Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Brown Like Me

Article first published as Brown Like Me on Blogcritics.

Salon.com has an interesting piece by Clara Germani about growing up Mexican American. Her story features a tragicomic moment of self-mutilation:

When I was 10, I showed up at the breakfast table one morning with the sandpapery scabs of an experiment-gone-wrong on my face. I’d tried to engineer rosy cheeks by scouring with a wash cloth, thinking it might buff my olive coloring toward a more Norman Rockwell hue.

While my three-year-old has not yet engaged in such a dramatic act, he has been letting us know that he is becoming "color-conscious." The first time came seemingly out of nowhere. We were sitting at the table and he started to rub and pull at his arm like he had an itch. "I don't want this," he stated, rubbing and rubbing. "You don't want what?" I inquired. "I don't want this skin." I explained to him that he had brown skin like daddy and put my arm next to his to illustrate. He smiled. His mother, who was also sitting with us, said that she had "white skin" and showed him. His smile disappeared. "I don't want a white mommy!" Oh boy.

We knew this day was coming. Like it or not, we had officially entered the next phase of that journey where parenting collides with the politics of race. We started when, as a black man and white woman, we decided to marry and have children. We tried to prepare ourselves, to be intentional about helping whatever kids we had to navigate the waters of race in America. We made sure that our son had lots of positive interactions with folks who look like daddy. We chose to live in a thoroughly racially integrated neighborhood. We sent him to a day care center run by a wonderful Haitian woman in her home. Our son had still gotten the message that when it comes to color there's skin you want to live in and skin you don't.

For us as Baha'is, parenting in the face of the politics of race is not a secular enterprise. Our religion teaches us that social conditions are a reflection of spiritual conditions, that the soul is central to the advancement of civilization. We are thus challenged to consider the spiritual dimensions of our son's efforts to make sense of skin-color diversity among human beings. In the words of 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892-1921:

This variety in forms and colorings which is manifest in all the kingdoms is according to creative wisdom and has a divine purpose.

Human beings have too often catastrophically failed to grasp what this creative wisdom and divine purpose might be. The Baha'i Faith offers insights that might provide a way of talking to our son about the skin he lives in. For example, Baha'u'llah (1817-1892), Founder of the Baha'i Faith, has described physical reality as being created for the training of souls:

Out of the wastes of nothingness, with the clay of My command I made thee to appear, and have ordained for thy training every atom in existence and the essence of all created things.

Is it possible then, that God is trying to teach us something through the hues that human beings come in? Could melanin be more meaningful than we have imagined? 'Abdu'l-Baha provides an organic metaphor to illustrate this possibility:

[Baha'u'llah] has declared that difference of race and color is like the variegated beauty of flowers in a garden. If you enter a garden, you will see yellow, white, blue, red flowers in profusion and beauty — each radiant within itself and although different from the others, lending its own charm to them. Racial difference in the human kingdom is similar...Therefore, Bahá'u'lláh hath said that the various races of humankind lend a composite harmony and beauty of color to the whole. 

This metaphor provides a way of talking to our son about skin-color diversity which is accessible to a three-year-old mind. He can walk right outside and see a natural world awash with different colors. This includes all the varied hues of the human family. What's more, this colorful world reflects creative wisdom and has a divine purpose. God made him the beautiful, brown boy that he is and whatever anyone else thinks, Creation is a bit more beautiful because he's here. 


  1. Phillipe, thank you so much for sharing this part of your journey as parents and the journey that your beautiful son is making as his consciousness expands to take in what others are saying or manifesting in behavior, whether good or bad.

    Bahá’u’lláh has provided us with such wonderful spiritual treasures to share with our children: the different colors of the flowers of the garden; the richness of gems that lie buried in the mine of each of us.

    These treasures help us as parents and grandparents to give our children and grandchildren infallible guideposts for navigating a world that will provide them with many spiritual, moral and emotional challenges.

    Thank you once again for sharing this moment and reflecting on it. It's a great help to all who read your blog.

