Photo: Getty Images

PARENTING HONESTLY

The heartbreak of hearing your mixed-race daughter say, “Brown is dirty”

Photo: Getty Images

When Nikesh Shukla’s daughter refused to play with a brown doll, it only served to underline how important positive representation of people of colour is

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By Nikesh Shukla on

The nursery worker tells my wife that our two-year-old mixed-race daughter got upset because the only doll left to play with was a brown one. She wanted to play with the peach one. When told that the brown one was the only one she could play with, she cried.

“I don’t want to play with the brown one. Brown is dirty,” she told the nursery worker.

When the story was relayed to me later, I cried. The thought that brown was dirty broke my heart. Not because she is a two-year self-hating racist. But because her association with brown is dirt. Meanwhile, white remains clean and pure. This is how early this internalised confusion about identity, which often centres whiteness as the ideal, can start.

I took the decision, early on, with her, to ensure she knew she was a person of colour, so that I could control the narrative around it. I didn’t really acknowledge I was a different skin colour to other people until I went to school and two kids would lick their wrists in the playground and pretend they tasted of ice cream. Whereas I, their theory went, must taste like shit.

I remember that shame only too well.

I remember the conflation of shit and curry only too well. Brown curry, brown poo, brown skin.

I remember having to change out of my school uniform the second I got home from school, into home clothes, a simple white jubo lengha, because the last thing my mum wanted was for my clothes to smell of her cooking.

“The white boys will make fun of you,” she told me. “Don’t give them that opportunity.”

I don’t want this for my daughter. I want her to be proud of who she is, and that starts with pride in her appearance.

I can see myself in her, standing in the middle of the playground, worrying that my brown skin must taste like shit

I, as her parent, am taking ownership of the narrative around her skin colour. Before anyone else can. She is a person of colour in England today and I want to do justice to that by treating her like one, but in an empowering fashion, which allows her to take control of who she is and how she lets the world see her. She cannot do that without my helping her to manage that Asian part of her. It’s encoded in her skin.

My side of family still lives entirely in London and so, in Bristol, her only associations with brown-ness, brown people, brown culture, is me. Her dad. And the occasional family visit. There’s the huge poster of Ms Marvel (Kamala Khan) on her wall, but even the huge image of Kamala tearing off her kurti to reveal her superhero costume, mask obscuring part of her face, out of context of the comics, is a bit terrifying.

There is no one to talk Gujarati with her so she is bilingual.

There is no smell of curry pervading every inch of the house, embedding itself in her clothes, so she smells of delicious curry.

Mostly, apart from me, the only representations of brown skin are on her wall and in the books I curate and in the TV shows we curate. Because those positive images are incredibly important.

That curation is important; we want her to see a realistic world reflected back at her. And I am trying to curate one that welcomes her and makes her feel included. I search hard for books featuring black and brown characters, animals with “foreign-sounding names”. I do the work to ensure that her bookshelves are aspirational. And normal. I want a mixture of adventure and mundane. In one book, I want characters of colour to save the world. In another, I want the characters of colour to go to the shop, buy bread, ride the bus and ring the bell to get off.

But for my daughter to have that association with brown skin as dirty, even after all the positive curation we do for her, you realise how early this internalised self-identification happens. I can see myself in her, standing in the middle of the playground, worrying that my brown skin must taste like shit, because it’s the same colour.

A few evenings later, we’re reading a book together. Mumbi, the Sri Lankan doll a friend bought for her, sits in my lap next to her. She picks Mumbi up and throws her to the floor. I pick Mumbi back up and show her to my daughter.

“That wasn’t very nice, throwing her to the floor,” I say.

“I don’t want her,” she replies, tapping the book we’re reading, as if to say, can we get back to this please.

“Why don’t you want her?” I ask.

“I do like her,” she says. “I do. She has a nice smile and she has pretty black hair.”

“And gorgeous brown skin,” I say.

“I don’t want to be brown,” my daughter says and looks at me. She’s trying to work something out and I don’t know how to help her through it.

“You are brown. And that’s a good thing,” I tell her, before returning to the book.

‪@nikeshshukla

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