“I can’t be handsome because I have brown skin.”
As those words were repeated to me from the mouth of Liam’s head teacher at school, I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly. I couldn’t make sense of the words that were being said to me. “What?!” was the only reaction I could muster.
I thought I’d never have to have it.
Hmm, well did I?
I guess before relocation I didn’t. But maybe a small part of me knew that, eventually, I’d have to have the chat.
Did I think I’d be having that dreaded conversation when he was five years old? Absolutely not. Not my proud, confident (albeit sensitive), precious little boy. Diversity is an open topic in our house and he loves his colour so I don’t have anything to worry about.
At least, that’s what I thought.
I thought it when the US was in an uproar over the death of George Floyd and countless other black women and men at the hands of the justice system. I thought it when the UK was in turmoil over the outrageous racist abuse our young black footballers had to endure after England’s Europe finals loss. “It will (hopefully) be a long time before I have to have this talk with Liam.”
That’s what I thought.
It’s not to say I was naive at all about where we are living and the type of world we are living in. It’s true, that as a child I was “raised not to see colour”. It’s not so much I was raised this way, though, just that we never really talked about it in my family. I was raised in a country where my skin tone was predominant and the few instances where the issue of race became a “thing” only arose with negative attitudes of certain members of my family and school friends towards people who were not of black heritage.
I could say I wanted to raise my son “not to see colour” either but I don’t think I’ve honestly ever felt that way. I felt like I really didn’t have a choice given the environment I created for him in relocating.
That first day of reception as Liam ran out of his school gates, a dark hue in the sea of tan and peach, calling the names of all his friends and being accosted by all the children in the park as they chanted his name, he was filled with so much pride. I was filled with so much pride. Then in a flash, he was embarking on a journey into Year 1 and I had all the normal parent jitters. His reception year was void of stability as his environment was toggled between home learning and a classroom setting and now he was going to be in a new class, with a whole new set up and a new teacher. Would he cope alright?
What never once crossed my mind, though, was “I hope he doesn’t experience any negativity because of his skin.” While I had observed Liam slowly becoming aware of his identity and skin colour, it never crossed my mind that his headmistress would call and tell me those devastating words had come out of the mouth of my sweet little Liam. Not my proud, confident (albeit sensitive), precious little boy. Not Liam, who beams when he sees children in his books that “look like me”. Not Liam, who everyone tells me is the most positive child they’ve ever met.
As a mother, I got defensive. “But he never thinks that way! We talk about this all the time! Liam loves his skin!” And as the soothing voice on the other line attempted to comfort me, “I know, I know”, I felt like I was slipping into my worse nightmare.
It all, eventually, unfolded to me a few nights after the initial phone call. We lay in bed reading the book, “All About Diversity” and when it came to the topic of skin, Liam says, “I wish my skin was your colour, Mummy.”
“What?! Why would you say that, your skin is beautiful!”
“Well, I’m a little bit too dark.”
He said it so matter-of-factly; the realisation hit me like a brick.
Someone’s said something to him about his skin.
Another child, expectedly. Another five-year-old who had been his best friend since reception? Not so expectedly.
Our discussions finished on me insisting his skin is beautiful. I showed him images of dark male models and how they’re sought after. We discussed the purpose of melanin in our bodies and in the end he seemed happy to know his skin is so dark because he has so much melanin, more than anyone in his class- “even more than Mummy!”
“Melanin is your super power, baby.”
I approached the parents of the children involved and they were mortified. There were outpourings of apologies and explanations and regret and shock. And I received them and thanked them for their concern. I even had a coffee with them both the next day. I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable about the situation; I didn’t want to make their kids out to be villains. Surely, they didn’t mean any ill-will. Surely.
Can you imagine?
I, feeling torn, uncomfortable and heartbroken about my son questioning the colour of his skin because of something that was said to him, so concerned about not making the parents of the guilty kids feel uncomfortable! Why was I doing this?? Why was I not furious for my son? Why was I not forbidding him from playing with them after he said he played with them that day? Why was I not angrier?!
The truth is, I was (am) hurt. I am furious. I do want to encourage him to stay away from anyone who makes him feel negatively. And scream at the mum saying “I don’t teach my son to see colour” that she’s doing her son a disservice by doing so. But what good will that do? How will Liam benefit from being alienated from friends he so desperately wants to play with? What does it teach him? As much as I am angry, I also recognise children are innocent and may lack education. Their parents may not feel comfortable enough to broach the topic of race with them just yet but I know I don’t have that luxury.
The reality is we live in a world where children are exposed every day to a barrage of racially biased messages both loud and subtle and simply “leading by example” is no longer enough. We don’t have to make it about race. But let’s make it about being FAIR, and being KIND. As much as we want to protect our children’s autonomy and “protect their innocence” it is simply not the context of the type of world they are developing in. These discussions need to be had – I know this more than ever now.
The reality of racism is hard and painful. Even more so when it’s on my door step stripping away the security blanket I’ve created for my family. But at the same time, the experience has been deeply meaningful. I view conversations of race with my children as fulfilling my vital responsibility as a parent not only to protect them but to prepare them for this world.
These conversations I never wished to have, I now embrace them and encourage them. If they do nothing else, I hope they give some meaning to their world and allow them to see their worth and beauty in their uniqueness.
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”- Audre Lorde