A parent writes:
Regarding the issue of calling brown kids “black,” I don’t know anything about the history of the term, but my black kids find it confusing, especially when they know Indian children with *darker* skin than my girls who are “brown” but not “black”.
We told them that “black” is another word used for “African-American”, so only kids whose ancestors (now there’s an abstract concept for a pre-schooler) came from Africa are called “black”. While they all know that they’re “black”, they identify much more with the term African-American. And they also know that “white” people are beige, not white. But whenever this issue comes up for discussion, they mention our Senegalese friend who really is “black” and their school friend who is albino, and really is “white”.
What’s the best way to help children understand the difference between what they see and what they’re named?
Michelle Johnson Answers:
You are struggling with a difficult issue in parenting in a diverse society.
As you know, every non-European ethnic group in the U. S. has been given a color, regardless of whether their skin color actually matches (red for American Indians, Yellow for Asians, etc….) Basically, it began as yet another way to separate people into categories. Accuracy was not the point, divisiveness was. While you must acknowledge that albinos and some Africans are closer to the colors black and white, neither group actually is. One way to help children see this is to take out pieces of construction paper and have your child(ren) examine them and think about the true complexions of their friends.
The whole issue of Black/African-American is one which not all people of African descent agree upon. Both were reactions to people becoming sick and tired of accepting labels we did not choose. At the time (late fifties, early sixties) of the modern day Civil Rights Movement, our national leaders and educators publicly expressed their distaste for Negro and Colored, both of which had negative connotations deeply at the heart of the struggle for equality. African-American represents an acknowledgment of our roots on the African continent, and our status as United States citizens. The call for Black Power by groups and individuals (including a young Bill Cosby) perceived as more militant than Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, focused on instilling strong Black identities in young children, countering low self esteem and our culture’s negative images.
While both terms are fine, and Black now unites people in the U. S. with all people of African descent in other countries, it might be helpful for now to stick to African-American, which does not raise the issue of color, but instead describes an ethnic identity.
When I was 16, I wrote a poem which represented my struggles with being light brown in an often white world. I had spent many fruitless hours at cosmetic counters trying to find a foundation which matched my skin color (needless to say, my European American girlfiends had no such problems). I was elated when I found Clinique’s counter and a color that blended just right into my skin. The name on the bottom of the bottle was Amber Silk, and this was also the title of my poem. It was wonderful to have such a beautiful description of my complexion, and it gave me a new sense of pride.
The main point in all of this is to instill positive self-esteem in your children, and help them move beyond the Black/White dichotomy society utilizes, and into our world of many beautiful shades and colors which represent our truly multicultural reality as members of global culture.
Best of luck in our colorful world, Michelle