What's wrong with calling my children black?

Precious comments on my post about "the race issue"  that she does not understand the reluctance to "describe ourselves as black or white" as she sees it simply as a fact of life, pretty much like describing a person as a man or a woman. She also adds that many people who have written to her - adopted by families with a different ethnic background - feel that it is mainly the "white" community who shows a reluctance to call their "black" kids black and instead emphasises that color does not matter whereas they feel it does.  (If there were more cases of cross cultural adoption where the parents are "black" and the children "white" we might have a different perspective altogether but as it is we do not have the privilege of another side here).

I have been thinking about this over the past week and as much as I see her point and want to come around to it for the sake of my children ( if this is what it's going to come down to), I am still reluctant to call them black. . .

 And I admit: this reluctance is not only coming from an intellectual space, where I can make a good case against stereotyping and labelling. It is also an emotional issue. The one thing I know for sure is that it does not come from a place where I think it is "bad to be black" -

So why does it feel wrong to be calling my children black?

Partly it might have to do with my growing up in a country where we did not firstly distinguish people by their skin color - simply because there was no one but white people around - I naturally learned to refer to people by other characteristics and it does not come natural to me to say "white woman" or "black man". OK, I could rise to the challenge and relearn my cultural conditioning - if only it made sense to me...

 I don't see why we should continue with a terminology that has been invented and used in order to suppress and alienate people for centuries. Having said that, at least in the past there was no middle ground - you were either black (african) or white (caucasian). This has changed with cultural boundaries melting into each other and more and more children being born with multiple heritage. Isn't it strange that as soon as somebody has any obvious traits of African/black background they are automatically labelled black - even though their European or Asian or Other heritage might  be predominant. If those children were to identify with their "white" parent and call themselves white, people would look strangely at them as somebody who has a major cultural identity crisis (probably caused by a white parent in denial....).

Why is it more acceptable or some might even say "healthy" for a person of dual heritage (I read that this is the term used now in England) to be labelled black than it is for them to call themselves white?

Is it maybe because there is still a residual air of supremacy about the so called white race which we unwittingly support by continuing to define people - and mainly people who are not white - by their skin color? Is it because black really means any shade of non-white? And do only  people with two white parents and grandparents with no hint of "black" in their features qualify as white? My skin - white or not - crawls as I realise where this is going.

What I want for our  children, especially for those with dual or triple heritage, is to break free from being labelled at all and challenge this system of sometimes open sometimes subconscious judgement and stereotyping.

 I want to ask you this (Precious and whoever can answer me) : If you have a black and a white parent - as some of my children's friends do - why should you be forced to identify with one side over the other? What is so healthy about labelling a child black or white and thereby denying her to grow up into a future where this terminology might not make sense anymore thereby allowing them to simply be beautiful (my daughter recently referred to an African woman she had been talking to  as the "beautiful lady with the jewellery" - and yes, I was proud and happy that she can be part of a world where people are simply interesting and beauty comes before color....).

What I am trying to say is this: Being black is not as clear cut as being a woman  (or a man or being tall or short). Nobody can be tall or short at the same time or in their mid thirties and end thirties (except for you of course P :-))) - but many people - and there is going to be an ever growing number of them in our future - are not just black or white. To determine what their exact background is by just looking at a person will be more and more impossible. To call them black only because they are clearly not white is something that does not sit well with me - my cultural background and the connected fascist history might also play a part in my emotional stalling whenever I am forced to refer to somebody by the color of their skin.

And Precious, or anybody out there who is reading this with a fresh perspective: if you have a definition of black and white embracing all the shades in between (and NOT excluding my children) that we could go into the future with, I am open and willing to learn - but I desperately want to know why it is necessary for anybody to grow up with these labels. I see how they made sense 30 or 40 years ago where being black was still very much a disadvantage for your future and as you put it, you would have been better off if somebody had prepared you for this sad truth. But if there is only the slightest chance that this might not be the case for our children - I want to latch onto it and prepare them for a better world than the one we come from.

Maybe it is time we changed the world a little - even if it's only within the circle of our family and friends - and as I am writing this, somebody sends me a mailer, with the perfect end to this post ,thank you !

Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come (Victor Hugo)

What if the time has come and we continue to ignore it?
What will this make us in the eyes of our children 30 years from now? I would rather argue my point and possibly apologize for not having prepared them sufficiently for a world who mainly looks at them as black than to have to explain why I kept hanging on to an outdated notion of what defines us as human beings.


Heidi said…
I am an adoptive mom of two kids whom I find are beaming with a strong sense of self, as little as they are, at age three and four. Seeing that race is the discussion here, it is relevant to note that I am white and they are black.

Yesterday I went to make a copy of my fingerprints at the police station for an application to obtain police clearance. On the form it asked: Race – B; C; I; W. Without hesitation I crossed out the “W” (white) and moved on to the next step in the process. But today, after reading your blog, I thought about my kids and about the fact that in a few years from now, they too will need to cross out a letter that has to indicate their race.

This is not a discussion about the relevance of such a question, sometimes it is relevant and for any number of reasons. For instance to obtain statistical data for something as simple as a census count, or to apply for a passport, or it can even be for more complex issues, like evaluating the diversity at their schools and universities, or even for a job application where they are interested in a candidate from a specific race. The fact is race is still relevant and it still matters, especially in South-Africa where we aim not to discriminate, but to include and to correct imbalance.
to be continued
Heidi said…

Therefore to get technical in trying to figure out someone’s exact race is for me missing the mark. What exactly is the issue? If you are ‘colour blind’ and I do see colour does it mean one is good and the other is bad? If you say to your black child, mommy doesn’t see colour, does that mean those who notice her colour is bad or have ill intentions? What if she looks in the mirror one day and notice her skin to be indeed some shade of black, brown, or chocolate, call it what you want. Will she forgive herself for ‘seeing colour’? She herself might be gravitating more towards a black kid on the playground or in the park, is this bad? Does it mean she sees colour, are biased or racist?

