Care and Feeding

How Do I Show My Biracial 5-Year-Old That Black Is Beautiful?

She’s already said she doesn’t like darker skin and that she “just wants to look different sometimes.”

A young biracial girl in a raincoat looking up with her eyes closed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by nicolesy/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding, 

I am the mother of two beautiful little brown girls, ages 2 and 5. Daddy is Black, and I am as white as a mayonnaise sandwich. We started a dialogue about race with my oldest early on and are trying to teach her pride in her heritage and features. On her first day of preschool, she proudly presented me with a coloring page with a little girl with white skin and blond hair. I casually asked why she colored the girl that way, got a nonanswer, and warily chalked it up to coincidence. When I paid a little more attention, I noticed that she would make negative comments about her hair. In some games, she makes her character white with straight blond hair, and she always chooses the white Barbie. She has said she doesn’t like darker skin and that she “just wants to look different sometimes.” I understand wishing you looked a little different, but it set off alarm bells when I heard this. I asked her about it again, and we talked, but now she avoids the issue with me.

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I’d been attempting to get my kids better connected with the Black community, hoping that that would help since we live pretty far away from family, but I also feel anxiety over my baby getting comments about being light-skinned. And since COVID struck, our family has been isolated, so I’m stuck without knowing how to move forward. I tell my daughter that she is beautiful and her skin is gorgeous, but I don’t know if it’s getting through. I’ve conferred with my husband, but he seems to think it’s a phase and says not to worry about it too much. I get the feeling this will be an ongoing issue no matter what I do. I don’t know where this is coming from; she’s only 5! I’m concerned about her avoiding this topic with me now and worried that I might’ve scared her off by being proactive. I’m also unsure how much of this is standard “girl stuff” versus the result of internalized messages about race and beauty. She’s also super into princesses, which is not helping either. How can I help my baby girl be confident and feel beautiful in her skin?

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—Please Love Yourself

Dear P.L.Y.,

I am glad you wrote this letter; too often, folks take what seems to be the easy way out by looking the other way or hoping that by refusing to “make a big deal” about hair texture and complexion that, somehow, little girls being raised in a caste system will grow up with their self-image intact. You won’t “scare her off” the subject, and you actually should have started this work when your oldest was a bit younger. Luckily, your girls are still very small and very much open to being indoctrinated into the churches of “Black Is Beautiful” and “Black Girls Are Magic.”

You have a difficult task before you, but one that has been successfully completed by scores of interracial families. You and your husband, a white woman and a Black man who chose to have children with a white woman, must convince two Black biracial girls that 1) Black women and girls rock, and 2) Black biracial women and girls are not superior to those with two Black parents, despite the fact that the simple makeup of your family could communicate exactly the opposite message to them. If Black women and girls are so great, why didn’t Dad end up with one? And if we’re Black, but also biracial, doesn’t that make us special somehow? Is it a bad thing that people seem to think that we are?

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You two must silence any doubt that these Black girls may have about who they are—as individuals and as part of the global collective of Black women and girls—by making sure that they are able to see themselves, and not just woman and girls who look like you. And you are not the only one with a big part to play here. These girls need to know that their father’s choice of a partner is not a referendum on Black women and girls, but rather, that he found love with someone who happens to be a different race; and because he created Black girls in the process, he has a particular responsibility to ensure they are not inadvertently harmed by his choice. You can’t be the only one talking about how great and beautiful Black women and girls are; they must, must, MUST hear it from him too (and not just about themselves, to be clear. Your daughters must see their father appreciate, honor, and love Black women and girls).

It is critical that your girls are surrounded by affirmative images of Black girls; note, I did not say “girls” or “girls of color.” Black girls specifically, which should include, but most certainly must not be limited to, biracial and/or light-complexioned Black girls; in fact, it is especially important that you describe the varying shades found among of Black women and girls (and Black people as a whole) so that they do not come to think of their own lighter hue as superior in any way, nor grow up to become the sort of lighter-skinned Black people who fail to recognize the privilege conferred by their complexion as a societal failing substantiated by data, and not a figment of darker-hued Black people’s imaginations.

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It is the last part that may have influenced your anxiety about Black people—I was a bit unclear, but I think you meant folks in nearby communities?—having some thoughts about how light your kids are. Trust that more often than not, light-complexioned Black people are embraced by other Black folks as one of the family. I’d recommend reading both The Color Complex, which explores how complexion influences the experiences of Black people in the U.S., and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, an almost-sacred text on racial identity development in children, to help you make sense of, well, a lot.

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You need to be serious about the business of identifying age-appropriate Black content and Black histories for your children for the next 16 years. Your biracial Black girls need to see Black girls and Black women in a positive light more often than not. They need to hear both of their parents say nice things about specific Black women and girls, and Black women and girls as a collective, on a regular basis. They need movies, TV shows, albums, YouTube videos, posters, books (and books, and more books) that feature Black girls and women who are loved and cared for. So much of the content that is created about us is focused on our trauma. Your kids absolutely need to know about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but they cannot only experience “important Black women” in the context of racial struggle, or A-list celebrities like Beyoncé. It is also important that they see positive images of Black men and boys aside from their father, who cannot bear the load of being the entirety of the Black race for them outside of television.

