That’s what we felt when we heard Anna ask this last week.
We have done everything in our power to affirm Anna’s gorgeous brownness. We point out the beauty of black people on television and in books. We talk about how unique God made black hair and just how many different kinds of curly hair there is. It’s not as if we only talk about that in our house, but it is definitely something we talk about. All that I’ve read on transracial adoption has encouraged this as most adult transracial-adoptees say that their parents ignored their melanin and just pretended their child was white… they pretended to be colorblind. They pretended (and this is a stretch, y’all) that the world is colorblind.
We are not perfect and we won’t know for 20 years if our approach is the right one, and it will be up to Anna to tell us some day, but for now we are doing what we have read is the best thing for her: let her know we see her and her color; affirm that part of who she is; encourage her to have pride in both of her ethnicities.
And to go a step further, we never say anything like: ‘You got ‘the good kind of hair’ or ‘You’re not too dark…’. Think about what those messages, which are engrained in our culture, send. Those messages shout, “The whiter you are, the better.” When a very dark-skinned woman is on the television screen we point out, “Wow! Look at (insert whatever we think is lovely… her hair, smile, eyes, skin), isn’t she so pretty/lovely?!?” Don’t get me wrong… we are honest. Kids aren’t stupid. Anna, for sure isn’t going to buy ‘fakeness’ from us. So when we see beauty in any shade we compliment it. And sometimes it’s not even a visible thing… the lovely thing we compliment may be the person’s kindness, ability to be a good friend, empathy when someone is hurting. It may be a male character who has stopped to check on someone who crashed on his bike. Beauty takes on infinite forms.
Even with our efforts to affirm Anna as she is, and with our intentionality to affirm blackness in all its shades, Anna still said four things in a single week that crushed us and made us wonder what is going on in her brilliant little mind.
The first thing she said to me was, “Look mommy, we match.” And she held her arm beside mine to show that we were almost the same color… “The sun’s making me white!”
That was the first gut punch. First, the sun will never make her white and I don’t want it to! Second, the sun makes me more brown and I tan easily, so what the sun can do for me (change my color to be more like her) it can’t do for her (make her more like me). Finally, as a mother who will never “match” her daughter, I hurt… not because that matters to me, but because it will matter to her. At some point Anna will truly begin to understand what “adopted” means and people, it’s not a rainbows and unicorns word. Adoption always comes with trauma. No way around it. Even with adoptions that were as smooth as ours, with connection to a child’s first-family, trauma is there and Matt and I are voraciously reading about how to best be there for her no matter how her “adoptedness” affects her.
The second gut punch came in the form of a very brief conversation Anna had with Matt after her bath. I was nearby sweeping the floor in the kitchen and overheard, and it came on the heels of the conversation I had with her. Matt, I have to say, handled this so beautifully. Because he’s done the same work I’m doing on race, biases, and adoption trauma, he was ready to affirm Anna and didn’t show any emotion at all. He just answered her questions as if she had asked what we were going to have for dinner. He’s a pro!
Anna: When am I going to be white?
Matt: You’re not going to be white.
Anna: Princesses are white.*
Matt: Not all princesses are white. By this point I was perked and ready to see what in the world was going through her mind. I had set down my broom and was just going to be a voyeur and then she said this:
Anna: “I need to be white so I can be a ballerina.”
Matt: Ballerinas are black, too, You have a book about a black ballerina. (At this point I was right outside her door and went straight to her bookshelf and pulled the book about Michaela DePrince. Not only an accomplished black ballerina but an adoptee, too.)
Having books that portray children of color in our home matters. Giving mirrors to Anna, matters (‘mirrors’ being images that reflect herself in books and on television). I had that book in her hands before Matt had her dried off. While she was having products applied to her hair and lotion applied to her thirsty, brown skin, she flipped through the book we’ve read dozens of times. We strictly limit the number of white-princess movies she watches, though there really aren’t many brown princess movies out there. I don’t know if we convinced Anna that she doesn’t need to be white, but we at least let her know that she does not need to be white for us to love her. Sadly, that’s not enough in this world, and I know that. She’s going to want to be loved and admired, appreciated and accepted by people outside our circle and I can’t guarantee that she will be. What I can do is try to strengthen her character, her identity as “Anna, bright young lady who is capable, kind, athletic, incredibly smart, black and white, and beloved Child of the King.” And with those pieces of her identity she will have to build her own life and fill it with people who add to her character, not tear it down. She will have to use what tools we give her to deflect what the world will throw at her.
And to take this conversation a step further, to what actually got me on this topic today… she has a privilege that she will need to recognize, not abuse, and she will need to help culture tear this idea down. She is light-skinned and that in itself will “help” her be seen as beautiful and smart, among other positive traits. I want her to see that all shades of black are beautiful and to not internalize what our culture tells her is beautiful.
So, if you’re interested in what light-skinned privilege is, check out this MTV Decoded video.
This. People. THIS.
Can we stop seeing people as good or bad based on their skin tone?
Before we adopted, Matt and I were very much unaware of the issues surrounding the topic of race and ethnicity. We lived in a the comfort of the majority. Because we are white, we fit in everywhere we go and were always given the benefit of the doubt… never looked at as if we were less-than because of our skin color. As we research we are learning more and more about just how deep these issues go. Our country is mostly past the overt racism of slavery and segregation, but we have entered a new phase that is challenging in its own way because it’s subtle and obscure. It’s easy for white people to pretend it doesn’t exist and that makes it very dangerous. The video I linked to explains skin-privilege between members of the black community and I have no intention of sharing that video to educate black people on black issues. My intent is to inform good, well-meaning, non-racist white people that there are ways we unintentionally buy into ideas that our culture has ingrained in us for hundreds of years. Light-skin privilege is something Anna has. White privilege is something I have. I would love for white people, good, kind, loving, non-racist white people to look at these topics. I consider myself in that category. I look back at my life pre-Anna and would have said that I was all of those things and yet, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.