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Adoption Blog: My Paperwork Pregnancies

Is Saying “Brown” OK? Lessons from Transracial Adoptive Parenting
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Not long ago, I was with some fellow moms, swapping kid stories.  One of my friends said that she was embarrassed by something her daughter said in the local grocery store.  Her 6-year-old girl had pointed to an African-American woman and told her mom, “Look at the pretty dress that brown girl is wearing.”  The mom said she quickly told her daughter in a hushed yell that “You do not call someone ‘brown’!”  She said that later she had a discussion with her child about not calling people by their skin color because it is wrong. 

Some of the other moms who heard this story were nodding their head in agreement.  One said she’d be floored if her child used “brown” to describe someone.  Another said she’d be afraid others would overhear the child and assume that they were racist.  I sat there quietly listening to all of them.

Then I spoke up with the opposite view.  “I see nothing wrong with what your daughter said.  I constantly have discussions with my kids about how their skin is brown and mine is white.  I point out a lot of our differences, like our hair and eye color.  I then explain that it doesn’t matter what color all of these things are, as we are all the same underneath.  I would never tell them it’s wrong to use a color to describe skin color, because I want them to feel comfortable asking questions about people’s differences.”

The mom who originally told the story was surprised that I, the only one there with non-Caucasian children, wasn’t offended by her daughter’s words.  “So, you wouldn’t be upset if you heard her ask why your kids are brown and you aren’t?”  I honestly answered, “No.  I’ve heard that question a lot from children about our family.  I’m never offended when I kid talks that way.  An adult on the other hand…”

The other moms admitted that they, too, thought I’d be upset if their children pointed out my children’s physical differences from my own by using “brown” to describe skin tone.  All I could say was, “Well, it’s true.  My kids are brown and I am white.  I don’t see why a child can’t point that out and ask why we don’t look alike.”

Some of my fellow moms said that they are so worried about what is politically correct these days that they want to teach their children the proper words to say.  I hope that, as a mom in a transracial family, my opinion gave their children some leeway in describing the world around them.

One of my favorite children’s books on this topic is Todd Parr’s It’s OK to be Different.  The book addresses different body types, hair styles, clothing choices, and skin colors.  Prior to each description, he writes, “It’s OK to…”.  For example, some pages say, “It’s OK to have no hair,” and “It’s OK to be tall.”  There’s even a page that says, “It’s OK to be adopted.”  It uses language children can relate to.  It doesn’t say, “It’s OK to be Hispanic,” as that is not a word (label) children use. 

Children see brown skin on Hispanic people.  So, if a child wants to use “brown” to describe someone, it doesn’t bother me.  I recommended this book for the daughter who called the lady “brown” in the grocery store—and all kids.  The book reinforces the idea that there are different colors of people, but it doesn’t make a difference, as everyone is the same inside.  Plus, the book says that differences make people important and special.  I especially like reading that part to my children and hope it’s sinking in with them.

Later, when I thought about this conversation, I was surprised that I, the one whose children may be confronted head-on with racism, precisely because of their skin color, was the most relaxed about using colors to describe people.  I am not sure if that is how other moms like me would believe.  But it’s OK to have different opinions. 

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I am white (pinkish, according to my kids, or light brown) and my brown kids use the word brown matter-of-factly to describe people.  No more, no less.  Its the same to them as saying ‘tall’ or ‘the big guy’.  They use the word brown to describe themselves, other people, and there is no racial connotation whatsoever.  They think at this point in their lives that skin color is random.  I like that idea.

By cmk on Friday, January 07, 2011 at 7:04 pm.

I think it’s got to be context-sensitive. If you’re in a room full of Caucasians, and the one person in the crowd that you want your mother to look at is brown-skinned, that seems like the most obvious physical difference and in itself doesn’t involve any judgement. And truly, we talk about people’s hair color, eye color, height, and other physical attributes. Skin should be as unimportant (though I do know, realistically, that it’s very political.)

If your remark is something to which the skin color is irrelevant—“this black guy sold us the house”—it suggests that you’re attaching a judgement to the skin color.

By ScribeMama on Friday, January 07, 2011 at 8:23 pm.

Interesting! I strongly agree that there are different colors of people, but it shouldn’t make any difference, as everyone is the same inside. I am Asian myself, and I would never call myself yellow or tell my children to be aware that people may call them yellow. I actually would be pretty upset if someone points out skin color to me or any family member. My son is a proud child and acknowledge people’s differences (religion, culture, language, etc). because we respect differences. To me, calling someone black, brown, yellow, pink or white seems rude.

By lucianak on Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 6:13 am.

I actually never really referred to myself as a brown person until I adopted my Caucasian son. Prior to adopting, I referred to myself by my ethnicity. As soon as I adopted and became a “parent of color”, all of a sudden the term “brown” started. An unexpected occurrence in my household.

By ahappymama on Wednesday, March 23, 2011 at 5:19 am.

We come across this issue all the time, because you see in each country there are different rules about this. Since we are global nomads and living about every 4-5 years in a different country we have to adjust what we say. Sometimes very confusing for my twin daughters who are almost 9.

We are living in South Africa at the moment and as you may know there are whites, blacks and coloreds in this country…. and these are not the words I use, but the local people… it shocked me at first to hear these terms all the time, but they are used by everybody so I guess you get used to it…
Although after 2,5 years it still sounds ‘not right’ to me!

By Funky Doodle Donkey on Friday, March 25, 2011 at 8:03 pm.

I am the white mother of a brown child.  My son, who is 8, refers to himself as brown at times, and to other kids or adults, either to identify them, or in a context where it is relevant (there was only one other brown kid at the party).  It is never a judgment of anything but the color of skin.  I want to keep it that way, and for us the way to do that is to not attach anything else to the word.  I do not want my son to feel offended if anyone calls him brown because he is, and I don’t want him to associate anything bad with it.

By EJH on Friday, April 01, 2011 at 5:25 pm.

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Danielle Pennel

Danielle Pennel


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