Writing about the psychological needs and/or experience of people of colour always carries with it the danger of stereotyping and pathologising them further. I am very mindful of the need to resist such processes and often struggle with my own ambivalence when I reflect on my writing. To that end, it may be helpful to establish that I do not believe that Black people and indeed Black children as groups have lower levels of self-esteem and self-love than any other ethnic group. Like most psychological variables and attributes, when it comes to self-esteem and self-love; within group differences tend to be much more significant than between group differences. Further comparative empirical findings on the matter are unclear and conflicting.
Having said that, I do however believe that even today, skin colour can have an influence on Black people’s sense of self. Colorism and racism are alive and well. As a result, there are many children within African and African Caribbean communities; and many others; who will develop difficulties with their skin colour and for a proportion of these; self-loathing will become an issue which may be harboured till adulthood if left unaddressed. Thankfully, it is not necessary to be an expert on internalised oppression/racism, social constructionism or even on racial identity development to be able to support these children (although some basic knowledge on the above will be of help-please do some research). Pragmatically, a good starting point may be to remember this: like most adults, children like to think of themselves as good, beautiful, kind and worthy of love.
A child who comes to associate any attribute they possess to qualities that contradict any of the above will start to relate to the attribute in question with some degree of comptempt and hostility and/or try to dissociate from it. The same can be said for skin colour. I do not believe there is anything pathological here. A child that voices a desire to be a different skin colour or to belong to a different racial/ethnic group than the one they belong to, demonstrates that they are starting to develop a racial/ethnic identity, that they are sensitive to the dynamics, images and/or language they have been exposed to and most importantly, that they have developed sufficient trust in the parent/care giver (or whoever this wish was expressed to) to be open about their feelings. So how might we start to address these experiences and help the child relate more positively to his race/ethnicity and/or skin colour? Here are a few suggestions.
- Keep your emotions in check
This may be both the simplest and the most difficult thing to do. Hearing ‘I hate being Black’, or words to that effect, can be tough for anyone especially for a Black parent. It may take parents back to their own experience of racism and oppression. It may make some feel that they have somehow failed to instill pride and self-esteem in their offspring. Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and/or guilt about not having been able to shelter the child from the reality of oppression may arise. Some parents may even feel betrayed.
A range of feelings and emotions may be evoked which will be picked up by the child. Many may be tempted to brush the child’s experience and words off or to ignore the child. For many, the temptation to stop the conversation, distract, change subject or laugh things off will be great. Please resist. Silencing the child may assign shame to their experience and/or teach them that the subject is taboo or, will cause offense, embarrassment or hurt to you. Consequently, the child may not bring the subject up again; learn to keep this potentially troubling experience to themselves. Silencing the child might even reinforce any potential association between themselves, Blackness and being ‘bad’.
- Engage the child
It may be helpful to try and remain curious and open. For every child that wishes they were White, positive qualities and/or experiences, that in all probability, the child may think they lack (or may actually lack), would have been associated with Whiteness. Do not assume associations that the child has not made e.g. you may think that the child says they want to be White because they think White people are more beautiful when in fact the child might think ‘I want to be White because White people live in big houses’. Ask questions such as: How different do you think your life would be if you were white/not Black? What do you think White people have that Black people don’t? Probe the child with open and neutral questions so that you can start to build a picture of their belief system and of the qualities that have been attributed to Blackness and Whiteness. This will make it easier to challenge such beliefs in due course and to provide counter narratives.
- Expose the child to appropriate Role Models
It is crucially important that all children have access to positive role models that they can identify with. Unfortunately, children are not immune to the effects of negative messages associated with Blackness and the positive images associated with Whiteness whether at home, in school or through the media. Mundane and apparently trivial things may erode a child‘s self-esteem. Are there only blond haired blue eyed dolls at home/school? Are the heroes in all the stories they hear White? A colleague of mine, who used to reside on a council estate in a predominantly deprived (and Black) area of London, once told me that he was constantly stared at by Black boys and on occasions asked whether he was a Bailiff Officer. Black men going to work and wearing suits were such a rarity on the estate. The only people who wore suits and came round the estate were debt collectors (he was a director).
We have limited control over the media. Some people may even have little control over where they live and who they live with but, we can exercise our professional and/or parental control to expose children to people who look like them and have the quality/qualities they feel they, or people who look like them, do not possess or aspire to possess. More often than not such a person can be identified within the child’s environment. If appropriate then facilitating contact should be explored. Mentoring organisations are another option. There are plenty of relevant role models within our communities. Doctors, lawyers, artists, community workers and activists, Entrepreneurs etc. Of course, our history is full of them. Identify Black people that your child can look up to in your community and teach them about ‘Black History’. You may even do relevant research together.
- Mind your words and actions…
Your behaviour will have much more of an impact than your words. The way you treat children will teach them about how to expect to be treated in the world. In relation to race and colour, deal with your prejudices. Everyone has some. They are capable of doing a lot less damage if you are aware of them and you keep challenging yourself. It is not unusual for Black parents* to display colorism e.g. show a preference towards lighter skin tones. Children will sense and pick on these preferences whether they are verbalised or not (more often than not they are). Do you only compliment women on their beauty when they have lighter skin tones?
Do you call straight/curly hair good hair and afro and kinky textures ‘nappy’? Do you comment on people being ‘too dark’? Refrain. If people in your environment do so, challenge them. Many people say things without realising the impact of their words or that they may play a part in systems of devaluation until the experience of others is shared. Finally, being loved, nurtured and attended to, are probably the strongest buffers against the internalisation of oppression and racism and may help the development of a more secure cultural identity and a healthy self-esteem. A ‘secure base’ help teach children that they are lovable and that they matter; arguably the most important factors in fostering self-love.
* These attitudes are not only found amongst people of African descent but have been found amongst people of South Asian, East Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern origins and, even amongst people from some European countries-to name but a few. Further, White people (and systems) can similarly show colorism towards individuals from racialized groups.
Please note the above are just ideas. Although they are psychologically informed, they reflect my own reflections and experience. I am really curious about the experience of others either as parent or as clinicians/therapists. If you have any other suggestion please post a comment. Similarly, if you feel any part of the post does not make sense write a comment.
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