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If the girls love princesses, give them Black princesses! There’s Tiana of The Princess and the Frog, of course, and there’s also this beautiful book Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty that turns regular Black kids into royalty, and the Princess Cupcake Jones series. There are a lot of valid concerns about girls and princess imagery, but some of those issues don’t quite measure up when considering that Black girls still need movements to convince people to believe that their lives matter at all. As long as you make sure they know that it isn’t just what they look like on the outside that makes them valuable and that they shouldn’t be waiting to be rescued or married into royalty, they can Black princess it up all day long.

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I am not sure the racial makeup of you and your man’s circles beyond the physical community where you currently live, but if there are not actual real-life Black people in them aside from him, you’ve got to course-correct, even if it means making some friends online. You, as a white woman raising Black daughters, need Black female friends. At least one! Someone who can answer what feels like a really “silly” question you may have, someone who knows you as a person and can help you to recognize any blind spots that are to the detriment of your daughters. Do not let your man tell you otherwise! And I am not suggesting that he is uniquely inclined to disparage this advice because he is a Black man; rather, it’s the fact that he has described this as “a phase” that makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t get it. He’s never had to get it, because he’s never been a little Black girl. For little Black girls, color and hair texture are heavy, heavy stuff; it’s heavy material for our boys too, but the load arguably weighs on us more.

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You are the first and ostensibly most impactful embodiment of womanhood that your daughter has seen thus far and you are a white woman; when you combine that with the ways even a “diverse” media landscape obsesses over (a few, somewhat narrow types of) white beauty, then it completely stands to reason that a 5-year-old girl would find a particular aesthetic to be aspirational. Mommy is, for many kids, the most beautiful woman in the world, and it is harder for your children to find themselves in your face than it should be because we are socialized to see race first and foremost; furthermore, despite the overindexing of mixed and mixed-looking Black girls in media, they are still far, far outnumbered by white ones, which makes it even harder to find themselves in the place called “pretty.”

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Your girls’ hair must be lovingly attended to on a daily basis. Find a stylist, a friend, some YouTube tutorials, do a Skype call with your man’s favorite auntie—whatever it takes! Find the proper products and find flattering, comfortable styles that you can do or maintain. Never, ever let them have the “Ooh, girl, you can tell they mama white and she don’t know what she’s doing” aesthetic: uncombed, unmoisturized, messy hair that looks and feels like someone gave up. If you’ve never heard a biracial Black girl talk about that trauma, you should.

My own Black daughter has not worn clothing that has white faces on it, and in a large army of Black dolls, as diverse in complexion and hair texture as possible, she owns exactly one white Barbie (she came with a Black one we were dying to have). I would recommend taking a similarly fervent approach to your own girls; they don’t need a blond Baby Alive doll to know white girls are adorable, because the media has that covered. They don’t need white fashion dolls to let them know white women are pretty, or can work a number of cool jobs … why, when they can already see that in you and in the white women you know and love?

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Show your girls the similarities in your faces, how you have the same left dimple, or the same wide smile. Let them see and celebrate themselves as a beautiful blending of their parents without suggesting that you’ve created some sort of happy medium for humanity that will erase racism by painting the world light brown. Talk about how much you love their curly hair, how you wish your own nose was so cute and round. Point out the beauty in the Black women and girls you see on TV and, when it happens, in real life. And if you feel yourself on the cusp of an “All beauty matters” moment at any point, take a moment and reread this column. This is serious business for your girls, and you know it, so don’t punk out. You can do this, Mom. Your girls deserve this! They will be happier, healthier, and more secure about their place in the world if you give this work the gravity it deserves.

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P.S. I said a lot because this is a BIG thing and I feel like there are a number of people reading this who could benefit from some of these thoughts, including Black parents raising Black daughters who simply haven’t considered some of these things. There may be some pushback, but please know that I am speaking in my authoritative capacity as an actual Black woman/former Black girl, and you and I both know I am right. <3

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I gave my daughter the name “Lara,” but at the time I didn’t know why I wanted to be unique, so I decided to spell it like “Laura.” I realized how dumb this was too late, and now I want to correct the spelling to “Lara.” My husband says he likes the way it is spelled, that that is the way it is, and I shouldn’t change it. The thing is, it is not like he has an attachment to the name or named her. I was five months’ pregnant when we got together, and she was already named. I feel like I get a higher say even though he is her dad, but he gets rather upset when I tell him it is what I want to do. It’s just dropping a letter, for goodness’ sake, and it would make her life easier!

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He is supposed to be adopting her, so I’ve been urging that we change it then. Should I put my foot down, or is my husband right in saying I’m making a big deal out of a letter?

