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Globe Magazine

My sons have different skin colors. Will the world treat them differently?

As their mother, all I can do is equip them as best I can.

Derek Abella for the boston globe

My sons are 5 and 10. Ninety percent of the time they are best friends — playing basketball in the basement, wrestling on the rug, peeling off their socks to use as slingshots. Their giggles are contagious, lighting me up even when I’m reminding them to pick up those socks. The younger one adores his older brother, mirroring his every move — whether it’s a behind-the-back pass, or reading on the couch. A carbon copy. Only, not really.

When my husband and I decided to have children, we knew, of course, that genetics would play a major role in determining what our kids looked like — height, hair color, skin color, and eye color — among other inherited traits. My husband, who is Jewish, and whose ancestry includes Ukrainian and Irish roots, was blond as a child. I am Latina, born to Guatemalan parents.

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Our first-born son is a spitting image of me — dark hair, dark eyes — and darker skin than my own. “He looks Guatemalan,” people say. When I gave birth a second time, I was greeted by a baby boy with blue eyes and blond fuzz at the top of his head. “He looks white,” people say. “Is he yours?” a woman inside the gym cafe asked one morning when I held him in the carrier. “He sure is,” I replied.

Whenever I’m in public with both my boys, I don’t get too many stares. But when I’m with my son who is blond, I definitely get some double takes (this especially happened when he was a toddler, particularly at the playground in the middle of the day).What do others think? That he doesn’t look like his mother? They’re not wrong. Or, do they wonder if I’m his nanny?

My sons are young now, but I worry: As they get older, how will they negotiate the assumptions associated with skin color? When together, and when apart, how will their experiences in the world differ as a result of how they look? How will they present to the world, regardless of their Jewish heritage, or their Spanish-speaking skills? And how should I, as their mother, prepare them for it?

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Of course, my sons are aware that they look different. As far as whether it affects their relationship, so far, I don’t believe it does. I can’t say if it will in the future. When I asked my 10-year-old, he said, “I’ve never really thought about that.” He did say he has noticed that whenever he has a new friend over who hasn’t met his younger brother before, he often gets the question: “That’s your brother?”

The reality is that different people have different skin colors. The last thing I want is to teach my kids to be colorblind. If anything, I want them to remain curious — why do people have different skin colors? It’s an opportunity — a doorway — to learn more about family, heritage, genetics, and even melanin.

With my older son, I recently decided to push the conversation further. “You know that skin color doesn’t mean anything in relation to your self-worth, right?” He looked at me like I had five heads.

“First of all, you guys have been telling me that my whole life,” he said. “And also, my school does a good job of like, celebrating different things, like we have Black History Month, Latinx Heritage Month, and now we’re learning about the Civil War and stuff.” Then he asked if he could go back to playing basketball.

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I can’t control how the world will treat my sons. But I can try to teach them both the tools I believe work best in navigating issues of skin color, race, and identity: honest conversations and direct actions.

A few years ago, when my oldest was in kindergarten, he came home from school and I emptied his backpack to find a thermos filled to the brim with orange arroz, the rice that we seasoned with Sazón, making it a bright, fiery color. It is a staple in our home, and a favorite food for both my sons.

“What happened?” I asked him. He lowered his eyes and said, “A girl in my class told me that my rice looks weird.” What did I do next? My memory is fuzzy. I must have knelt down, felt my heart thumping in my chest, and hugged him. I must have assured him that no one food is “weird” and that if he liked it, that’s what mattered.

It may seem like a small moment, but for me, it was one of those doorways. I could linger, hope for the best, and ultimately walk away, trusting that the world would be a better place someday, and go on with the ninety-nine other items on my to-do list. Or, I could walk through that door. I started by emailing his teacher, who was very gracious and understanding. And then I walked through the door — literally.

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The classroom was alive and bursting with color — on the walls, rug, bookshelf. The countertops overflowed with blocks and paint jars and plants. The smell of fruity markers and sharpened pencils pulled me back to my own time in elementary school, where I, too, was one of the only students of color. Only, I didn’t have those words just yet. I simply knew that my parents were from a country called Guatemala, that we spoke Spanish at home, and that we had rules my friends didn’t always have — that was the extent of it. But I want my sons’ experiences to be different, to include more opportunities for connection.

So, I walked into the classroom, carrying my newborn in a BabyBjörn, and holding heavy bags full of Guatemalan art, textiles, photo albums, and worksheets — coloring pages of the quetzal, the national bird, and a map of the country. I brought Guatemalan quetzales, bills and coins. I even brought my parents. That morning, our family tree settled at the front of the rug, and we all shared a bit about Guatemala and our culture. My son rocked sideways in a swivel chair, his eyes darting across his classmates, then at us, a huge smile blooming across his face. Even the baby pumped his arms and legs.

In his book How to Raise an Antiracist, the author and activist Ibram X. Kendi encourages caregivers to “raise a child to comprehend and appreciate what is distinct about their own culture and history.” He continues, “Next, we have to raise a child to comprehend and appreciate what’s distinct about other cultures and histories. And finally, we must raise the child to comprehend and appreciate what’s the same about their own and the other culture groups.”

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Kendi argues that “teaching kids that we share a common humanity is the bridge that allows us to meet each other and share our cultures.” He cites the title of the famous Sesame Street picture book: We’re Different, We’re the Same.

Do I believe that the little girl who made fun of my son’s orange arroz was making fun of him? I don’t think children operate with so much hate, not inherently. Instead, I believe they are curious. And that’s a good thing. But different isn’t bad or weird; it just is. We’re different. We’re the same.

After the presentation in my son’s kindergarten class that day, he started eating his orange arroz again. And later that year, on Valentine’s Day, he received a pink-colored bag full of compliments from his classmates that they had written on little strips of paper. One read: “I like the color of your skin.”

As a parent, I won’t always have a front-row seat to my boys’ experiences in the world. But I will continue to help them walk through the doorways that open up in front of them.


Jennifer De Leon is the award-winning author of the young adult novels Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From and Borderless, and the essay collection White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, & Writing. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.