Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Realistic Assessment of Skin Color

This has been puzzling me for some time -- years, in fact. I think my kids see their skin as darker than it really is. They will use a dark brown crayon for their skin on a self-portrait, even when other colors are available that seem to me to be a more accurate match. When comparing their skin color to skin color in the book the Colors of Us, they'll declare a match for colors far darker than they are. In making an avatar for a computer game, again they go darker. And yesterday, Maya was telling me that she didn't like the color of her skin and wished she had skin like mine and Zoe's. I wasn't surprised to hear her say she didn't like her skin -- that's part of her don't-want-to-be-different thing (that's a subject for another post). But wanting skin like mine and Zoe's, as if Zoe and I have the same skin?! At one point in the conversation, I said she did have skin like Zoe's, and she said that her skin was far darker than Zoe's. Nothing could be further from the truth -- Zoe is in fact darker than Maya.

So. What does this mean? Is this a problem? Is this common for children of color?

My worry is that the girls have internalized the "lighter is better" message that society promotes, and thus see themselves as darker in comparison. And if "lighter is better," are they seeing themselves as "darker is bad?" Or am I falling for the "lighter is better" trope, and seeing them as lighter than they are?

And I don't know how to deal with this directly -- which is unusual for me, since I'm willing to talk about anything! I don't want to suggest that they are in fact lighter than they think, because it suggests that I think lighter is better. And no way was I going to tell Maya she's lighter than Zoe for the same reason. I once had a Japanese student look at pictures of Zoe and Maya and be very dismissive of Zoe as "dark" and obviously an ethnic minority, while praising Maya's light skin and confidently declaring her to be Han Chinese, and of a higher class. I don't want to promote that kind of within-race color stratification that has been so notorious.

The girls generally seem to have pretty good self-esteem when it comes to their skin and hair and eyes (despite Maya not wanting to be different). Zoe went through a phase where she wanted her skin to be light, but she's mostly out of that phase now, it seems. We talk often about how beautiful their skin color is, but hearing it doesn't mean they've necessarily embraced it . . . .
Any suggestions? Thoughts? Anyone seeing the same thing in their child? In themselves? Does anyone know of any studies about self-assessment of skin color? Any help would be appreciated.

P.S. Kantmakm suggested this video link in the comments (thanks!). In addition to young Asian American women discussing standards of beauty, the filmmaker reproduced the famous doll study from the 1950s, where African-American children invariably picked a white doll as more beautiful than a black doll (an experiment recreated in 2006, sadly, with the same results). Using a white, blue-eyed, blond doll and an Asian brown-eyed, black-haired doll, he asked 20 children which was prettier. Fourteen out of the 20 picked the white doll. Wow.

18 comments:

kantmakm said...

malinda, i don't have any answers for you, but here is something very interesting:

Another Shade: Asian American Self Perceptions Beyond B & W

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K84verugCT0

Around 6:40 is where things start to get especially unnerving.

Dawn said...

Madison does not do this particular thing (see herself as darker) but Pennie is darker and Madison is very aware of that. When she draws, she never colors anyone any color (not us, not herself, not Pennie) but she does make a point of giving herself curly-curly hair.

When Roscoe was first born she was angry that he seemed white but I told her that many brown-skinned babies are born with lighter skin and showed her her own pics to demonstrate that. She is happy that he's gotten browner now.

M3 said...

We're not seeing it yet, but maybe Ro and Ree are too young at 4? I'm so interested to see what your commenters have to say.

Lee in Canada said...

Yes! My 10-year-old will often say things that indicate she thinks her skin colour is much darker than it is. (She is, in fact, much lighter than her Caucasian cousin and was surprised when this fact was pointed out to her.) She also has brown hair with red highlights, but calls her hair black. She never indicates a wish for lighter skin; this is just the way she sees herself.

travelmom and more said...

I think this is as much a woman in America issue as it is a racial realization issue. Many women and girls have distorted images of themselves. Building a positive self image for our children is a challenge for all of us. Race is harder to address than other body issues because, like you Malinda I agree that drawing attention to shades may give the impression that one is better than another. My daughter hasn't spent too much time talking about skin color except that she and her father have darker skin than I do, but she did get angry the other night and said we weren't listening to her because she was Chinese and we are English. I am not sure if this comes from her school which has four language tracks (English, Spanish, Chinese and French) or from her growing self awareness.

AlisonG said...

Lia chose the colour "butterscotch" for herself from the Colors of Us book. We also talk about her golden and golden brown skin. But she's not talking about lighter or darker stuff yet (she's almost 4).

At adoption playgroup a few weeks ago, we were talking about how Lia and another girl at the table were both born in China. I commented that they both had black hair, dark brown eyes, and golden skin. The other girl, age 5, said she didn't have golden skin. "What colour do you call your skin?" I asked. She said, "White."

When we colour, I use various different colours for skin tone (peach, tan, brown), and she's followed along, using her favourites blue, purple, and pink!

The video with the doll experiment *is* unnerving, but "Which doll is more beautiful?" seems like a really loaded question to ask. I wonder if the children are parsing it as, "What doll do you think is more beautiful?" or "What doll is socially considered more beautiful?"

Lia was obsessed with Cinderella from age 2.5 to 3. Then she switched allegiance to Snow White because she has black hair like Lia. But she's definitely vulnerable to the "princess" hierarchy--she doesn't go for Mulan, Pocahontas, or Jasmine so much (even though they share her hair colour too). She says it's because they're not wearing long dresses. So it's hard to know if it's racial or just the costume.

I'm getting comfortable talking to the kids about skin colour, among other things, partly from reading your (Malinda) and Dawn's blogs. So thanks for sharing, it makes a difference!

Peripatetic said...