  2. I grew up in Ethiopia with a white mother and an Ethiopian father. My mother says that my sister and me were so proud of our colour (like all Ethiopians) that we would say things like "poor mommy, she's all white!" My son growing up in East Europe where there is no diversity to speak of came home once asking me "why do kids tell me I stink because I am dark-skinned?" Racism towards gypsies who are darker is very strong here. With my blood boiling I told him about how Baha'u'llah compares dark people to the pupil of the eye etc... When the next day he came home and told me how he had explained to the other kids how dark skinned people where superior, I realized I had overdone it and talked about the beauty of God's creation. Rebecca

  3. Dear Phillipe,

    I identify on many levels with your post, even though I am not a person of color. My work as a young adult in the US put me into close relationships with the black community of Southern Maryland, and the people helped me grow and develop in ways very different from my own family.

    I decided to pioneer and was sent to Finland--a really white world (not just the snow). When I married and had a child, I was determined to raise him with a "oneness of mankind" understanding. I put up pictures of old friends, lots of magazine pics of different cultures and races, etc. Of course, we talked about this aspect of life.

    His first real experience with someone of color happened when we went on pilgrimage and visited with an old friend of mine with brown skin. When washing up for lunch, he announced to my friend that "Mommy says if you wash really good, your hands will get clean". She looked at me with raised eyebrows and all I could do was shrug helplessly and wish that I could understand the mind of a child.

    A few years later, after a trip to the US and visiting my old friends, I was happy to see that his understanding was growing and he played easily with all sorts of kids. Back in Finland, the local female basketball team recruited a black player from Oakland. After reading the article in the paper, I thought I'd have to find her to invite her to our home. Before I got the chance, we were in a local restaurant. Our son was playing a game on a nearby machine and suddenly ran over to our table and in a loud, happy voice declared, "Look, Mommy, Negroes!" Where did that word come from? . . . As I wished a hole would open up and swallow me, I gathered myself together and went over to introduce myself. Thus ensued a long wonderful friendship.

    I related this long story just to add to the thought that educating our children about race is a long thorny path, one that we must continually confront.

    Our favorite poem has always been relevant to this issue. It is by Shel Silverstein:
    “My skin is kind of sort of brownish pinkish yellowish white.
    My eyes are greyish blueish green, but I'm told they look orange in the night.
    My hair is reddish blondish brown, but its silver when its wet,
    and all the colors I am inside have not been invented yet.”

    ― Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

    Thanks for your blog, Barbara

  4. Anonymous5:51 PM

    Greetings, Phillipe...a few thoughts, with your kind permission:

    When it comes to our own precious children, we can be taken aback, especially when things come out of the blue...it is very, very hard to be detached!

    I've found it's always good to ask questions: "Really?...Why do think that?" --For one thing, you find out exactly what the child's thought process is--For another, it gives you a chance to regroup!

    I think we have to make a bridge for our children between the reality we are privileged to know--the garden analogy is so easily and beautifully accessible to children, and anyone else with an open heart--and the illusion that most of the world sees as reality.

    I'm guessing your questions would reveal the source of your son's idea about his skin color. Its my belief that Baha'i parents should candidly, with an open heart, explain to children that many people in the world don't yet know that all colors are good and beautiful, that if the world were already perfect and just there would be no need for Baha'u'llah to have come and that our job as Baha'is is to demonstrate this truth by both words and actions... Without such candid discussions, probably ongoing as their minds mature and they have varying experiences, children often wrestle with discrepancies what they are being taught at home and what they can't help but see and hear in the "outside" world....matter of fact, not just about race, but about many aspects of our society vs. a Baha'i way of life and standards of thought and action. .. The good news is that it's pretty easy when they are still three years old...best to start early. Keep up the good work!

    Judith W

  5. Such a very useful article. Very interesting to read this article..Human beings have too often catastrophically failed to grasp what this creative wisdom and divine purpose might be. The Baha'i Faith offers insights that might provide a way of talking to our son about the skin he lives in.I would like to thank you for the efforts you had made for writing this awesome article.
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