Questions from children about skin color?
My name is Laura Bakunda and I am in my second year of Child and Youth Care Counseling at Mount Royal University.
I have had a few opportunities to observe children and now that I am in my practicum, I seem to be getting a lot more questions about my skin color from children. I am a Black African-Canadian and when children ask about my skin color, it never offends me because I understand the innocence behind the questions. I mostly get asked “Why are you black?” “Do you wash your skin?” “Does the sun cause it?” or my favorite “ Why don’t you want to marry Ben, he’s black too.”
I personally think these questions are valid questions, except for the marrying Ben one, I am not ready for marriage. If parents are not answering these types of questions when their children ask, then who will? Or if I am the only person a child feels comfortable asking these questions, then what should I say? I want to have the answers to these kinds of questions, or to at least have discussions about them. I remember the first time I saw a white person I thought that they lived in snow houses and that’s why they were so white like snow. This was due to the fact that everybody was black in our part of town, and I had not been exposed to ‘white people’ before coming to Canada. It was a big deal.
Usually when these types of questions get asked and there is someone else nearby, the person usually becomes shocked and replies by saying, “That’s rude!” “Don’t ask questions like that”. I usually just reply to the kids by asking “why are you white?” This usually makes them laugh but it feels like the wrong answer. I want to know how best to answer these questions in an informative way.
My question is how can I approach these types of questions in an informative way to the children that are brave enough to ask these types of questions?
I think that the best way to answer the question is by acknowledging the fact that the child is brilliant to notice the colour difference and have interest in knowing why the difference. Then tell the child that there is something nature gave you he/she does not have? The child will still be inquisitive and you will let him know that that you have melanin in your system which gives you the colour you have which he/she as a white does not have. Remind him that it is God’s gift.
Thank you. Hoping this makes meaning to you. Children have the right to information.
My thought is what is the motive behind the question? That should help you understand how to approach the answer.
As a researcher and clinician I have come across these situations before. One child pointed out I am like Rudolph and she is like Santa.
These are normal questions and when children ask they should be answered professionally and openly. Shutting them up gives children the foundational message that race, and therefore anything to do with race and difference is not their business. Twenty years later any time matters of racism etc. come up they either ignore it or feel extremely guilt. We have heard of "white guilt."
My approach is to teach them about diversity. Take out a map of the world. Show them pictures and videos. Talk about language. Introduce the concept of culture. Ask them questions about their world and show them how they can connect their world to yours and others. Make it an ongoing discussion.
Color is skin deep, so to speak, but it also represents a million interesting and wonderful aspects of diversity.
Just never use the word "tolerance".
I suggest that you do what you are doing. Answer the questions honestly and respectfully, and you can't go wrong. I have to admire their honesty. The world would be a better place if we could all just ask the questions that were on our mind!
I loved reading your perspective of seeing a white person for the first time. Your ability to see the query of the child as innocent is accurate. I love hearing what kind of questions or perspectives a child may share and don't feel that it is rude but refreshing. Listening to the replies of the adult is often of keen interest as well. How would you reply? Why are you black? What do you believe/know and can share at their developmental level. Diversity is a great lesson to be able to share. Would be interested in hearing what you will reply with in the future.
I passed your thoughts on to a couple of colleagues. One said she would write directly to you. Their thoughts are below.
I used to find it useful to have a little conversation with children (adapted according to their age) to look at their characteristics together with them too e.g. yes my skin colour is… and is yours the same or different? People have different skin colours… This can lead to further questions re: cultures/country of birth etc. or might not and either is fine. It is just the ‘normalising’ of differences in an accepting way which role models these discussions being ‘ok’ to have.
This is very simplistic but just thought I would share these few thoughts… As you grow more confident in your role with children and work out comfortable (and maybe at times a little uncomfortable) responses, it will get easier and easier for you. It’s something that develops with experience and times.
Also, nothing wrong at all with using humour with children – I think that’s great!
All the best,
In my opinion and experience with working with children I think the most important aspect of this is to ‘normalise,’ the whole concept/any discussion around differences in people e.g. eye colour, skin colour, hair colour etc. etc. Living comfortably with the idea that everyone is unique and some parts of them are similar to others and others are not.
I understand that it is the most uncomfortable however, when
questions are personal and being directed at you – more challenging for
all of us. You are right though – children are learning and questioning
everything as they grow and it’s best if we are prepared with answers we
are comfortable with when responding to these, rather than the
inappropriate (but often well meaning) responses to shut the child down
when asking something uncomfortable.