Shikha Singh (name changed), a Bengaluru-based single mother, was driving home one night with her nine-year-old son, when a Harry Belafonte song playing in the car triggered the little one into asking her if he was “ugly”. “I was shocked, but I didn’t make it obvious. We were listening to Mama Look A Boo Boo. While my son is otherwise an affable child, he seemed deeply troubled at the time.”
The starting lyrics of the song are: I wonder why nobody don’t like me/Or is it the fact that I’m ugly?/I wonder why nobody don’t like me/Or is it the fact that I’m ugly?
It was only later, during a parent-teacher conference that Singh found out her son was being bullied at school by some of his classmates, because of his dusky complexion. “I was naturally appalled and livid. But I was promised by his teachers that the bullying would stop. While it did, I couldn’t risk keeping him in the same toxic environment. We changed schools and now, he seems happier in the company of better friends. Of course, I also told him that ugliness is never exterior; it is the interior of a person — their thoughts, feelings and actions — that make them ugly,” she tells indianexpress.com.
Recently, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana Khan, too, had opened up about her childhood ordeals of having to deal with adults who called her “ugly” because of her “skin tone”. “I’ve been told I’m ugly because of my skin tone, by full grown men and women, since I was 12 years old. Other than the fact that these are actual adults, what’s sad is that we are all Indian, which automatically makes us brown – yes we come in different shades but no matter how much you try to distance yourself from the melanin, you just can’t. Hating on your own people just means that you are painfully insecure (sic),” she wrote on her social media account.
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There's a lot going on right now and this is one of the issues we need to fix!! this isn't just about me, it's about every young girl/boy who has grown up feeling inferior for absolutely no reason. Here are just a few of the comments made about my appearance. I've been told I'm ugly because of my skin tone, by full grown men and women, since I was 12 years old. Other than the fact that these are actual adults, what's sad is that we are all indian, which automatically makes us brown – yes we come in different shades but no matter how much you try to distance yourself from the melanin, you just can't. Hating on your own people just means that you are painfully insecure. I'm sorry if social media, Indian matchmaking or even your own families have convinced you, that if you're not 5"7 and fair you're not beautiful. I hope it helps to know that I'm 5"3 and brown and I am extremely happy about it and you should be too. #endcolourism
While the Indian obsession with fair skin is not unknown, it becomes much more problematic when the hate is directed toward a child. Childhood trauma, as a result of being bullied, can cause a host of other problems. As such, the onus falls largely on parents to intervene and dissect heavy topics like colourism, racism, positive body image, etc., in a child-friendly manner for their kids to grasp.
New Delhi-based parent, influencer, and mom-blogger Harpreet Suri — who has a four-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son — says that with the constant influx of digital information these days, it is necessary for parents to deal with these topics head-on. “We regularly talk about these subjects at home, because I don’t want my kids to get information from the outside. In all my communications, I reassure them that someone is always in-charge. I say, ‘Mummy and Daddy will make sure nothing bad happens to our family’, or, ‘the police will catch the bad guys’,” she says.
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In her house, the conversations are simple, because she does not want her children to think of them as taboo topics. “Talking about tough things strengthens our children’s ability to think, to solve problems and communicate better. It also helps to build their resilience. It encourages them to approach parents with questions and worries. If they see you as a trusted source of advice, they are likely to open up on various other such difficult topics.”
Just like Suri, Noida-based author and blogger Nora Bali says that because her eight-year-old son was exposed to the internet and social media a lot (he has his own YouTube channel), discussions about body positivity, racism, colour were necessary for her to initiate. “It was pertinent because from an early age, he was exposed to unrealistic appearance standards and surprisingly, he was getting impacted at an alarming rate. My son is now growing up, and I see him getting a lot more conscious about his appearance. He gets affected by children who call each other ‘fatty’, ‘shorty’, ‘blacky’, ‘chashmish‘ etc. So, these judgmental behaviours of his friends and classmates has made my fearless child fear about these things. While it is difficult to control other children, I make sure to have a chat with my son about not getting affected by such comments,” she shares.
