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"Mommy, Why is Her Face Brown?"

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Mom•Logic's Jackie: How my 3 1/2 year old taught me race relations.


When my husband brought my two boys to visit me at work this week, my older boy shocked a room full of Moms when he asked me loud and clearly "Mommy, why is her face brown?" upon meeting one of my co-workers.

I was completely mortified. What was I doing wrong that he would he say something like that? Aren't we all supposed to be colorblind and not notice the differences in people? But as soon as I got over myself, I quickly realized that his asking about her skin was no different from him pointing out I have blue eyes, and not hazel like his or why I have "dots" (aka freckles) on my arms.

I asked my co-worker to field the question because I was interested in hearing how she'd like it answered. She explained to him that people come in all colors and her skin is just darker than his. He waited a beat--thought about what she said--and then asked if we could watch Toy Story 2 for the ten thousandth time.

What I learned from my preschooler that day is that recognizing differences in each other is not harmful, racist, or prejudice--it's natural. It's when you judge or treat someone differently because of those differences that's hurtful. And that was the furthest thing from his sweet three-year-old mind.

next: Grade School Hickeys?
38 comments so far | Post a comment now
A.B. June 8, 2009, 11:33 PM

Not meaning to incite a riot or anything, but I would ask you all to consider that it is entirely normal for children to not “notice” race (or other differences for that matter) for a certain period of time as their conciousness is developing. Then, all of a sudden it occurs to them that some people look different (or speak differently or move differently, etc.) then others. And being innocent children, they ask about that visible difference in a nice, direct way. The fact that her son chose that particular moment to inquire about race says nothing about how much or how little exposure he has to people of different racial backgrounds and everything about the fact that a developmental switch had just flipped in his brain. I know that race is a hot button issue, but I challenge you all to ponder how you would have viewed her story if you replaced “why is her skin brown?” with “why does she talk funny?” or “why does she walk funny?/ride around in that chair?” ALL children are prety blind to differences at the outset but then begin noticing them as their brains become more sophisticated. And in that moment the challenge for us as parents is in how we handle that spontaneous teaching moment. So if your child asked you one of the alternative questions posed above, how would YOU handle it when you felt put on the spot and caught off guard????

Tashya W. June 9, 2009, 1:44 AM

“What I learned from my preschooler that day is that recognizing differences in each other is not harmful, racist, or prejudice—it’s natural. It’s when you judge or treat someone differently because of those differences that’s hurtful.”

When you stand there in ignorant silence it’s hurtful as well.

I’m concerned that you are just now “learning” about issues of race from your three-year-old. You are clearly quite uncomfortable with people from other races and issues of race. Otherwise, you would not have put your co-worker in the awkward position of answering a question clearly posed to you, the parent.

Exactly how long did you stand there before it became clear to your co-worker that she was going to have to “save” you from this simple question?

And please don’t teach your child to be colorblind.

Your son has the right idea. However, based on your own statements, you haven’t actually learned a single thing.

lena h. June 10, 2009, 1:05 AM

I don’t think there was any racism at all, other than that of some who commented not being able at all to see the shoe on the other foot. I’m tired of the “double standard” and mixed messages…do you, or do you not, want to be treated differently? When you (whoever you are) decide, let us know.

Rebecca June 10, 2009, 9:34 AM

While I agree that you could have and should have answered the question yourself (and I’ve read your response, so that helps me, anyway), the people who are saying that your child must be very isolated from POC probably don’t have toddlers.

I live in a neighborhood in which I am the minority, and I’ve been asked MANY times about my hair and skin by children who have seen me MANY times. My son, who has blonde hair, often has his hair touched and stroked. I see the questions and curiosity as positive. On the other hand, my children and I have also been called “White Devil” by children whose parents just shrug and keep walking. Toddlers don’t have filters, but they have intense curiosity.

Unfortunately, they also soak in the negativity around them.

Graham June 10, 2009, 2:57 PM

1. Yes, she should have answered the question because she is the parent. Parents make mistakes, children say uninformed things. Everyone’s agreed on this.

2. Um, commenters? The dictionary definition of the word colourblind, and the obvious intent of author, is to not discrimate against people based upon their skin colour. Its nothing about ignoring or destroying culture. If you believe that’s a social problem, fine; but its not the issue at hand. Simply assuming the author is rascist in this scenario is a disappointing mistake on your parts.


Stephanie June 10, 2009, 7:35 PM

You know what? A lot of people think that noticing differences IS racist. It isn’t, of course, but there are a lot of stupid people in the world. Get ready to meet a lot of them.

Oh, and about what Shelley said about the hair thing — I am SO TIRED of that. When I worked with black children they all wanted to touch my stringy white-girl hair. When I worked with black teens, they often surreptiously tried to touch my stringy white-girl hair. It happened ALL THE TIME.

