Updated: Aug 25, 2019
By Zahra Bowden Thioune
I was born in the middle-East to a father from Mauritania and an English mother in the mid-1980s. Early on I referred to myself as being ‘noos-noos’, Arabic for half-half, an identity that I accepted happily and readily although it was often met with questions and comments. Having grown up with this dual heritage background, I am keen to ensure I raise racially aware children, but I know this is relevant to all families, regardless of background.
ONE BLONDE AND ONE BROWN
When I delivered my baby and he was placed on my chest, my first thought was, ‘who ARE you?’ Firstly, for some irrational reason, I hadn’t expected my firstborn to be a boy. And, while I knew it was a genetic possibility, I certainly didn’t expect him to be blonde and blue-eyed.
In the weeks that followed, most people in Singapore who met our baby expressed surprise. Our paediatrician was a bit baffled. My lactation consultant dubious.
‘I think his eyes will get darker’, said my mother who was staying with us. ‘I bet you didn’t expect to have an ang-moh baby’, volunteered one neighbour. But his eyes stayed light, and as the curls on his head grew longer and thicker, it became clear that platinum blonde was the colour they would remain.
When my second son was born, with dark hair and brown eyes, the comments and questions multiplied. ‘You have one each now’, was one of the things we started to hear frequently, and my heart broke into a million pieces as I hoped my first baby would not think he was less of me, less mine somehow, because of the differences in our colouring.
At 3.5, my oldest is somewhat race-aware and describes himself as ‘golden’. I am brown, his brother is ‘a little bit brown’, and his dad he proudly told me once is ‘a golden retriever’. Whilst my kid describing his dad in dog-terms is not ideal, I am happy that he is growing conscious of race and comfortable speaking about it.
RAISING RACE CONSCIOUS CHILDREN
Actually talking about skin colour is a part of daily life for us as a mixed-race family. And whilst this may not be the case for others, it shouldn’t be a taboo subject or something that is difficult to discuss. The worst thing you can do is shush or downplay your child’s comments. Children observe race and colour, amongst many other things, and it’s one of the ways in which they learn to categorise people. As they grow older, if children are comfortable talking about colour, they will be more attuned to racial differences and hopefully able to stand up against discriminatory behaviour or racism.
If you’re in an environment that is not particularly diverse, don’t wait for your child to address the topic of racial differences by themselves. Make sure you are proactive and open to discussing these issues. This can be done in many ways but exposure to diverse characters, through books and toys especially, is crucial.
Beyond talking about it and reading books with a range of characters and cultures, it’s also important to walk the talk. How diverse is your circle of friends? Is it something that’s important to you? If yes, how can you widen that circle?
Finally, how we collectively understand and approach race is a learning curve and there is not necessarily any 'right' way of talking about it. It impacts, shapes, empowers and disempowers us in different ways. It is a journey that I am still on myself and I am keenly aware that my boys - one blonde and one brown - will have their own distinct and individual experiences of race. In this sense it is important that we nurture our children to be curious, to feel like they are able to share any thoughts or experiences of their own, to challenge, to listen, to learn and (re)learn from each other.
Some of my favourite resources on Instagram that recommends diverse children’s literature and also spark race related discussions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zahra Bowden Thioune is a Mother of two curious and energetic boys born in Singapore but currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia. A graduate of African Studies with Development and an MA in International Studies with Diplomacy. Has lived in London, Douala, Libreville and Nairobi working on a range of projects from conflict-prevention and prevention of child trafficking to capacity-building with local NGOs.
She loves to write poetry (maybe one day she’ll find the time again), is a follower of respectful parenting and loves to explore the world with her family. She’s currently growing her own children’s clothing brand Kiduchu @kiduchustyle which supports refugee seamstresses who are awaiting their status and therefore unable to enter the workforce conventionally.
Basically, she’s a good egg.