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Help my younger cousin learn to love her skin.
December 17, 2012 6:14 PM   Subscribe

How can I help my adopted cousin learn to love her skin? Have you been part of a transracial family? What did you find helpful or comforting?

My cousin is 10 years old and was adopted from Guatemala when she was less than one year old; her adoptive parents are white. She goes to a private school in the Midwest where her classmates are also predominantly white. She has struggled with her racial identity for years and has a difficult time expressing her feelings and experiences with discrimination/racism. I don’t blame her. Most incidents I have witnessed have been subtle comments or disapproving looks. There really isn’t anyone in her social circles that look like her, although she has many friends of different ethnicities outside of school. I have a close relationship with her and she often tells me she “hates her skin” and wishes she wasn’t brown. It breaks my heart.

When I was her age I also hated my skin, but because I was teased relentlessly for being extremely pale. I was so self-conscious that I rarely wore anything besides jeans because I was too ashamed to show my legs. I frequently bought self-tanner and other garbage to darken my skin, but always turned out looking orange; this made me even more depressed and ashamed. People accused me of being sickly and told me I was unattractive. My own self-hate continued into my late teens. I don’t want her to be in the position that I was and, while I can empathize, I will never fully understand the implications of transracial adoption or the extent of the discrimination she encounters and will continue to encounter in her life.

How can I better support her? Help her learn to love her skin? Confront the assholes and help her do the same? What resources are out there that we can read?

Thanks MeFites.
posted by turniphead to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
This link has some ideas. I've read the Outsiders Within book and it's excellent, though probably for you (and her parents) at this point rather than for her.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:21 PM on December 17, 2012


Also, and I say this with all respect, reading the book will most likely underscore to you that your experience and hers are wildly divergent.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:24 PM on December 17, 2012 [11 favorites]


It would be so wonderful if she had a penpal or two to talk to either on the net or by snail mail. I wonder if there are any pen pal programs that she might be able to join through Girl Scouts or something like that?

In the mean time, what about surrounding her with imagery of beautiful, strong Latina women who share her awesome heritage? Seeing their faces and knowing that they are important world players could be a step towards her feeling less like an outsider.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:27 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Along the same lines as good Latina role models, how about learning more about some cool things about Guatemala -- see if she could get interested in the art history, food, political history, music, anything like that (you probably know better jumping off points).
posted by jorlyfish at 6:33 PM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm the only half-black in a white family. I went through a pretty severe period of hating and denying my nonwhiteness. It was the worst as a tween/teen because that's when you have the least control, yet the most supceptibility, to things like what media you take in and take seriously, and what your peer group is like. Plus, kids are fucking vicious.

Stuff I wish people had done for me:

Don't tell racial/racist jokes or allow others to tell racial jokes around her. That is not nearly as obvious as it sounds; I've had lots of family members (including my mom! Thanks mom!) and friends (including someone ive known for 12 years who got offended when i asked her not to use the n-word around me) think it was ok for them to be racist around me. It sucks. And it messes up your ideas of what's acceptable and what your value as a person is.


Don't ever let anyone say things like "you know I actually forgot you're not white!" or variants on this theme Like it's a compliment. It's not.

Don't ever tell her she's being oversensitive.

When you're complimenting her looks, occasionally mention her "beautiful brown skin" or whatever is natural for you.

Call out racism in the media, in front of her. Call out racism in front of her, in general. Don't do it all the time or turn it into a crusade- just occasionally, casually, say stuff like "that movie was gross, it seemed kinda racist. Plus that one actor had such shitty lines!..." if she ever does talk about her experiences of racism, validate her feelings. Note that this will often be subtle, not "I think so-and-so is racist".

When you're talking about famous people you admire, talk about non-white as well as white people.

Tell her about your own experiences and share how they made you feel.

Go easy on her if she tries to "be white" to fit in, especially as a teenager.
when she's older, hopefully she'll have a stronger sense of self and not feel compelled to try to blend in.

Talk racial/oppression politics with her, in a broader sense, but without being overzealous (the overzealous always make me feel like a cause. I'm not a cause, I'm a person, and I get tired of overly political adgendas, but at the same time I value being able to have those discussions. It might be the same for her).

