Tiane and Ena are two black women who have white children and are often asked if they are the mothers. A sociologist, a geneticist and a psychologist explain to CNN Portugal how prejudice often overlaps with melanin
A Brazilian influencer who lives in Los Angeles recently shared a video on the social network TikTok in which she responded to a comment from a follower who criticized her for being “exposing other people’s children” in the videos she posted on social media, assuming that Tiane was the nurse of the child she was holding and not the biological mother.
In the video, Tiane responds naturally that the baby she had in her arms was, in fact, her daughter, the result of her marriage with her husband, Bryan. “Just because I’m black and she’s white doesn’t mean she hasn’t left me,” she stressed.
Tiane’s story is not unique. After the video was published on another social network, several Twitter users told in the comments episodes of discrimination that they were targeted just because they had a different skin tone than their mother or father, and vice versa. In one of these episodes, a passerby alerted the police to a black woman who was walking on the street, accompanied by a white child, to check the situation.
Ena Miller shared her story in an interview with the BBC in 2021, a year after the birth of her daughter, Bonnie, who, like Tiane’s baby, is also the result of her marriage to her husband, a white man. “My daughter has been judged by her skin tone from the day she was born,” she begins by saying.
“After spending a day and night in intensive care, Bonnie was back in my arms just hours away when a woman peeked through the door. [do quarto do hospital] to ask if he wanted to have breakfast. Before he could respond, she shot out: ‘Is that your baby?’ I was expecting a compliment, (…) but instead she just repeated: ‘This is same your baby?’” he continues, remembering the pejorative tone of the question.
Ena Miller remembers that day as the beginning of a life spent facing “strangers who feel free to question whether they were really Bonnie’s mother or to comment on her skin tone.”
Sociologist Nuno Nunes, from the Center for Research and Studies in Sociology (CIES-ISCTE), explains to CNN Portugal that these situations result from the fact that society has not yet “completely” eliminated prejudice. “It is almost impossible not to have daily manifestations of prejudice, one way or another, and most of the time they are even involuntary, nor are they conscious”, he points out.
Sometimes, it may also be due to ignorance that, in fact, it is possible for a black woman to have a white child and vice versa. The explanation lies in the “gene pool”, Marta Amorim, a specialist in Medical Genetics, tells CNN Portugal, referring to the concept that characterizes the sum of all genes present in a given family.
Marta Amorim explains that “the production of melanin is controlled by several genes”, what she calls a “polygenic contribution”, in which “some genes dominate others”.
In multicultural families, where the gene pool is “wide”, there is a mixture of different genes, which “may even be masked and not manifest, until today”. Therefore, this is an unpredictable process, points out the expert. “The variability allowed depending on the gene pool of each parent is indeed large.”
“And then there is a palette of possible colors, because there are actually many genes contributing to the production of melanin and the way they are manifested can be very different”, he stresses, noting that everything depends on the dominant gene.
A life isolated from society and one’s own family
Despite the biological explanation, the truth is that families with these characteristics feel isolated in a society that is not tolerant of difference. The pejorative comments, criticism and, sometimes, more serious accusations (such as some reports of black women accused of kidnapping the child they accompany, just because it is white) affect not only the parents, but the children themselves.
Margarida Mendes, a psychologist at Hospital Lusíadas, highlights the “ambience of mistrust” that the birth of a child with a different skin tone generates in the couple and in the family itself. “The first thought is always ‘there was betrayal‘”, points. In these situations, he adds, the child “is not always accepted by the family itself, even by the mothers”, and may develop depression, suffer from low self-esteem and isolate themselves even from their parents.
It is also important to pay attention to other family members, such as siblings, underlines the psychologist. “Often siblings end up being bullied in schools as well, because classmates also make fun of them for having a different sibling, so it is very important to work with the other children in the family who may not be prepared to deal with these issues. ”
Margarida Mendes gives advice to parents in these situations: they should wait for the child’s initiative to clarify their doubts. “Children are extremely attentive and at some point they will ask ‘why am I so different?‘. This is the time to explain to her why she has a different skin tone, show her family photos, for example. Of course, we always have to adapt the speech to the child’s age, it’s not worth explaining things that the child is not yet ready to understand”, he emphasizes.
“Above all, there has to be a job on the part of the parents”, says Margarida Mendes, when asked about what families should do in the face of questions or comments from third parties. At these times, he continues, parents should “explain, in a simple way, that it is perfectly natural and that it is no drama for the child to have a different skin tone than the parents”.
‘My freedom begins where the other’s ends’?
In the BBC interview, Ena Miller describes how strangers feel “free” to question whether Bonnie was really their daughter. After all, where does this freedom come from?
“Everything that is different attracts attention. Socially, they impose on us the idea that we are all the same, but in reality we are not”, replies the psychologist. It is in this context that Margarida Mendes recalls the well-known expression “The freedom of each one ends where the freedom of the other begins” – attributed to the English philosopher Herbert Spencer – to make a correction: “Freedom is not doing everything we want, because we can to be stepping on the freedom of the other. If no one teaches us this motto, we think that only we have rights and can do everything in our image.”
“For this reason, it may be important to work with society to realize that we are all really different and, above all, we have to respect the difference”, he summarizes.
Sociologist Nuno Nunes agrees with this need to assume, right from the start, that “we are all different and that is why we must all be considered equal” when talking about rights. “We have the right to be different, and that right starts from a conception of equality from the start. It is in this diversity that the human being is built”, he emphasizes.
The discrimination faced by these families is just “one among several phenomena that reflect the fact that we still live a lot based on prejudice”, continues the sociologist.
“Sometimes it seems ontological, even pre-social, but it is not. These prejudices result from social constructions, which are cemented and strengthened over time, without us realizing it. We reproduce prejudices without being aware of it. But they are socially constructed, they are not just an emanation of our human nature”, explains Nuno Nunes, pointing out as “the only solution” “education, tolerance and respect for the other, for what is different”.