or intimidating.
We Use Media Wisely
My kids are old enough that they can watch some television and YouTube just for fun now, but we do try to use the media that we have at our fingertips to reinforce the ideals that we would like them to learn and carry with them. Whether that means putting on Doc McStuffins so my daughter can see a smart, kind girl of color like her caring for and loving on others (even if they’re toys), Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood so she can see children celebrating their differences or Brainchild and The Magic Schoolbus so my son can watch a diversity of children explore scientific facts and concepts and feel empowered to do so himself. There are even short cartoons and videos on YouTube that can help children learn about race and color.