But most of all, just like her. Enjoy her company. Racial stuff, at the end of the day, is just one more bullshit thing to feel bad about. If you treat her with love and respect and nurture her self-esteem, hopefully it won't plague her forever.

This will get long and ranty if I don't stop but feel free to memail me about this.
posted by windykites at 6:47 PM on December 17, 2012 [34 favorites]


Love isn't enough is a great multi-voiced resource on race and family issues, including transracial adoptees.

Recognize the racial issues she experiences by listening and accepting them. That's a huge first step because a lot of people will either out of discomfort deny they exist at all or tell her she's being oversensitive.

Buy her books if you can - not just books about being adopted (and please read them first - sometimes they have toxic messages under the saccharine) but books with non-white main characters, books about Guatemala and by Guatemalan people, magazines with Hispanic women in them, whatever she's interested in.

Are her parents the "colourblind" type or are they also reaching out? Because her parents could do stuff like let her go to activities - restaurants, church, community centers - where Hispanic people in the community go. It makes a BIG difference to be one of the visible majority for a while, or at least not stick out. If her parents are okay with it, you could take her to those places to hang out.

If her parents are open, forward them links you find as non-critically as possible, and offer to be a resource as the Cool Aunt for her to talk to about race and adoption issues.

Language may be an issue - a lot of transracial adoptees don't quite fit in because they end up monolingual. Spanish lessons may be really good for her emotionally and long-term.

Windykites is dead on for calling out racism in front of her and around her family. Seeing an adult stand up against racism tells her she's not alone and that racism is a shitty hurtful thing, not something to be glossed over politely or dismissed as too-PC. It's a powerful message for a kid.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:12 PM on December 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


When I was her age I also hated my skin, but because I was teased relentlessly for being extremely pale. I was so self-conscious that I rarely wore anything besides jeans because I was too ashamed to show my legs. I frequently bought self-tanner and other garbage to darken my skin, but always turned out looking orange; this made me even more depressed and ashamed. People accused me of being sickly and told me I was unattractive.
Have you told her any of this? maybe prefaced by "I know it's not exactly the same, but". It might help to know that people are assholes to everyone, not just her.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:00 AM on December 18, 2012


For sure, share your experiences, it always helps to know that you're not alone.

Tell her she's beautiful, show her she's beautiful.

Get her a subscription to Latina Magazine. It sounds stupid, but seeing other Latinas as icons of beauty is always helpful. Maybe just have it delivered to the house for your Aunt to read. Las Latinas is a site for young teens, 10 might not be too early.

There's a camp in Minnesota just for your cousin called Minnesota Mix.

I also advocate that your cousin start learning Spanish ASAP! She's at the language acquisition age and it'll be gone by the time that she's 12.

Your cousin should embrace her cultural heritage and know that her family loves her not in spite of her Guatamalan heritage but because of it.

At Cost Plus World Market, they have some Guatamalan worry dolls and neat textiles that would make nice holiday gifts and provide a connection to her home country.

Your cousin is lucky to have you in her life. Keep telling her how awesome she is. Eventually she'll start to believe it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:24 AM on December 18, 2012


This is something that hits pretty close to home for me. My father is from Mexico, and is very "ethnically Mexican" looking or however you want to describe it. My mother is of Irish descent, but of the pale/darker-haired variety. I'm pale, freckled, and dark-haired yet am constantly getting asked "where I'm from" or "where my parents are from." My sister is like me but much darker skinned and has the same thing, though people usually think we're Filipino or some sort of Asian-mix.

My parents split up when my sister and I were really young, they were teenagers when they had us. We lived in a very ethnically-diverse area in Houston, and even though my parents didn't talk, we still spent a lot of time with my father's side of the family so were spoken to in Spanish and spoke some Spanish (as much as you can as a kid under 10 or so) and were pretty tied to both my father's culture and my mother's culture.

The my mom got remarried to a white guy and we moved to San Diego. And in San Diego I figured out that I should just NEVER mention that I was Mexican. (Racial/cultural stuff there is complicated, or at least it was for me as a 10 year old, living for the first time in an upper class neighborhood). People always asked "what I was" and I would just lie and say "Irish" and "Native American" or something (I have one of those southern grandmas that swears there's some somewhere in the line). Eventually in my teenage years I started to feel differently, though I didn't start really embracing that side of myself again and talking about it again until I was maybe 18 or 19.

