I actually dye my hair to make it darker - and I like it that way
September 6, 2011 2:32 PM   Subscribe

What to say or how to respond to people who are obsessed with having light features?

So my brother and his wife just had their first child about a month ago. She's healthy and cute and rarely cries (for now). YAY! Some people in our circle of people and extended family are obsessed with having light features. Now I know skin/eye/hair color does not matter one bit when it comes to beauty and cute-as-a-button-ness, but they believe it matters a whole lot. They're obsessed with "praying" that her eyes stay blue (in all likelihood, they're probably going to turn a pretty hazel). Or whether her complexion will be fair. Or that her hair is "brunette" rather than black.

I come from a mixed family and went through this horseshit growing up, and thought I mostly escaped it - thanks to growing up and spending time around more open minded people in my generation. But now it's starting all over again with my gorgeous little healthy niece (and also comments about my siblings and mine's features being dark or light or whatever, since our mom brought the "white genes")

What's the right way to respond to obsessive, BS comments about light-ness and dark-ness (we all live in a close area, so consider that these comments are made frequently in every conversation).
posted by raztaj to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should note that a fair amount of this obsession is rooted in being ill-treated, judged, and racism by being darker and "foreign" (felt by older 1st generation immigrants), so concern with light/dark-ness is, in some way, a protective concern. Just because they felt very real ill-treatment, doesn't make it right or excusable to continue those ideas, imho. Not sure how to respond without being dismissive of those experiences, but to drill in the idea that they're ultimately BS. Ditto with relating to "beauty."
posted by raztaj at 2:38 PM on September 6, 2011

Just remind them that the lighter their skin tone, the less time the child will be able to spend in the sun before succumbing to awful sunburns. And then crying until the soreness fades.

Also the fact that they are enabling white racism/prejudice by bending over backwards to satisfy the perceptions of white(r?) people.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:42 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I'd just stay out of it. It's sad. It's ridiculous. But is there any one comment you can make that will change their way of thinking?
posted by Neekee at 2:45 PM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is not a problem I have to deal with (I'm Scottish, English, Lithuanian & Swedish), but... what happens if you ask them why they like blue eyes and light skin color? This has the potential to make them reflect on their reasons, and sets you up to be sympathetic as they (hopefully) realize their reasons are kinda screwed up.
posted by jon1270 at 2:45 PM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, you might find this interesting:

(if the link doesn't work, look up "Dark Girls" on vimeo)
posted by Neekee at 2:47 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

My stunning grand daughter is of mixed origin, and she is too gorgeous with her tan skin, almond eyes and dark hair! Honestly I love that she looks like a darker version of her mother. I don't know what to say to those busy bodies, not sure how religious you are, but I'd be tempted to go with "I hope she stays true to whatever shade of stunning God paints her".

Good luck!
posted by Jayed at 2:48 PM on September 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Plain and simple eugenics. White people just seem more "pure" to large segments of persons. Here's an experiment: turn on your TV and try to find a dark-skinned person broadcasting the news. I'm lumping Univision and BET into this too, btw.
There's probably also a little bit of phobia about miscegenation in the mix. People don't want to hear that their great-great grandmother got it on with a red, brown or black guy. So a lily-white baby is somewhat of a relief.
You're probably right about the eyes; most babies have fairly blue eyes when they're born that change to a different shade later.
As to what to say? I'm not really sure there's much you can say about peoples' preferences for white people over colored people.
posted by Gilbert at 2:50 PM on September 6, 2011

"I don't like that kind of remark. Please don't say things like that around me/her. "
posted by bq at 3:04 PM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

When it comes to how attractive she is/ends up being, the only thing that matters is that she feels beautiful and comfortable in her skin (when she begins to understand). You could try shifting the conversation from other people's idea of beauty to your niece's. In response to their "I pray her eyes stay blue," you can just respond

"I just hope she realizes how beautiful she is."

It trivializes their preferences for particular eye/skin colors and at the same time gives emphasis to the fact that their idea of beauty (or anyone else's, for that matter) isn't really all that important.
posted by desertface at 3:04 PM on September 6, 2011 [12 favorites]

Oh, I get all stern and crazy about this. (I won't relay the personal experience that happens basically every bloody day around here but, yeah, I feel you.) So you know: "Oh, whoops! I've been praying she gets darker--if she looks all white, she'll just be singled out for bad treatment in the future!" Or maybe: "Really? I personally hope she ends up looking like Grace Jones!" And the old classic: "That's weird, Aunt Julia's eyes are brown. Don't you think she's pretty?"

That being said, I know that a lot of these kind of comments ("That's weird, you don't look like a [ethnic last name]!") are just conversational in some cultures and not "offensive" (or even born out of history of racism in some cases!) except to my ears. So my counsel is to try to have fun with it, speak up loudly and with good humor, grit your teeth quietly to yourself, and remember that everyone's wishing the best.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 3:06 PM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

You have to make a decision about whether or not you want to engage, and how you want to do so.
There are a lot of tactics. They kind of break down taround three facets::

1. Jump in/stay out: Deciding if you want to say something or not.
2. 1:1/take all comers: Individual conversations with people, saying something in the group.
3. Style: Using sarcasm, challenging, guilt, humor, or questioning responses, or something else.
4. What are your goals, as in are they reasonable: Do you want people to think or behave differently? (an unenforceable goal) Do you just want to put it out there because you feel you can't be silent, regardless of how people respond? (an enforceable goal, because it's within your control).

