The day my daughter told me she didn’t like brown skin

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Rachel Hennessy

My daughter’s recognition - and dislike - of her difference at such a young age shows that lack of exposure to diversity ...

My daughter’s recognition - and dislike - of her difference at such a young age shows that lack of exposure to diversity has an impact, writes Rachel Hennessy. Photo: Stocksy

It shouldn't have come as a shock. For the last six months, my four-year-old daughter has been obsessed with the Disney movie, Frozen, which focuses on a white blonde haired Snow Queen, whose over-sized blue eyes swamp her miniscule, pointy nose. Despite living in multicultural Brunswick, her mother's group friends are white-skinned and blonde and her childcare seems to be dominated by children of the same complexion (no fault of theirs, of course).

But she is a mix of Turkish, Aboriginal and Irish (not that there should be a 'but' here). Her hair is brown, her eyes are brown and her skin, particularly after her first real summer visiting the beach (albeit with plenty of sunscreen), is most definitely brown.

This morning, as I placed her in the car to head to childcare, I noted how grotty the cream tights she insisted on wearing were.

Rachel's daughters, aged one-and-a-half and four.

Rachel's daughters, aged one-and-a-half and four.

It was going to be hot today, I explained, she didn't really need to have them on.

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"I want to wear them," she said. "Because I don't like brown skin."

She did not use the word 'my', as if the offending object was, somehow, not attached to her.

I grew up in middle-class suburban Canberra where myself and the little girl from India were the only children of a dark complexion.

The most frequent taunt I got was to be called an 'Abo' which, although I didn't know it at the time, I should have taken on as a badge of honour. I still remember my fair-skinned sister calling out to one of the teasers: "Well, at least she's not a snowman like you!"

(My mother, whose skin tone I have inherited, recalls being called a 'Red Indian', the progression of childhood ostracism moving along through the years.)

One of my strongest memories is of wishing to be white, of literally rubbing at my skin, trying to remove the offending 'stains'.

Small-town teasing does not compare to the inherent racism experienced by so many in this country, but it does signal the continued privilege of those who are visibly white.

And my daughter's recognition of her difference at such a young age, accompanied by an already dawning dislike of that difference, shows that continuing lack of exposure to diversity, at ground level, has an impact.

While the hilarity of last year's 'brown face' stuff-up – when a photo of Nazeem Hussain was mistakenly published in The Age, instead of Waleed Aly – can't be denied, it did highlight the continued token inhabitation of non-white faces on popular television. Looking at the publicity photo for the show at the centre of the moment, Channel 10's The Project, you can't help but notice the central figure, Carrie Bickmore, is a stunning blonde and the counterweight to Waleed's 'otherness' is the 'typical' Aussie, Peter Helliar.

Yes, lamenting the lack of diverse faces on Australian television is, perhaps, a well-worn subject but change only comes if the problem is acknowledged, again and again and again.

Mind you, my daughter has no exposure to commercial television, so her aversion to her own skin must stem from other sources.

It is tempting to blame Disney. The popularity of Elsa in Frozen cannot be underestimated. Yet the stable of Disney princesses now contains a range of ethnicities: Mulan, Pocahontas, Jasmine and Tiana are all princesses of dark skin (although a recent graph created from an eBay report showed the whiter and blonder the princess, the better the sales), and the studio can't really be blamed for the success of its latest film. Its appeal to young girls is undeniable, and I happen to like the feistier aspects of both the Elsa and Anna characters.

So Frozen cannot be solely at fault.

What then? Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of being a mother is knowing how much one's peers come to shape your perception.

Living in the inner city, I had hoped my daughter would be exposed to a range of cultures and colours, but I've recently come to the realisation that the world of mothers' groups and preschool is still dominated by those from the mainstream.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2008 (the last time a survey was done), of those children who spoke English at home, 73% attended preschool or a preschool program, compared with 60% of children who spoke a language other than English at home and only 37% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 3–5 years. For a myriad of reasons, those from 'other' cultures don't appear to participate in institutionalised care to the same degree. At school, I can only hope diversity will become apparent again.

In the meantime, the importance of the first five years of a child's life is constantly highlighted by the maternal health care industry, often with an emphasis on fine motor skills and emotional and social well-being. Very little is said of self-perception or cultural knowledge. Yet this seems to be the time when children are becoming highly aware of who they are, especially in relation to those around them.

"But if you don't like brown skin," I said to my daughter. "You don't like my skin or your sister's skin, or your daddy's skin." She looked suitably chastened.

When global events reflect a disturbing intolerance of difference, it is up to parents to constantly ensure young children know the world is not just white and to counteract early the possible seeds of racism, not to mention self-loathing.