—It’s “Lara,” Not “Laura”

Dear I.L.N.L.,

Your husband is being silly and I am hoping that this isn’t emblematic of how he typically behaves during disagreements. You chose this name prior to him coming into the picture, and you are literally only wishing to change the spelling so that Lara doesn’t have to spend the rest of her life explaining that her name has an extra letter for decoration that also would totally change the pronunciation of said name. Put your foot down and save the debates for issues that require it. You don’t get to pull the “I was here first” card on much of anything else, nor should you want to unless there was ever some doubt about your husband’s parenting capabilities. This is the one time you get to do it, and it makes all the sense in the world. You aren’t changing Lara’s name; you are rectifying a grammatical mistake you made in the past.

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• If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My bright 12-year-old daughter is in seventh grade this year. She has always been a gifted, high-performing student. She is currently taking a math class (Algebra 1) that is one grade level above her own. My ex and I have been supporting her as best we can, and we are immensely proud of her.

After watching her remote classes, however, I have noticed that the teacher moves quite fast. He doesn’t seem to be taking into account the distance-learning element at all. I have asked him if he can go slower or spend more time on more challenging subjects, and he has been helpful. The only problem is that our daughter has already seen the difference between her grades and those of some of the kids in her class (who are a year older and have gotten A’s where she is getting B’s) and it is impacting her confidence. She got an 85 on her final, which is great! But she keeps comparing herself to the older kids. I don’t know what to do. She knows the math and is smart, but she just doesn’t seem to see that. How do I help her regain her confidence after this dumpster fire of a school year?

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—Broken Confidence

Dear B.C.,

If you haven’t already, explain to your daughter that this teacher—who very well may be a nice man, a good person, and even a decent educator—may not be doing a great job at explaining things at a pace that is easy to follow from a distance. It also could be the case that this class is not a great fit for her and how she learns best. Unfortunately, this is a dumpster fire of a school year and so she may not be as capable of straight A’s or cruising through all classes with relative ease for that reason. That isn’t her fault and she should be reminded of such. She is to do the best that she can with what she has before her this year, and aspiring to nearly perfect grades is not in the best service of that mission.

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Furthermore, school is not a competition and every child should think of themselves as running their own pace, not fighting to outperform their classmates. Unfortunately, the latter is a bit hard to convince them of considering that there are valedictorians, prizes for high marks, and other ways that kids are encouraged to compare and contrast their own academic achievement with that of their peers. Keep reminding her that these kids are older and had an extra year to prepare for this class; that grades are not an accurate measure of how smart, valuable, or capable you are; and while they are important, grades are not the lens through which she should see herself. Continue to engage with the teacher and explore online tutoring options if they are available. Best of luck to you all.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Is it ever all right to become estranged from your family even when they aren’t technically abusive? My twin sister and I have been able to stay away from our parents and brother (an adult who lives with them) for much of this year due to COVID, and we’ve both agreed that it’s been blissful. My sister and I live in the same city and have been in each other’s “bubbles” along with her kids and our respective husbands, and we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with each other. I couldn’t get over what a peaceful, lovely contrast it was to our holidays visiting our parents. My sister has two young kids, yet her house is so much more peaceful than our parents’ house. Our parents spend literally every meal fighting viciously with one another and trying to make us pick sides. Then when we refuse, they critique both of us for hours and compare us to our brother, who they adore and is the open favorite. Our dad takes pleasure in belittling my husband and treats my sister’s husband as if he doesn’t exist. (We have both stood up for our partners and left events when our parents have overstepped, but they don’t change their behavior long term.) Our brother is mean-spirited and aggressive, much older than us, and we’ve never been close with him.

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After some discussion, we’ve realized that we would be perfectly happy never to see these people again. Skype calls have been strained and unpleasant, featuring a lot of guilt-tripping and COVID conspiracy talk from our parents and brother. My husband supports this idea completely, but my sister’s husband has raised concern about how hard it might be on our parents to be cut off from their grandkids. Obviously, that part is a discussion for him and my sister, but his concerns gave me pause. Our parents never hit us and don’t stalk or threaten us in any way. They’re just really unpleasant people who scream at us and each other a lot. Should I make the decision to stay in touch with them in a limited way (if so, any suggestions?) or would it be OK to just block their numbers and have done? They haven’t visited me since I moved three years ago (they expect us to do all the work of maintaining the relationship), so it’s not as if they even know my address.

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—Just Horrible People

Dear J.H.P.,

You and your sister are not obligated to continue to have these people in your life. You don’t like them. They don’t treat you well. They don’t do anything to sustain a relationship with you. The only matter that exists between you is blood (which you don’t have to yield to) and history (which does not sound like it has been good). Let go. Blocking may be more aggressive than necessary, but feel free to only engage when you feel like it, and, perhaps, to only speak to them when and if they reach out first. Your BIL is kind to care about how your parents will feel about being estranged from your sister’s kids, and while that is a matter for him and his wife to sort out, it is worth considering and sharing with him that adults who are awful can have a negative influence on children, and that the loss of access to them may be the appropriate consequence for this part of your family tree. You and your sister have each other, you have your husbands, and you have her kids—that’s a minivan’s worth of family right there! You have all that you need. Make your choice going forward with no shame. Wishing you all the best.

—Jamilah

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