In the end, I find that a sincere: I'm sorry you feel that way, it's so sad - is an honest statement that I can repeat when people make statements like this because I really am sorry for them, and for the recipient of their comment, and for anyone listening who might suddenly feel less that worthy. That is sad. And it makes it clear that I don't agree with what they are saying, in case anyone else who also thinks differently is in ear shot. I don't require them to change - if you grew up all your like thinking that there really is something like "good hair" for example, little that I say is going to dissuade you, and you live in a belief system that sucks the job out of life, which might be misery enough.

Just let the kid know that they are beautiful because they are beautiful - sometimes it's enough just not to be silent in the face of ugliness.
posted by anitanita at 3:25 PM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I thought you said light fixtures and that there was a question about me!

Anyhow my extended family is pretty darn mixed and this does occasionally come up from the older generation. Personally I don't trivialize their reasons, often they have some kind of personal experience that makes them think that way. And they're old so you're not going to change them. Not in my family anyway where old people get away with murder but that's another cultural discussion entirely. Anyway I just listen to what they have to say and then say "well things are different now. Young people these days don't really care anymore." They usually get that they are a bit out of date and feel reassured to hear younger people tell them their grandkids won't necessarily encounter the kind of prejudice they did.
posted by fshgrl at 3:26 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dang, it's FAMILY that's doing this?!? I'd say bq has it right: "I don't like that kind of remark. Please don't say things like that around me/her."

My own family ranges all the way from near-albino light to very dark. Personally, I love the warmth of the browns to my own 'dead-fishbelly' pale --- and maybe it's just me, but it sure seems like mixed-race people are usually better-looking than single-race people.

And finally, to the young roperider: melted-chocolate-brown eyes are THE best! Every time I see my brother-in-law's brown Filipino eyes, I KNOW why my sister fell like a rock for him.
posted by easily confused at 3:34 PM on September 6, 2011

My kids' US relatives tend to focus on how Japanese they look, and their Japanese relatives focus on how Caucasian they look.

For example, US relatives will comment on how beautiful their Asian eyes or hair look, and Japanese relatives will comment on their--you guessed it--light skin and round eyes (compared to other 100% Japanese people).

I know that there is a history of preference for light-color in the US due to history and racial prejudice. But, there is also a more benign interpretation to these comments, which is that people ALWAYS seem to focus positively on what the "other race" (to put it bluntly) contributes to kids' genetic inheritance.

Personally, I gently tell both sets of relatives to shut up because I don't want the kids to be overly conscious of their appearance either way.
posted by zachawry at 3:36 PM on September 6, 2011

"So basically what you're saying is that you won't love this child unless she's lighter skinned? That's sad, she deserves better relatives than that."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:14 PM on September 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

As a biracial woman, I have to agree with other posters saying you should speak up about this. Commenting on someone's skin/eye color/hair texture in terms of their racial make-up is really really uncomfortable. Being complimented on either my "natural tan" (by white people) or my "pretty light skin" (by black people) is equally awkward. Personally, I went through really crumby phases where I hated my "black" features or my "white" features, depending on the comments and compliments I would get from people of all races.

I'm finally at the point where I can internally roll my eyes when my racial features are commented on--even positively, but it took a long time. Some people I know have never gotten past tying their worth in with how light/dark their eyes or skin are. The next generation just doesn't need that.
posted by swingbraid at 4:27 PM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would just nod and smile or say "she's beautiful." Despite the framing of the remarks as necessarily racist I think people just need something to say and like the way the baby looks. It's like not wanting a kitten to grow up -- silly sentimental stuff based on Precious Moments dolls and whatnot.
posted by michaelh at 5:14 PM on September 6, 2011

oh yeah... this happens in my mexican american family...
my mom would just tell the old biddies, "shut up, my daughter's beautiful."
The harder thing is when they start praising the really light-skinned baby, while ignoring the other siblings who are now old enough to understand what is being said.

I do find it a bit amusing that the first two generations would make such hurtful comments about the dark kids while the last two generations make so much fun of the kids with the whitest legs.
posted by calgirl at 6:57 PM on September 6, 2011

I just watched Dark Girls Documentary and recommend it. I'd say You still hold onto those old feelings about color? We think she's perfect. Or, you could deliberately misunderstand, and say Yeah, I wish she looked more African/Hispanic/Guatemalan, but maybe as she grows up, she'll look more African/Hispanic/Guatemalan.
posted by theora55 at 7:06 PM on September 6, 2011

My sister is the mother of a set of fraternal twin girls, and the father is Korean.

One of the girls has brown hair, light-brown eyes bordering on hazel, and facial features that lean toward our side of the family, where her sister is very strongly asian in appearance. What we do when someone compliments the first of my neices on her hair color or somesuch is to point out that the other niece has her father's looks (the similarity is obvious to anyone of any background), and how the girls get along with each other.

This usually short-circuits the observer from "One of them is almost white, isn't she lucky?" mode into "OMG one is just like daddy, the other looks like mommy sooo cute, look, they're soooo sweet together!" mode, and all is well.

Letting people know what they should be complimenting your kids on, if done gently, lets everyone in on the kids-are-awesome schmoopy, and so will be well received.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:36 AM on September 7, 2011

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