It didn’t bother me. Heck, I encourage curiosity — it’s educational. I never thought my kids were racist. I don’t understand why others don’t feel the same way.

Caroline June 11, 2009, 9:39 AM

What’s actually pretty shocking is how some people here jump to conclusions…Noticing differences, as some (intelligent) commentators wrote, is a “symptom” of curiosity, not racism. It is amazing to see how some here got all worked up and so aggressive. I wonder why?
Jackie, I do believe that you could (should?) have answered that question yourself, but I understand that sometimes, as race has been an issue for so long, moments like this can be awkward. However, that you would ask yourself what you had done wrong for your kid to ask such a question is just a proof of how mother and people are under pressure to be absolutely perfect, with no right to be mistaken. it’s OK for a child to ask such a question. It’s the natural process of getting to know and understand his/her environment. That people would get offended over it is plain stupid. That some people here asked you “how come your kid is 3 and hasn’t seen a black person in his entire life?” and somehow implicitely say that it is your fault and a proof of your racism, is just evidence of THEIR stupidity. I grew up in a (very) small town in the country side where there wasn’t a single non-white person. Were my parent racists? Nope. Did I grow up to be a racist? Nope. My best mate is part zimbabwean/part Kiwi. These hasty judgments are just BS if you ask me.

Caroline June 11, 2009, 9:44 AM

That people would jump to conclusions about your so called racism is amazing. What’s wrong with a child asking that kid of question? He’s 3.5 for God’s sake!!!! It’s the normal process of getting to understand his environment as all kids do.
I’m also surprised by how people considered that your boy’s question meant that you had kept him on purpose away from black people. Well, I grew up in a very small town in the countryside without a single non-white person living there. Were my parents racists? Nope. Did I grow up to be a racist? Nope. My best mate is zimbabwean.
You should have answered this question yourself. But really, there’s nothing here to warrant the outrage, aggressivity displayed by those self-righteous commentators who are so quick to judge people.

Seattle Mom June 12, 2009, 1:23 PM

First, Caroline needs to get a clue; as do Graham and Stephanie. Clearly, you are “non-brown” people. You need to explore your own issues of priviledge, since you seem to feel so strongly that people of color are just too sensitive for your own comfort.

Second, a little girl in my son’s preschool class (4 years old) asked why my skin was brown. I wasn’t offended. I am very fond of this little girl. I don’t know who her parents expose her to, but I know she sees and hugs me everyday. I know that she doesn’t dislike brown people and isn’t taught to dislike them. She simply wanted to know “why” my skin was brown.

I sat down so that we would be eye level. She sat on my lap and together we had a very simple and honest conversation.

I asked her first, “well, why is your skin tan and peach?” She said I don’t know. I said, well you know what. I don’t know why mine is brown. We just all have different colors in the world. I asked her if I could touch the skin on her arm. She said yes and I gently massaged her skin and said. “Yep, it feels like mine!” Then, I asked her if she wanted to touch mine. She said, yep.

Then, she said…. “yours is softer than mine!”

I told her that I had just put vanilla lotion on it and promised to share it with her tomorrow.

I hugged her and she went across the room to play with some friends.

I told her parents the story later and they agreed it was a very cute exchange.

This little girl is my friend and we love one another.


Caroline June 15, 2009, 4:27 AM

“too sensitive for my own comfort”… I really don’t know what this can possibly mean. What is really amazing to me is for people to judge others. You seem yourself like a sensitive and thoughtful person. Why would other people jump to conclusions whan a child asks such questions? You didn’t, obviously. And that’s exactly my point. I lived in Africa for several years, and as a “non-brown”, I was clearly the minority. And let me tell you that it was not always comfortable: the history of colonialism has made people there wary of whites, and justifiably so. So please don’t lecture me on my so-called issues of privilege. In my comment I didn’t refer to people of color, but people who judge, whatever the color of their skin, whatever the object of their judgemental views. And in fact, the example you give completely agrees with what I think: with a child, it is just about curiosity and the will to understand the Other. You didn’t judge and that says a lot about you. I wish you hadn’t judged my comment like you did…

Jack August 21, 2010, 10:15 AM

This article is just an excuse for your child’s racism.

Face it - You’ve raised a child in an eviroment where racism is allowed.

Jack August 21, 2010, 10:19 AM

Seriously, I bet you’ve lived in an enviroment where you’ve never had one racist remark about you.

If that child has lived for 3 and a half years and has never faced someone with dark complextion, you’re teaching your child to be a racist.

How would you like to be treated as some oddity? Pointing out differences IS racist. Stop making up excuses for your bad parenting.

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