So even though my situation is not exactly like your cousin's, I feel like I know that confusing place she's at.

The unfortunate thing for me is that my mom basically hates my father and, at least it seems to my sister and me, that she harbored a lot of internalized racism because of this. When we were younger she would get mad when we would show an interest in that side of our cultural heritage, she would ask us things like "You're Irish too, why aren't you more interested in that??" and she once sent us this really offensive "joke" email about Mexicans, though somehow it didn't even occur to her that we would be offended by it. Basically she just didn't get it. Even though our family is very multi-racial as a whole, and even though she grew up white in a mostly black neighborhood, she has no concept of what it's like to a)not be "white" and to b)not want to try to be "white." I want to be who I am, which is someone with a different ethnic background than she has.

SO. After all that long-winded explanation, here's what I have to say about helping your cousin:

1. The thing that helped me the most was just knowing that it was ok to be the person I am. A lot of that has to do with people standing up for me when people talked shit about immigrants and stuff ("Oh but I don't mean Mexicans like you!" as if they know "what kind of Mexican" I am etc..) Obviously you can't pick her friends for her, or even know how they treat her really, but definitely be that person for her if you're ever put in the position to be.

2. I was pretty much treated as though I was just hideous until late in my high school years. Everyone I knew always talked about how hot/pretty my mom was, and she and I look a lot alike, so I assumed the thing that made me ugly was being Latina. It wasn't one of those things where it weighed on me to the point of depression or anything, but seeing different ideals of beauty and studying anthropology in high school and getting out of the suburbs definitely all helped. I think if someone would have bought me "Latina" magazine, however, I would have looked at them like they were stupid. And possibly have been insulted. I was never super into beauty/fluff type reading material though, and have always been pretty sarcastic and cynical (as a kid I got called Wednesday Adams a lot, and that was before I was goth!). There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel pretty though, and if you think that would help her, definitely do it.

3. Really pay attention to her parents attitudes toward her/people of her ethnicity/people of other ethnicities. Even little things can be a big deal toward someone who feels like an outsider. When my sister moved to Kentucky for college, she went to her (very very rural) roommate's family home for Thanksgiving. They were trying to be nice, but they kept talking to her about what "simple, kind people" Mexicans are. This may not be something that ever bothers her, or won't bother her until she's older, but if they're talking to her about what Guatemala/Guatemaltecos are like, try to emphasize the fact that there is definitely a traditional culture but there are also people who work in offices, people who play in bands, people who make non-traditional art, people who do all sorts of things because your ethnicity and the country you live in does not make your whole identity, just like it doesn't here.

4. As far as taking her places where other Latinos are, I don't know if I would. If it's something you'd be doing anyway ("Hey feel like going over to the Mission and getting tacos and hanging out for a while?") that's cool, but otherwise it just sounds awkward to me. Also, especially when I was younger but sometimes now, being in heavily Mexican neighborhoods just emphasizes to me that I'm not really part of that culture *either*. Cultures that are not Mexican don't really bother me at all, I lived in Costa Rica, I live in an area with a large Central American population (Guatemala, El Salvador, etc), it's more the feeling that in Mexican neighborhoods I'm familiar with so many things, but not enough, or I've forgotten, or my Spanish is crappier than it should be now, etc

Sorry for the length. This is something that I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about. I'm 31 and I feel like the older I get the more complicated this stuff becomes for me. I still don't really feel like I belong on either "side" so to speak, but I like being who I am and I appreciate all sides of my background.
posted by primalux at 10:51 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


it makes a big difference to be one of the visible majority for a while, or at least not stick out

Yes. Yes. Yes. This, a thousand times this. Dear gravy, please take this advice. Feeling alone, feeling like the only one, is so fucking scary and... well, isolating. I wish I could favourite it a million times.
posted by windykites at 11:10 AM on December 18, 2012


There are so many excellent responses. Thank you so much.

I have brought up my experiences with her and she seemed relieved to know she wasn’t alone, although our situations are not the same. I understand how hard it is to cope with negative messages from media, peers, and society as whole—especially approaching tween/teenhood. Adding race issues to the mix is just another level of complexity.

