Bicultural Identity

The other day my youngest son brought his art portfolio home from school. I’d pull out a drawing, he’d tell me a little about his masterpiece, and I’d compliment what I loved most about it. Then I came to this drawing:

I looked at him.
“That’s me,” he said.
“That’s … you?” I asked.
“Yeah. We had to draw ourselves.”

It’s a typical 3rd grader self portrait in many ways, except I couldn’t help but notice that the crayon he chose for his skin color is many shades darker than his actual real life skin color. Our youngest son is fair skinned like me, but this drawing showed him to be darker like his father.

I decided not to ask questions and moved onto the next drawing. I didn’t want to make a big deal over it and make him self conscious. Maybe it’s not an identity crisis. Maybe he’s just not self-aware? I thought to myself. Maybe somebody else was using the lighter crayon and he wasn’t patient so he used whatever color was available.

I had tried to forget about the self portrait but then this weekend I found him in the backyard like this:

I asked what he was up to and he said, “I’m trying to tan.” — He explained that he wanted to be more like his brother’s color, (which is not as dark as his father, but almost.)

I’m wondering if this is just a natural part of growing up in a bicultural family where your mother and father are two different shades? Maybe it’s just a normal distancing of himself from me that comes from age – maybe he wants to identify as a male with his older brother and father?

I’m not really sure what to do, if anything – except to tell him he’s perfect the way he is. What would you do?


  1. I think your instincts are right on. Let him know how perfect and loved he is. If you want to discuss his drawing with him, how about opening the conversation with, “Tell me about this self-portrait.” He may also be experiencing a bit of hero worship between his darker skinned brother and father. My two boys are different in coloring since they are half-brothers, one has an anglo father and the other a latino father. My fairer skinned boy, who is 12, still identifies as part latino though he will also add that he’s part Welsh.

    • I like the phrasing of the question you gave me. I would have made the mistake of being very to the point, “Why is your drawing of yourself so much darker than you really are?” —- Geez. Thank you. Your question is much better — this way he can tell me what’s on his mind and I’m not putting anything out there that isn’t even a concern of his.

  2. It is also the age where start to pay attention to how they look…. My youngest realized last Fall that his tan didn’t fade like his brothers did…. He has olive tone skin like me… I reminded him that Mommy did not look like the other Mommies.. It was an aha moment…

  3. Tu hijo es una adoración! Y si creo que es solo una etapa donde busca identificarse con las figuras masculinas… no te preocupes de que quiera “separarse” de ti amiga! Los niños van a buscar cualquier detalle para sentirse más como esas figuras que tanto admira. Y que maravilla que para él sean su papá y su hermano!
    De cualquier manera, como te dicen aqui, nunca está de más reforzarle el autoestima y decirle que es perfecto tal y como es. He´s a cutie!

  4. I wish that I had your email so that I could send you a picture of my 12 1/2 year old son. He is the darkest one of my kids and is always saying that he needs a tan. He even asked me if he could get in my tannIng bed. I told him no and that if I had his skin tone I wouldn’t need a tanning bed either. Kids are just gonna be kids.

  5. we are anglo, daddy has brown eyes and mommy has blue eyes but other than that we are EXTREMELY pale. I remember as a kid that I wished I had some pigment (I still do) skin cancer is a real and present danger because we DON’T tan… if we are in the sun it goes like this: PainfulRed/Peel/White. My lucke boys enherited the pigmentally challenged epidermis… poor guys.

    Last time I caught one of my sons try to sunbathe I exclaimed “are you CRAZY?” and made him put a shirt on.

    • Yeah – I don’t tan that well either. I won’t burn if I do it gradually – but I don’t try to. My youngest son – while fair like me, does seem to tan better than I do — albeit, with my freckles mixed in. LOL. He’s an interesting mix.

    • LOL Federico – I always appreciate your frankness.

      Tanning is definitely an accepted thing to do in our culture, (albeit not healthy) — but it makes me wonder about the double standard. Why is it okay for a fair skinned child to tan, but if a darker skinned child were to use whitening/bleaching products or purposefully stay out of the sun because they are desiring of a fairer complexion – this is considered sad/not emotionally healthy, etc.? —- Maybe we should all just accept the amount of melanin we were born with? … Just something I think about.

  6. I think that it is probably him trying to identify with the male figure in his life. I believe that it’s perfectly normal. I am white and my husband is Salvadoran and my daughter who is 5 says once in a while that she doesn’t want to have brown skin but she’d rather be white like me. She’s not even very brown, just a gorgeous tan color and has big blue eyes. I tell her that she is beautiful just the way she is and that her skin is absolutely beautiful. I then remind her that she is half of mommy and half of papi and that, for her, is perfect. My son is almost two and he is a little darker then my daughter with gorgeous almond shaped brown eyes. I wonder how he will want to identify himself as he grows and becomes more aware. I think you’re son is lucky to have his papi around to admire and emulate and that his ideas of who he is will continue to evolve. He is a darling little boy! :)

    • Thanks, Heather. Both your cipotes sound adorable. My boys are definitely lucky to have my husband Carlos to emulate.

