Last year, after months of watching — and re-watching — the movie Frozen, my daughter Selma, who is 6, announced she didn't want to be brown. "I wish my skin was white," she told me one day in our living room, where we were hanging out after school.
I knew she idolized the film's alabaster-skinned heroines, and it made my heart ache. Our daughters started picking up on the differences in our family's skin color at a very young age — I'm a white-skinned woman raised in the South, my husband, Jason, is part-white, part-American Indian, with medium-brown skin, and, depending on the season, both of our girls look more brown than white. There's research showing that children can recognize differences in race as early as infancy, and can develop racial biases as early as 3.
Knowing all this, we've tried to raise our daughters to be comfortable in their skin, making sure they're in schools with other black and brown children, searching out books and movies with black and brown main characters. I had even tried, unsuccessfully, to steer her away from the snowy princesses.
But our attempts clearly weren't foolproof. "You're beautiful the way you are," I told Selma, stroking her long hair and trying to mask my sadness. "I love your brown skin." She wasn't convinced. "I wish it was like yours," she told me.
As more families resemble my own, more parents will have to figure out how to talk to their kids about being mixed-race. The Pew Research Center found that in 2010, about 15 percent of new marriages in the U.S. were mixed, up from about 7 percent 30 years earlier. Multiracial children are the fastest-growing group of children in the country. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of children like mine — a mix of two or more races — increased almost 50 percent. By 2022, the number of multiracial students in American elementary schools is expected to have grown 44 percent.
At the girls' schools, on the playground, at the swimming pool, I notice people scanning my multicolor family, and I don't think it's a stretch to assume they're trying to figure out what's going on: Who belongs to whom? How are these people related? From a young age, we want to help our daughters feel at home in a world that's still getting used to kids who look like them.
Jason and I met 15 years ago in San Francisco, where being an interracial couple felt to us like a total non-issue. Our young family moved to my home state of Virginia in 2010 to be closer to relatives, and, for the first time, I worried about how we would be received. Virginia is home to the landmark Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overthrew laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The case was brought by a married couple — Mildred Loving, a part-American Indian, part-black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man — after they were awakened in the middle of the night in 1958 and arrested for violating an anti-miscegenation statute in place in Virginia at the time. That was decades ago, but I still worried how we would be welcomed in Richmond, where racial segregation remains severe and Confederate statues line the streets near our home.
One day, a white boy who attends school with my daughters ran laps with us during before-school running club. "Is that your daughter?" he asked. I said of course she was. "But she looks nothing like you," he replied. "That's the funny thing about genetics!" I said, trying to keep it light. "She looks just like her father."
Selma was listening to every word, wide-eyed, keeping pace with us. In these conversations with strangers, I find I'm really talking to my daughters; what I say could end up being what they say in situations where they're on their own, and I want to equip them well. The boy needed a little more convincing, but he eventually seemed satisfied and left to run with other kids. Selma never mentioned it again, but I know these interactions stick in my daughters' minds.
The night Selma announced her Frozen wish, I shared it with my husband. I could see he was bothered by her words but also unsurprised. "She'll have to come to this on her own," he told me, but he promised to talk to her about it. Tucking her in that night, he told her that her brown skin was something to be proud of and that it made her special. She nodded and kissed him goodnight, but we've been trying to come up with everyday ways to give Selma more positive messages about her skin color. I started referring to her as Jason's "twinsie" to make her feel connected to him — and his dark skin color — and she embraced the nickname. Just last week, she requested a Barbie for her birthday, and we bought her a brown-skinned, brunette one, as well as a Doc McStuffins doll set, which features a black female doctor.
Lately, both girls seem to be developing a more complex vocabulary for skin color — their own, and everyone else's too. Just the other day, Selma informed me that I am a blend of peach and white, while she's a blend of brown and white, explaining that that's why she is "light brown." Amaya, who's 7, currently calls herself "tan," while labeling her sister "brown." Sometimes they want us all to put our arms next to each other poolside to see who is darkest and who is lightest. When the girls talk about this with each other, I typically listen without commenting. As much as our daughters need messages from Jason and me, they also need to consider this on their own.
I'm sure this is just the beginning of their exploration of race. Some parts will be under their control. Whether their skin color becomes a key part of how they understand their own identities and personalities, that's their decision. How they refer to themselves — mixed, multiracial, American Indian, part-white, or some other term — is also their decision. But we also know people will put their own perceptions of identity on our girls, and we want them to have plenty of practice having these conversations without fear or embarrassment.
In the meantime, it's about small signs. I've noticed that Selma's obsession with the Frozen princesses seems to be on the way out, and I've decided to take that as a good omen.
Kristen Green is the author of Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, published in June by Harper. The book, a hybrid of memoir and history, describes the decision by white leaders in her Virginia hometown to close public schools rather than desegregate, and explores her own family's role. She has worked as a journalist for 20 years.