Raising a Chocolate Child in a Vanilla World: Part IMay 12, 2014
By Dr. Tyffani Dent
I was sitting with my 5 year-old the other day when she turned to me and said, “Mommy, I wish I was blonde.”
Instantly, I thought of how female musicians have been dying their hair and I rolled my eyes as I responded, “Baby, your brown hair is beautiful.”
She sighed and looked up at me with brown eyes that are so like my own and said, “No, Mommy. I wish I was blonde.”
It was then that I realized that my beautiful baby who is the color of a milk chocolate bar was talking about her skin.
The psychologist in me began thinking about Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s 1939 doll study. In their study, the Clarks found that black children often preferred to play with white dolls over black, and that the children gave the color "white" attributes such as good and pretty, but "black" was qualified as bad and ugly.
In addition, I remembered that the study was redone in 2006 and 2010 with similar results. I wondered, as an African-American psychologist who has worked diligently to insure that my daughter was praised for her chocolate skin from birth, what I had done wrong. What had made my beautiful brown baby not appreciate her skin color?
Scouring research on racial acceptance and identity, I had bought her only African-American dolls and encouraged others to do the same. We read books about little brown girls who looked like her and I praised them for being pretty and smart. When The Princess & The Frog came out, her father and I made sure that her room was an explosion of Disney’s first black princess. In selecting a school, we balanced a good education with making sure her school had others who looked like her. Even choosing our home was a carefully calculated move to offset any chance that she would be viewed as “the other” or “different” [with a negative connotation]. Yet, here we were, the African-American psychologist mother and her own little black child wishing to change her skin color.
In analyzing the situation to figure out where I went wrong, I quickly realized that it was not I; it was society. When my daughter looks on television, she rarely sees herself on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. Yes, there are female role models that I can point out like Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, Toni Morrison, etc. However, in the mind of a 5 year-old, those do not matter as much as Selena Gomez, Hannah Montana, or Barbie.
So, as a psychologist, I will continue to try and figure out how society can improve the self-image of African-American girls. As her mother, in that moment, I simply pulled her close, kissed the top of her naturally kinky hair, and looked into those chocolate brown eyes and reminded her how beautiful she is to her daddy, her grandparents, and to me. Perhaps the world will one day follow suit.
[Editor’s note: this article is part one of a two-part series on issues that face racially diverse children and their parents. For the author’s tips on how to help your child embrace his or her diversity, see part two.]
Dr. Tyffani Monford Dent is a licensed psychologist, motivational speaker, and author. She lectures and trains on issues of mental health disparity in minority communities, children’s and women’s issues, and sexual abuse intervention and prevention. Dr. Dent is also the Executive Director of Monford Dent Consulting & Psychological Services, LLC and the author of the book Girls Got Issues: A Woman’s Guide to Self-discovery and Healing.