It’s nearly impossible for me to handle how often my mixed-race daughter is complimented on her skin colour. The hue of her skin is a warm light brown, a mix of her Filipino-American father’s darker nut-brown complexion and my fair white colouring. It reminds me of the colour of tea with milk. But here’s the thing: In the Philippines, where her grandparents emigrated from, people with lighter skin tones like my daughter’s, have historically been favored over those with darker complexions — a cultural beauty standard stemming back to Spanish Colonialism, and the class systems they imposed. I know these things aren’t exactly common knowledge among white people. For me, it’s been difficult to navigate as well, and it makes me suspicious of what people mean when they compliment her skin colour.
It’s one thing for someone to offer an innocent compliment about how beautiful my daughter is — but people just focus on her skin SO much. I honestly cannot count the amount of times someone has brought up my daughter’s complexion to me. A lot of times they tell me they wish they could have mixed babies, or that they want mixed babies so that their children will grow up to be hot. So many white women have complimented her “tan.” This one really bothers me. She is not tan. I do not take my toddler sun-bathing. I SLATHER her in SPF 50 to protect her from skin cancer like any other mum would. She just has brown skin. I guarantee you, her skin is brought up to me a lot more than how much it would be brought up if my baby was white. Can you even imagine someone coming up to me with a white baby and saying, “I love your baby’s skin. White babies are so cute. I hope I have a white baby so she’ll be hot.”
Listen, I’m sure that occasionally, it’s just a compliment not rooted in hundreds of years of racism, but just because your intentions aren’t meant to be hurtful, it doesn’t mean that they are not.
The other problem with it is that many times, it’s a weirdly obvious, angling observation that I know is designed to ask me about her race. They want to know if she’s Asian and which country she’s from. I know this because if I don’t respond to it, people don’t give up, and they keep trying to figure out her race. I would estimate that about 70 percent of the time, if I don’t explain that her father is Filipino-American right after a compliment about her skin, the very next question will be about her race. A really common version of this exchange goes:
Stranger: She is so pretty. I love that skin.
Stranger: So where’s her dad from?
Me: California, but he lives in New York.
Stranger: No, where’s he from from? Like, Japan or…
This is a question people with different ethnic backgrounds get all the time. People are constantly trying to deduce what country they or their families are from. Mixed-race people are constantly being asked offensive things like “What are you?” As a white person, people do not ask me where I’m “really from” every day. I solemnly swear no waitress passing by my table has ever said, “Are you Irish, or Swedish or something? Is your Dad from France?”
If white people don’t want to come across as reinforcing stereotypes of white supremacy, they need to learn to control their curiosity and treat people of colour as people first. You are not fooling anybody but yourself, by phrasing your question as a compliment. It isn’t that I think you shouldn’t be curious about her race, but there is an appropriate time and place to ask about it, and it’s not when we first meet. I want her to be a person first, and your desire to know her ethnicity is not more important than anything else. It’s not important enough to stop me in the middle of the store. It’s not important enough for a waitress in a restaurant to say, “What is she?” about my baby. She’s a person, first and foremost.
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