The Question She Asked
Yesterday, my five-year-old multiracial daughter asked me a question which caused my heart to skip a beat. This was the hardest question that she has ever asked me. She asked me “why is your skin color and my skin color so different?” (Please note that this question has been translated into English).
[See also: How I Taught My Child a Second Language]
I paused, quite honestly not sure how to answer a question that was surprising coming from the mouth of one so young, and yet not surprising at all. I knew this was coming. For the past six months, she has been noticing her skin color, as well as the color of others around her. She has also been noticing the color and texture of her hair. Right now, these observations are quite small and yet only the beginning to a person’s journey with race.
As a biracial person myself, I admit that I never asked this question of my parents or any other trusted adult. As someone with a white American father and Korean mother, I only noticed how dark my mom’s hair was compared to my father’s light brown hair. I noticed the green of my father’s eyes and the brown of my mother’s. But I never really noticed the differences, however slight, in my parents’ complexions. I noticed my dad’s alabaster skin tone (which somehow looked darker due to his dark hairy arms), and my mom’s light skin, but it never registered in my own five or six year old mind that my parents had “different” skin color, and thus were of different “races.”
But my five-year-old multiracial daughter asked this question, a question of which didn’t cross my mind when I was her age. Did that mean that I wasn’t as observant as her? Did this mean that I was more ignorant about race than her? I think it is because the differences in skin color is even more stark compared to what I saw with my parents. My multiracial daughter sees one parent who has an olive complexion, and another parent who has expresso brown skin tone. And then, there is her, who falls somewhere in the middle, the color of caramel, which sometimes shines with golden undertones. So, compared to my own parents whose differences in skin color were relatively subtle and barely noticeable, it’s no wonder that my daughter asked this question at such a tender age.
And to answer such a question! It’s a great question and one that I have been expecting, but also dreading. How can you answer a question that raises more questions than answers? How can you answer a question that isn’t so simple? It’s not the same as asking “why am I short?” or “why do I have brown eyes?” But then, it is only a tough question because we, as humans, have made it so. If we, from the beginning of time, never sought to divide people by the color of the skin, then it wouldn’t be so hard.
How I Answered Her
What I ended up saying to my five-year-old multiracial daughter is one that I could tell didn’t really satisfy her longing for the right answer to her question. What I ended up telling her is that we were all made different.
But in retrospect, I’m not completely happy with how I answered her. I gave her the most generic answer. I gave her a cookie-cutter explanation.
What I wish I had told her is that the color of the skin is no different from the color of the hair or eye color. It is just a color. It doesn’t define her. It doesn’t say what kind of person she is.
Obviously, there is more to this question that what I had initially told her. I knew from the look on her face that it will be broached again when she is older. I imagine then that I will discuss the social and historical ramifications that make up the color of any person’s skin. But I hope that time doesn’t come for a long, long time.