Do we miss the common theme here, raising kids with a strong and established identity? Do we remember in order for that to develop they also have to fulfil their need of belonging? This might indeed mean belonging to a group that include mostly maybe only black friends. Are we comfortable with the fact that we cannot provide in all our children’s needs and that one of their core needs might be to be acknowledged as black? What if they want you to see them in all their beauty, which includes their black skin. What if they long for you to be the mirror they look in and tell them exactly what you see. How can you not see the colour and beauty of their skin? What do you see, is what they might wonder and do you see me, all of me, and if you do, are you ok with my skin being black.

My wish for my kids is that they will be able to confidently search and find the answers to that all important question “who am I?” I hope that one of the many features they discover and like about themselves also include the fact that they are black.

I do see colour. I lived for ten years in a country where most of the time I was the only white person or my husband and I the only white family. This taught me the importance of reaching out, learning about other cultures and finding in all of us the sameness that connects. Once we have that connection, it begins to feel safe and it is in that safety that we can truly be ourselves and be all that we are. Having someone to share our sameness with but simultaneously marvelled at our uniqueness is to me true freedom and joy.

I am not worried if we are referred to as the mixed, multi-cultural, multi-racial, trans-racial, new-age or modern family. Sometimes even I differ about the shade of my skin, I am white when I complete the census form, I am olive when I try to find the right make-up or hair colour and sometimes at the dermatologist I am describe as fair yet resistant.

What I do care about is that no one discriminates against us as a family or against my children. I do and will not tolerate any form of discrimination. That is my duty as a mom. But in our house we talk about race and skin colour as we talk about what we all want to eat for breakfast on a Saturday morning or trying to find out who was the one farting in bed. It is just another part of our family and we are ok with it.
gunnagirls said…
Hi Heidi, thanks so much for commenting. I am in no way saying that we should ignore color or pretend we are colorblind. We absolutely talk about color - I posted a while ago about how Leah and I discussed the different shades of our skin. I just don't like labelling of any kind. My childrens skin is not black, but a light to dark brown (depending on the time of year) their official racial status in this country would be "colored" - they sometimes get "classified" as black - and they have many friends in all shades of brown and pink. As they will grow older I am sure we will get more into the issue of race and color but for as long as possible I want them to keep an open mind and not label people according to their skin color. But hey, that's just me....
gunnagirls said…
The following comment reached me via email:

Hi Martina. I tried to make a comment on your blog, but for some reason it would not go through.
Here it is, for your interest, anyway…

I am mom to a 2 1/2 year old adopted boy, and like many of us in adoptive families, he and I have different skin colours. While I have possibly not been as considered as Martina and Heidi in deciding what stance to take on our racial differences, I notice that naturally I describe him as being black when it is relevant to the conversation, without feeling any awkwardness about it.
My son himself, around the time that he turned 2, noticed that our skins were different colours, calling his own skin "brown" and mine "gold". Subsequently he has also called my skin "yellow" or "pink", and his own skin "black". He has also noticed, quite spontaneously, that we have the same colour fingernails but different colour hands. He observes everything at the moment.
Interestingly he has never yet commented on anyone else's skin colour, although I'm sure it's just a matter of time. And when he does, I want to be able to say "Yes, that person's skin is dark/light/black/brown" etc, in a very natural and easy way, so that he will know that it's a description only of what one sees and is just one of many many physical characteristics that that person has. And as long as this is not the primary way that he sees or describes people (and himself) and provided that there is no judgement or shame in any of his comments, this seems healthy to me.
And given the difficulties that can arise, as Martina mentions, of labelling people as one race or another, perhaps it would be more appropriate to be simply describing people's skin hue (if one wants to comment at all) as brown/cream/beige/olive/white/pale/dark/black, or whatever (just like we describe hair as black/blond/grey/auburn/silver/red, or whatever).
I look forward to reading other adoptive parents' views and hearing about how they are handling this.
Martina, thanks again for stimulating thought and consciousness around adoptive issues.
Heidi said…
Hi Martina,
I agree with some of what you are saying. Of course no one should use skin colour to label. I am just not always sure what is upsetting to you then.

I do remember a comment on your blog when you said something and I don’t remember the exact words, correct me please, “someone told my daughter she was black, does she have to face racism at such a young age". I guess it all has to do with the context, but I am feeling you don’t like your daughter to be thought of as black.

I am just wondering what upset you, that they were wrong about her physical colour then or about her race? You said above your child is light- brown and not black (my son’s exact colour would be butterscotch-caramel, it’s very seldom that you get a truly pitch black person, especially born in SA). It sounds that they referred to her as black, and that was offensive and racist to you. Why?

Either way, I think each race and culture adds depth and beauty. Not the end of the world if they get my race wrong, often people struggle to know for sure, and that’s a good thing. Somehow we all have a little of everyone inside of us. Once we can pass as any race and feel comfortable no matter if they say we are coloured, Indian or black, or even white, I think we then have accepted and embraced all races.
I completely agree with Heidi.

Martina, I, too, sense you seem reluctant for your daughters to be referred to as black. I am also a 'caramel' colour - not very dark-skinned - and to the world I am black, although clearly my skin is not literally jet-black.

Identifying as black is not something negative!


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