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Monday, August 1st, 2011

Mama, What Colour is Me? How My Child Defines Race


Disclaimer: Please note that this piece is not intended to make light of the serious issue of race/ethnicity. Its aim, however, is to explore what happens if we allow ourselves to look at skin colour afresh in the way that children do.

I am black. My skin colour may be brown but as far as talking about race or ethnicity or whatever the current politically correct term is—I am black. My daughter is not. I will come to her exact description later but her father is white so that might give you a bit of a clue. Don’t get me wrong, I am actually in favour of political correctness. I don’t think that people should have the right to call anyone anything they want without due consideration to how the other person may feel. I remember having this debate with a well meaning person I met on the train in the U.K, who referred to me as coloured. When I politely told them that I preferred to be referred to as black, they refused to do so feeling that coloured was a more respectful term. Don’t I get to decide how I am described?

So, when my daughter (then aged three) started to ask questions about why we were not the same colour, I took the same approach and instead asked her what colour she thought she was. She said orange. I was not at all expecting that answer so my immediate reply was, “Orange is my favourite colour” (which it is along with purple). “You’re my favourite colour too,” she responded.

My daughter being orange gave me a totally different view on the world. When we were on a safari, I pointed out something that I would have never otherwise noticed—lions are orange too. She is almost an identical colour to some of the maneless lions that we encountered in Samburu National park in Northern Kenya. It was not just about the lions; many other animals and plants in nature are orange and we also began to talk about orange people she knew. There were cousins, friends and some well known people too: Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and even Barack Obama.

All we have to do now is get the rest of the world to catch on. At a recent wedding, I was talking to a fellow guest who was about to remark on my daughter’s skin colour. He began to say, “Because she is…” when I completed the sentence for him with the word “orange.” The conversation took some unforeseen turns. Later in the evening the same guest returned to ask, “You do realize that your daughter is not orange?” He had clearly been thinking about it over supper. I couldn’t help but laugh at the reply. “Really? No one had told me.”

© 2011 – 2013, JC Niala. All rights reserved.

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JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsamber dorko stopper   |  Monday, 01 August 2011 at 3:11 pm

    GO LADY. perfection — that’s what i think about this piece.

  2. CommentsCordelia Newlin de Rojas   |  Tuesday, 23 August 2011 at 3:17 am

    This is such a wonderful piece. Thank you

  3. CommentsFruitful Fusion   |  Tuesday, 08 November 2011 at 9:14 am

    Excellent! Beautifully written and just so spot on. I have such a mixture of colours in my family and just wonder why we can’t stick to the terms my kids used to use: chocolate, caramel and vanilla! :)

  4. CommentsFrancesca   |  Thursday, 17 November 2011 at 1:50 pm

    When my little sister was little we asked her what color everyone in the family was. She said Mommy was brown, Daddy was pink, I was yellow, and she was brown. Very funnny! We grew up being exposed to all types of races, religions, and ethnicities. I don’t remember ever asking about skin color before. I just saw it as people come in different colors just as flowers do. But they’re all flowers (people) and all beautiful!

  5. CommentsDT   |  Sunday, 08 July 2012 at 4:26 pm

    I taught pre k for 9 years and would have the children make self portraits. It was amazing how many purple and green children with blue hair and orange eyes (or some other outrageous color scheme) I had. In an all white class I had many kids pick dark brown paper as their skin color. Young children really do not seem to care about skin color, theirs or others. The only child I had who seemed to care about race was a child in rural Georgia who had been recently adopted from Ethiopia. I think that was because she felt out of place since she had moved from a place where pretty much everyone had dark skin to a place where pretty much no one did. It was heartbreaking when she asked my assistant teacher if she would turn pink and beautiful soon ( she defined us by our true color rather than race, she was dark brown NOT black).

  6. CommentsAlexandria   |  Sunday, 30 December 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Yes!! I am an Orange child too . Nice to find some others :)

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