Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Learning to Love the Skin We're In

My daughter is beautiful. Her black hair sproings and curls from her head, wildly chaotic beneath her purple headband. Her chocolate-brown skin makes any color she wears look lovely. Her round dark brown eyes are twin pools, sparkling with her inner light of playfulness and empathy with every part of the world. When she laughs, she crinkles her nose and throws open her mouth and lets the laugh shake her whole body. Her tiny fingers shape "I love you" for me when I leave for work; she squints her eyes in that loving look I love. I am amazed at her beauty.

So why were Ali and I holding our sobbing three-year-old close one night after story-time, listening to her cry, "I'm not beautiful! I'm not beautiful!" over and over? We glanced at each other with fear. Isn't this too early? Ali's seven-year-old, Katie, has begun to compare herself to other girls, to try to define what is beautiful and what is not about her sweet little body -- but at THREE? We held Mitike closer, murmuring into the perfect whorls of her ears, "You're beautiful, we love you."

Moments before, we had finished reading the last book -- a book about bunnies -- and TK had snuggled close to us, happy. She held her hand against Ali's arm. "Aye-Ay," she pronounced, "you have light brown skin." Ali nodded. Then TK turned to me and held her little arm alongside mine. "And we both have dark brown skin, right, Mommy?"

I wanted to lie. This was the moment of her discovery, and I wanted to lie and prolong her blindness a little more. The research I've read says children begin to notice skin color differences far later than they notice differences such as body size or hair length -- at about the age of 4. My friend John, who spent his early childhood in Africa, recalls that his first memory of difference was not that he was the only pale-skinned child among his playmates, but that some of his playmates had outie bellybuttons. It was only later that he began to realize his uniqueness of skin color; he'd felt like he fit in with his innie.

So I wanted to lie, but I didn't. Mitike is smart, and I saw in her beautiful eyes that she already understood, that she knew -- and feared -- what I was about to say. "No, sweetie, I have light brown skin," I murmured. "You have dark brown skin."

"But Mommy," she frowned, her brow furrowing, "I want light brown skin like you."

"TK, your skin is beautiful!" I exclaimed, kissing her little hands. She wrenched them away and buried her face in them.

"I'm NOT beautiful! I don't LIKE my dark brown skin!"

My heart lurched. Both Ali and I wrapped our arms around our beautiful little fragile child. I murmured a litany of all the many similarities TK and I have: two eyes (both brown!), a nose, two ears, two hands, ten fingers!, two feet. She sobbed, inconsolable. We both need to control everything, I reminded her, we both love to dance in the kitchen, we both love to read books, we -- I paused. Ali jumped in to describe a Sesame Street conversation she saw once between Elmo and Whoopie Goldberg about loving the skin you're in. TK quieted and listened. She loves Elmo. I worried that she'd start crying that she doesn't have red fur, but she didn't. She calmed down and let Ali kiss her goodnight; she cuddled close to me in the darkness.

I told her a bedtime story about Purple Bear (one of her beloved stuffed friends) and his mommy, Green Bear -- about how sad Purple Bear felt to realize he was not green like his mommy, but how he began to realize how beautiful he was as a purple bear. TK only half-listened; she began to cry again when I ended the story. Her last words before she fell asleep: "I'm not beautiful." I responded fiercely: "You are beautiful, you are. I love you, little TK. I love you, love you."

This morning, she seemed sad -- she needed to take more special toys to school than usual. Already, I hate taking her to daycare -- I want to be a stay-at-home mom -- but this morning's drop-off felt unbearable. What if some child at preschool is telling her she's not beautiful because of her skin color? I keyed her teachers into my concerns and then drove to work feeling nauseated. All day, I watched my students of color -- especially the ones with healthy self identities. Do they like themselves because they look like their mothers, or because their parents have guided them to love themselves? What am I supposed to DO?

I rushed into preschool prepared to scoop up a sobbing, melancholy child -- and found my happy, beautiful TK sticking glitter and purple hearts onto contact paper. "Look, Mommy!" She held up her creation, grinning. We played all afternoon and all evening, and then we snuggled into bed again -- tonight, to read "The Colors of Us," "I'm Unique" and "Amazing Grace," all three familiar books shouting the theme that every person should love who she is, no matter her skin color. In the middle of "Amazing Grace," TK looked up at me and grinned, "Mommy, I LOVE myself. Do you want to hold Froggie?"

I hugged her close and shouted, "YAY!" to make her laugh; we finished reading. Tonight's bedtime story was a silly one, with no rhetorical purpose other than to entertain my sweet child. She fell asleep smiling, Purple Bear, Puppy, and Froggie held tightly as usual in her little arms.

I watched her sleep for awhile, her face peaceful, her mouth slightly open. I'm afraid. This is the beginning of her search for her own identity in a world in which her mother and, for as long as we live in Juneau, the majority of the people around her do not look like her -- and I will be a flawed guide. But I will love that beautiful little girl with all my heart, and with all my strength. I'm going to have faith that that will count for something.