How interesting...Thanks for sharing. I've certainly thought about the color of my skin (darker than many of the Asians at my school), have experienced a brief stab of jealousy at one point or another, but have very quickly gotten over it. I think race is something many people think about (of every color) and it is still an issue, unfortunately! It's all part of finding one's identity... Anyways I recently wrote something on race that you might find interesting (although it certainly doesn't answer a lot of questions). I also posted some of my friends' opinions on race in a follow-up post...

http://meiayao.blogspot.com/2010/02/race-post.html

http://meiayao.blogspot.com/2010/02/follow-up-race-post.html

Anonymous said...

Kinda off topic (and I hope I don't offend anyone), but when I look at caucasian babies and asian babies, I (mama to two asian babies) always find myself thinking, "Poor homely white babies. Asian babies are so much prettier". Ha Ha . . . I'm sure it's my mama eyes speaking . . .

Gabi is in a lot of denial I think. She goes out of her way to always "be" a white baby when she is selecting . . .whether to play dolls, little babies, barbies, or even like someone else said, to pick a princess. She usually picks one that looks more like me. So I always go out of MY way to pick the Asian babies or at least the non-caucasian babies to "be" when we are playing together. ;)

Good convo though - helps me prepare to deal with it as it comes.

Emanual

윤선 said...

I don't think it's so much about which exact shade their skin colour is. It's more about how they see themselves in comparison with others. And this is a perfect example of what we adoptees are trying to express: that no matter what you APs say or do, ultimately, you can't protect your child/ren from the messages of the outside world. At 26 years old, although my skin has lightened somewhat since I was a child, I still perceive my skin to be much darker than those caucasian people around me, despite the fact that I have that typical Korean paleness.

I don't have any answers for you. Unfortunately, I believe that this is something that adoptees suffer in being adopted to caucasian countries and something that you APs seem to dismiss when going through the adoption process. Although that may seem harsh, it's the simple truth. There are no answers for it. You can do your best to tell them their skin colour is beautiful and that you love it etc etc, but that won't stop the messages they receive from people and means other than you.

Just remember, though: it's not specifically about their SKIN per se. It's the fact that they're realising they're DIFFERENT from those around them. Skin colour is simply the most obvious thing, but it all comes down to the fact that they're DIFFERENT, and that's something they have to deal with on a day to day basis, which is very difficult when everyone around them is "white" and seemingly perfect in the eyes of others and the media.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how non-adopted Asian people feel about skin color when they live in mostly caucasian areas of the world? I wonder if they compare their skin color to that of their caucasian friends? I know that skin whitening creams are quite popular not just on the Subcontinent (which had many hndreds of years of British occupation), but also in East Asia. I think that traditionally being darker meant that one was a "peasant" and being lighter meant that one was upper class--maybe a scholar--and didn't have to work outdoors.

travelmom and more said...

Most of the comments I have had about my daughter's skin have come from Asians who were born in Asia. Even in China many people came up to us to comment on our daughters "light" skin. I think conversations about shades of skin are very common in non-white communities. Just look at the AA community in the US, shades of black are a very common topic of discussion. When I lived in Japan my friends often talked about how to keep thier skin pale and used various products to keep their skin as light as possible. This conversation is not unique to children being raised in transracial families.

Wendy said...

Travelmom has really hit to the core of things, skin color and levels of "darkness" go well beyond adoption. This topic is something that must be discussed in relation to the global ideology that lighter is better.

Louise said...

One could feel "different" in their own country - "peasant" / darker vs "upper" class in Asia.

A girl with red hair in America feels "different" because she is labeled as having a temper.

An adoptee feels "different" because she doesn't look like her parents.

A 3rd grader feels "different" because she can't keep her grades up.

A young boy has cerebral palsey and can't run - he feels "different."

Overall it's how you and your family react to this information that you ARE different from others.

Mahmee said...

We're just starting to see our daughter at barely 4 years old making observations on skin color. She's of Asian descent and we're of European descent. She comments on people she sees of obvious Asian descent as having 'brown' skin. However, she doesn't see herself as having that same skin color. Granted, she does have a fairly light skin tone but, it's definitely different than our skin tone. She refers to people of African descent as having 'really brown' skin....meaning darker, I assume. I have been a little concerned when she comments on the dolls in the stores who are 'white' with various hair colors as being beautiful while never really saying the same thing about dolls with darker skin tones. I bought an Asian Barbie-type doll 3 years ago in China which I was thinking of giving her to discuss the skin tone issue. But, when I looked at it the other day (after 3 years), I noticed that it has the same skin color as the 'white' Barbie dolls.
The Colors of Us book sounds like something perfect for us to begin some deeper discussions at this stage.
M.

Kim Sager said...

I wonder if its more just wanting what you don't have? Brian's daughter, Dana, who is now 21, asked for and received an african american 'american girl' doll when she was around age 5. And Dana, is very fair, with blond hair and green eyes! And my son, who is 24, blond hair and blue eyed, wanted nothing more than to have dark skin and be like his favorite sports heros and rap stars. Go figure.

Louise said...

I would NEVER refer to my child's skin color as "golden." Asian skin is BROWN, TAN, OLIVE, or any other color. Golden sounds fake and too close to "yellow." Just ask the map makers....

Anonymous said...

Who are they comparing their skin to?

Anonymous said...

-->It's more about how they see themselves in comparison with others.

That's what I was trying to ask. And I agree, it goes beyond skin color, but that they are different.

The poster that argued that everyone is different in some way is valid; however, there is another layer to not looking like your parents and yet another layer if the majority of folks around you are white, hence internalized messages, that white is the normative (ie better).

I equate this with adoptive white parents dissmissing racist comments are everyone gets teased. It's much more complicated.