I have avoided introducing her to Latina magazines and literature because when she started showing interest in Guatemalan/Latino culture around age 7 well-meaning family members pushed her to learn Spanish, bought her art/dolls from Guatemala, and generally spoke to her about a culture they didn’t really understand themselves. It backfired, in part, because it emphasized her non-whiteness and made her feel even more alienated. I’m welcome to suggestions because I want to be able to introduce her to race-positive media she may identify with, but only if she asks. I’m more interested in respecting boundaries and letting her explore that aspect of herself when she is good and ready.

Similarly, I don’t think bring her to places where other Latinos are will be completely helpful. I’m afraid she’ll feel alienated there, too, because she is in a cultural limbo. Shes traveled to Guatemala (her idea) with her parents and talked a lot about the trip. However, she implied that she didn’t belong there either. They have also spent significant time in the Caribbean. I get the impression that she really enjoys being around people who don’t easily fit into categories; there is such a mix of races on the islands that you run into a lot of people that don’t look black or Hispanic or white…but a mix of all three.

I really like the idea of the camp in Minnesota because I already know she identifies more strongly with being adopted, than being of Guatemalan decent. This may be a good opportunity for her to bond over a common background (adoption) and introduce her to non-white culture in a way that won’t be alienating. I will mention this in passing and see if there is any interest. I will also continue to tell her how beautiful she is (and smart, too!), as well as listen to her. I am also trying to strike a balance between calling out racism without making it a crusade (my fear). She is much more open about discussing her feelings on race with me than her parents. I don’t want to undermine that.

Finally, my partner also has a transracial extended family. In particular, his aunt and uncle (who also happen to be his godparents) are white and Honduran. We’re going to try and invite her over when his family gets together. I think it will be a positive, relaxed experience that is less forced than visiting places with other Latinos are (although I’m in no way opposed to doing that if she requests it).

Sorry for the length. If anyone else has something to add, please share.
posted by turniphead at 12:38 PM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Similarly, I don’t think bring her to places where other Latinos are will be completely helpful. I’m afraid she’ll feel alienated there, too, because she is in a cultural limbo.

This is exactly how it is for me. It's less a race thing, because like other people have stated above, it's totally nice to be around people where you feel like you don't stick out like a sore thumb, but the cultural aspects of not belonging there *either* can make it brutal.

I get the impression that she really enjoys being around people who don’t easily fit into categories; there is such a mix of races on the islands that you run into a lot of people that don’t look black or Hispanic or white…but a mix of all three.

I totally relate to that as well. My favorite places in Latin America are those kinds of places. Hell, my favorite places anywhere are.

The only other thing I would mention is about things aimed at Latinas in the U.S. market (magazines, tv shows, etc). So often these enforce this stereotype of "fiery, curvy, sexy Latina!", none of which I am, and none of which many of the women in my family are. I hate that shit. Not that I hate the women who are like that, mind you, just the idea that Latinas are just "naturally" that way or "supposed" to be that way. I know you said you weren't going that route anyway, but in the future if *she* starts going that route you might want to make sure she knows that there are just as many problems with the representations of Latina women in media as there are for women in general.

It sounds like you have really good instincts and really think about the implications of what she's saying when she expresses herself to you. It's awesome that she has someone to work out her feelings on these sorts of things with. It's so important.
posted by primalux at 2:32 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


If she's ten, she might be a bit too old for some of these books, but the NYT just had a feature on great books with nonwhite protagonists. They're aimed at kids in grades 2-4, so some of them might be OK. I wouldn't give them with a big flourish, but as part of a gift package or just a casual present, it's always helpful to see kids like you (or just non-normative kids) in literature.
posted by barnone at 8:31 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


And just a small note to say that you're doing a great job. It's so wonderful for kids to have a trusted adult mentor even if you didn't go through the exact same thing. You're totally right that keeping the lines of communication open is the most important thing. Try to continue being in her life as she enters the tough teenage years.
posted by barnone at 8:34 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


In that case, if she prefers to be around undefined types, the mixed roots festival might be worth checking out, as there's gonna be a lot of... mixed roots. I'm pretty sure they have some resources on their site too. It's not focused on adoptees, but it might be a good starting point. They can probably direct you to some more (and more specific) resources, too.
posted by windykites at 6:46 AM on December 19, 2012


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