“Mommy, mommy,” my son said. “Stacey told me my skin is too dark!"
That’s how my 3-and-a-half-year-old son greeted me when I picked him up from his Montessori preschool in February. I noticed a slight confusion in his eyes as he spoke. I tried to stay composed, but couldn’t help thinking, “Great, ‘it’ has started...”
As one of only a handful of black families living in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest, I knew this day would come. My husband and I had tried to prepare ourselves for it as best we could. No matter how many drills we ran, we always arrived at the same two options: ignore the issue entirely, or choose to face it head on. Somehow the latter seemed tainted with the burden of appearing too sensitive, of making others feel uncomfortable for even calling it out. When the moment arrived, I couldn’t find the right words.
For those who may be a bit confused, the 'it' I am referring is called colorism. It’s the insidious idea that the lighter and whiter your skin, the better, the smarter, the more beautiful you are. How could Stacey, a 4-year old child, plant such a dangerous idea in my son’s precious mind?
I was infuriated. Too dark. “Too dark for what exactly, Stacey?” I thought to myself as her words rattled around in my mind like a set of marbles on a table top.
I knew I had to treat my son's remark with care, because whatever I said next would have a lasting impact on his impressionable little psyche. The first thing I did? In my head, I ran through all the ‘potty’ words my son had cautioned me about using to see if I could weave them into a biting response to Stacey. Unfortunately, using words like “booger” and “poopy head” in a meaningful sentence turned out to be more challenging than expected. I quickly decided to ditch that idea; we all know how that would have ended. I’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s 13th.
My next thought was to educate Stacey. People with skin as rich and dark as my son’s had done amazing things, not only in America but all across the world. I was going to have my son memorize all the notable black pioneers and explain how they all looked like him. I planned to include all the well-known favorites. The ones that even white people talk about, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carver. Sure, the talk usually only occurs around February, but I’ll take it.
I would arm my son with the facts he needed to help educate Stacey on why her statement was ignorant. I envisioned him starting at the beginning—the birthplace of humanity. Yes Stacey, you and every individual from every ethnicity walking the earth descended from one black person who likely evolved in the fertile crescent of sub-Saharan Africa. She is the individual the scientific world refers to as ‘Mitochondrial Eve.’ In my head, I envisioned my son using the words ‘fertile,’ ‘crescent,’ and ‘mitochondrial,’ and pronouncing all of them like the boss that he is! Next, he would explain how Africa gave humanity its first examples of civilization, citing the kingdoms of Axum, Zanzibar, and Timbuktu. He would transform into a pint-sized Henry Louis Gates and rehash all the details from the groundbreaking documentary Africa’s Great Civilizations. He would undoubtedly skip all the gory details about slavery and colonialism, how it crippled the continent, draining Africa of natural resources and human potential; that part of the story might be a tad jarring for a three-year-old who still wears batman-themed pajamas.
My son would end his dissertation by stating that despite 350 years of inequality and unfair treatment, black people are still able to retain a sense of dignity, poise, and culture, even when it seems like our invitation to the biggest party in history got lost in the mail.
Yes, that is exactly what I would do. Training would begin ASAP...my son had a lot to memorize between now and dinner. I buckled him into his car seat, ensuring that his yogurt-stained straps were aligned perfectly on his chest not his stomach, and I prepared my response. As I formed my lips to begin what would undoubtedly have been the longest speech he has ever heard to date, he interrupted me.
“Mommy, Stacey said my skin was too dark! But I told her my mommy, my daddy and baby sistuh’ have my skin and my mommy says it’s beautiful, and that I am her mahogany prince.”
Then, without a second thought, he continued:
“Hey mommy, Jonny said a ‘potty’ word today and he got sent to the hallway for time out.”
I don’t quite remember the toddler ramblings that followed during our drive back home. I was too busy realizing what had just happened. My son didn’t need me to wax philosophical about great African civilizations. He didn’t need me to explain how his ancestors had created writing, art, and other cultural phenomena, like the Dab. All my husband and I needed to do was what we already had been: laying the foundation to combat the Staceys of the world.
Perhaps winning the battle is as simple as that. And if not, I still have my “potty” words.
Nnenna Finn works as an the associate director of strategic scientific communication at a medical communications firm.
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