  7. Probably just a phase! But it’s interesting to notice nonetheless. I strongly believe bi-cultural kids come out of their education with an open mind and a lot of advantages, save for a few identity crisis ;-)

  8. Tracy, your son is adorable. I agree, tell him he’s unconditionally loved and special, irrespective of any physical attribute.

    We only have our eight-year-old son who’s fair. The difference between my skin tone and my husband’s is pretty drastic, especially in the summer months. Finally after spending the summer on the beach last year, our son built up a nice little tan. He set his arm alongside mine and said, “Mama, I’m ‘almost’ as dark as you.” Then placed it next to his daddy’s and laughed because his was red. I wish I knew what attributed to what seems to be more of an “observant” perspective in him. He doesn’t seem to value one over the other. I hope that doesn’t change over time.

    • Ezzy, my son used to be oblivious to skin color, and then only observant like your son. I wish everyone could remain that way forever.

  9. Maybe is complex and thinking about the lack of pigmentation in his skin in relation to the other males in his family, or it could be that he just simply couldn’t find a lighter coloured crayon. With kids, you never know! Maybe he saw an episode of Jersey Shore? Has he said anything about going to the Gym or doing Laundry?

    Either way, the little love is as cute as could be sitting there in the sun with his shades on!

  10. Tracy I would think it is just a phase. I went through a time like this when I was a teenager, when for a short time we lived in an area with only white people. Having lived mostly in TX, I wasn’t accustomed to being the darkest person around! You are lucky he is too young to drive, buy things for himself, or save his allowance to dye his hair blonde! Which is what I did, platinum blonde! Later my sister showed me pictures of myself and pointed out how crazy I looked, especially as it turned to summer and I got darker and darker, and that hair got lighter and lighter. She said I looked like dennis rodman back in the day! Now I’m quite happy being me, media morena. he’ll arrive at this conclusion, too. It’s exhausting to try to be something you’re not!

  11. What an adorable son you have! He looks so cute in his sunglasses sitting outside “tanning”. You are a great mom and I’m sure the “consejos” you give to your kids is spot on! I’m retaining info (from your post and comment section) for further use when my son is a little older…

  12. Story of my life… lol no really… i would write a long paragraph restating what everyone else says… possibly add some dr phil stuff.. but when it comes down to it… its a beautiful thing to be multicultural… sometimes i use to hate my dad for being half white… my mother for being a coconut (you know brown on the outside white on the inside) but hey i survived and it gave me a larger sense and strive to embrace my culture… i bet ur son will be like me and make a big effort with spanish… in the long run this insecurity will strengthen him as a person :)

  13. My mom read this with me and thought that maybe he thinks he will eventually grow to be tanner like his older brother since his brother is not as fair as you or as tan as his father. He may think he will experience “gradual browning.” I know I had weird notions like this as a child. For example, I thought, one day you just wake up and become a teenager. If only things were that simple. Unusual, but simple. I could have avoided the whole growing pains thing. I agree with lifewellblended that you can simply ask, “Tell me about this self-portrait.”

  14. Tracy, thanks for sharing your reaction to this. I often stress about this myself thinking about my little boy. Between his (half) brother and sisters, and then their (half) sisters that we see often, they are shades from white to brown to black and various combinations thereof. In our neighborhood that’s not unusual, but eventually he’ll perceive the larger society is more stratified. I have no idea what I’m supposed to say and fear saying the wrong thing because as a white person from a very racially-divided background I honestly sometimes don’t even know what could be perceived as a negative statement and offend people by accident– which a child is not likely to be assertive or self-aware enough to explain to me, and anyway, how much more damaging would it be coming from Mom? My husband who is full-on “indio” Mexican does not worry at all and thinks nothing of gently teasing our son when he takes a bath and his little tushie looks as white as mine (we’ve been swimming a lot this summer and my son does really tan). He calls my stepdaughter his “morenita bonita” -she does get very brown in the summer. At first I was a bit worried about this and I still don’t have any logical backup but there’s just a feeling I have developed over the last few years, that somehow my husband is onto something good, I guess it is really celebrating them just how they are. I don’t know exactly how to join in and do this myself, though. I also think you are on to something good when you observe these things about your son and see the moment as an opportunity to talk. I don’t know how being brown feels but I guess we all know how it feels to struggle with some question and not be able to really express ourselves in words, and I guess knowing Mom is somebody who really listens and wants to understand, is the important thing. Maybe between my husband just not worrying about it at all / even teasing, and me probably over-worrying but at least it does make me ask probing questions– hopefully somehow we will support him adequately…

    • Always really appreciate your thoughtful comments, Beth.

      I’m sure we’ll all figure it out best we can.

      (We also tease our boys about their white butts at our house, too. LOL.)

  15. I always find this topic interesting. Here’s my psychoanalysis: Men (and boys) are happy to be darker because it is seen as more masculine. Also, in the U.S., some light skinned people (probably subconsciously) have a desire to move away from whiteness because white is identified with the historical (and current) oppressor. Even the term “white” — when people label me with it, causes me to recoil. When I hear “white”, my mind fills in the boxes that people are then associating me with [white pride, white power, white racist]. So it doesn’t surprise me that light skinned people want to have some color.

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