I Hate My Skin

Trish made the following comment on my post “Asians Are Smarter,” which I’m publishing with her permission. “I so disliked the title of this post that I almost didn’t read it. But, now I am glad I did. Your blog is certainly touching some nerves with me. My husband and I are Caucasian. We live in Trenton. We are the parents of a six year old African American boy. Before we adopted him, six years ago, I feel like I had considered every aspect of raising a child here. Each day, tiny little things happen to remind me that I cannot ignore race. Our son is reminding us too. His questions and comments sometimes take me by surprise. “I hate my skin!” he has said! That is just one of many things that really make me stop and think hard about raising our child. Just recently, a friend told me she purposely uses the words Caucasian and African American with her children. I have started doing the same. I am so thankful that I have many African American friends I can talk to and a few excellent books I can consult. Their advice has been invaluable.”

If reading “I hate my skin!” is painful for me, hearing it must be devastating for Trish and her husband. No child that young should have learned to hate anything about himself. But how to repair damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place?

An image from the PBS Newshour sticks in my mind: Gwen Ifill interviewing John Kerry. I was struck by the balance: two intelligent, attractive people—a black woman and a white man—equally knowledgeable. Margaret Warner or Judy Woodruff interviewing President Obama offers the same balance. But could a six-year-old appreciate what I see as ideal relationships, where gender and skin color are lovely variations and intelligence trumps all?

I wonder if Trish’s son can explain why he hates his skin. Wanting to look like an adopting mom and dad is less ominous than experiencing playground taunts or being told that skin color implies certain characteristics. Or is it possible that a six-year-old is making such associations on his own?

At Trenton High, I was surrounded by such a variety of black people that it was impossible to link color to behavior. In fact, the one assumption I brought—that all black staff members would work tirelessly for the success of their black students—was shattered. But recently I’ve been trying to help a black friend in crisis. Her children can spare neither time nor money. Instead of pulling together as a team, they scream accusations at one another while their mother lies helpless. Fearful and frustrated myself, I find myself suddenly seeing black—linking color to this selfish, dysfunctional behavior. I know better. I hate myself. But when the hostile, irresponsible, loud faces around me are all black, I make an association.

I need to restore balance, to schedule lunch with my other black friends. It hasn’t helped that I was raised on stereotypes, that I live in a mostly white community, nor that I’m writing a blog about race. Thankfully, I continue to have long chats by phone with my friend who’s in crisis—who, though physically incapacitated, remains strong, capable, and loving. But I shouldn’t need such reassurance. Skin color, character, and behavior are not correlated. I know that. But if I make false connections, might a six-year-old?

5 thoughts on “I Hate My Skin

  1. Joan Bharucha

    My husband was from India and I am caucasian. When our son was young, I made a point of telling him that everyone had brown skin of various shades. People were not white, black, red, yellow, etc. So, when I went to parents’ night when he was in first grade, I was so pleased to see that for his self-portrait, he had used a brown crayon. But he had green hair. I had never talked about hair color! This was back in the 70’s, before teens were using such colors on their hair.

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  2. Trish

    It has been a long time since my son has said he hated his skin. I’m pretty sure the reason he said it in the past, is because it makes him different in our family. Of course, I point out ways that I too am different from the rest of our family, and all the ways that we are similar.

    One reason I like living in Trenton though, is because my son regularly sees people with lots of different skin colors. In Trenton, which according to the 2010 US Census is 52% Black or African American, and 26% White, I am a minority. Although many in my extended family wonder why I live in this troubled city, for the most part, my experiences in Trenton have enriched my life. Maybe I will write more about that topic another time…

    Although we live in Trenton, our son goes to private school in Princeton. Last year, his class had six kids in it. Two were white, one boy had Mexican heritage and two had Asian heritage. For such a small class, I’d say that was fairly diverse. But my son was still the only one with brown skin. This year, he is in a class with fourteen kids. There are two boys of Indian descent and one other African American boy in his class. What a difference having another African American boy in class has made! Our son hasn’t spoken negatively about his skin in quite a while!

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