‘I want to be White’: Fostering self-love amongst children of African Descent

Guilaine Kinouani Founder of www.raceReflections.co.uk  

I want to be White’: Fostering self-love amongst children of African Descent

Writing about the potential psychological needs and/or experience of Black and Minority ethnic groups always carries with it the danger of stereotyping and pathologizing them further. I am very mindful of the need to resist such processes and often struggle with my own ambivalence when I write and reflect on my posts. To that end, it may be helpful to establish that I do not believe that Black people and indeed Black children as groups have lower levels of self-esteem and self-love than any other ethnic group.  Like most psychological variables and attributes, when it comes to self-esteem and self-love; within group differences tend to be much more significant than between group differences.  Further empirical findings on the matter are unclear and conflicting.

Having said that, I do however believe that even today, skin colour can have an influence on Black people’s sense of self.  Colorism and racism are alive and well in today’s world.  As a result, there are many children within African and African Caribbean communities; and many others; who will develop difficulties with their skin colour and for a proportion of these; self-loathing will become an issue which may be harboured till adulthood if left unaddressed. Thankfully, it is not necessary to be an expert on internalised oppression/racism, social constructionism or even on racial identity development to be able to support these children (although some basic knowledge on the above will be of help-please do some research). Pragmatically, a good starting point may be to remember this: like most adults, children like to think of themselves as good, beautiful, kind and worthy of love.

A child who comes to associate any attribute he/she possesses to qualities that contradict any of the above will start to relate to the attribute in question with some degree of comptempt and hostility or try to dissociate from it. The same can be said for skin colour. I do not believe there is anything pathological here. A child that voices a desire to be a different skin colour or to belong to a different cultural/ethnic group than the one he/she belongs to; demonstrates that she/he is starting to develop a racial/ethnic identity, that he/she sensitive to the dynamics, images and/or language he/she has been exposed to and most importantly, that he/she has developed sufficient trust in the parent/care giver (or whoever this wish was expressed to) to be open about his/her feelings.  So how might we start to address these experiences and help the child relate more positively to his race/ethnicity and/or skin colour?  Here are a few ideas.

  1. Keep your emotions in check

This may be both the simplest and the most difficult thing to do. Hearing ‘I hate being Black’, or words to that effect, can be tough for anyone especially for a Black parent.  It may take parents back to their own experience of racism and oppression. It may make some feel that they have somehow failed to instill pride and self-esteem in their offspring. Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and/or guilt about not having been able to shelter the child from the reality of oppression may arise. Some parents may even feel betrayed.  A range of feelings and emotions may be evoked which will be picked up by the child. Many may be tempted to brush the child’s experience and words off or to ignore the child. In any case the temptation to stop the conversation, distract, change subject or laugh things off will be great. Please resist. Silencing the child may assign shame to his experience and/or teach him/her that the subject is taboo or, will cause offense, embarrassment or hurt to you. Consequently, the child may not bring the subject up again; learn to keep this potentially troubling experience to himself/herself.  Silencing the child might even reinforce any potential association between him/her, Blackness and being ‘bad’.

  1. Engage the child

It may be helpful to try and remain curious and open. For every child that wishes he/she was White, positive qualities and/or experiences, that in all probability,  the child may think he/she lacks (or may actually lack), would have been associated with Whiteness. Do not assume associations that the child has not made. E.g. you may think that the says he/she wants to be White because he/she thinks White people are more beautiful when in fact the child might think ‘I want to be White because all white people live in big houses’. Ask questions such as: How different do you think your life would be if you were white/not Black? What do you think White people have that Black people don’t? Probe the child with open and neutral questions so that you can start to build a picture of his/her belief system and of the qualities that have been attributed to Blackness and Whiteness. This will make it easier to challenge such beliefs in due course.

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