Bali says that she educates her son on healthy lifestyle choices, too. “Instead of telling my child to exercise, to have a beautiful and chiselled body like the superheroes he worships, I focus on telling him the importance of a healthy lifestyle and following a healthy diet.”
A Bengaluru-based parent Ashwini Bagewadi, a dentist by profession, however, thinks her nine-year-old is “too young to be introduced to concepts of colourism and racism”. “I have never spoken to her about racism, but we have spoken about positive attitudes, how to deal with certain people if they are rude to her; this matters at this age. I think she will gradually get to know all this once she is young enough to understand. She has no idea about the caste and colour system. She thinks all kids are the same. A child’s innocence should remain as long as it can,” she comments.
But, do parents ever think their kids may one day cross paths with a bully, and not know what to do? Bagewadi says it does not worry her. “I have never thought on those lines. I feel my daughter is confident enough to manage the situation. She hasn’t been through any kind of serious bullying.”
Suri says she constantly worries that her children “may experience bullying or may bully someone someday”. “So, I keep sharing my thoughts and experiences with them. We need to teach our children how to treat other children and adults with utmost kindness and respect, as only this attitude will bring them the same respect,” she says.
On her part, Bali recounts a harrowing experience of when her son was bullied by his classmates and had to lock himself in the school bathroom!
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“I always keep the conversation flowing and I make sure I discuss every little thing with my son and answer all his questions frankly. I don’t believe in shying away and not talking about ‘uncomfortable subjects’ at an early age. I discuss and clarify every question that comes to his mind, from ‘how girls and boys are physically different’ to ‘inappropriate pictures and videos that appear on the internet’. Treating them as children and not talking about these sensitive topics would be the biggest parenting mistake.”
The role of teachers
Deborah Joel, Special Educator and Grade 4 Facilitator at the Bengaluru-based Chaman Bhartiya School, says that she works with children across grades. “Even children in our Early Years program understand these concepts, when discussed in a language they follow. I believe education is also about fostering values of acceptance and respect towards each other. In fact, we just completed a five-day workshop on UN Sustainability Goals for the facilitators, which also talks of gender equality as well as peace and justice in society,” she tells indianexpress.com.
Deborah says she approaches these topics through lessons in social science, wherein they discuss how every culture is significant, diverse, yet equal”.
“We discussed how a child can be unabashed to point out errors in people, even adults, without being wishy-washy about it when we read Matilda. Also, how Matilda’s dad is a mean bully and why bullying is certainly not a display of greatness. We also discuss sensitive issues in our circle time. And I’m filled with hope when I have these discussions because children are frank and flexible, bringing to the table openness and the willingness to learn.”
What happens when a child is bullied?
Preeti Kwatra, founder and director of Petals India’s Preschool Club, and a child psychologist says children experience negative physical, social, emotional, academic, and mental health issues when they are bullied. “They can even experience severe problems like depression and anxiety, excessive feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy earlier. They may also slowly start isolating themselves from everyone.”
“It is the parents’ responsibility to make their kids aware about these things and ask them to immediately report issues of bullying, body image, racism, etc,” she explains. Concurring with her, Arouba Kabir, a mental health counsellor, wellness coach, and founder of Enso Wellness says while some parents worry about exposing their children to such pressing issues at an early age, others shy away from talking about something they themselves do not fully understand or feel comfortable discussing.
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“Children start to notice differences from as young as six months of age; thus, it is never too early to initiate conversations on such matters. With the ever-evolving world, the exposure for these young minds is ever expanding. The sooner we start conversations, the lesser doubt and space we leave in their minds for perpetuating any negative thoughts.”
Kwatra, however, forewarns that since racism and colourism are sensitive topics, talking to kids about them needs to be done wisely. “Parents should not overwhelm kids with too much information. Facts should be stated in a simple way so as to make it easy for kids to understand. If parents want to address something that they have seen on the news, they should be honest about whatever has happened and explain the situation or incident in a simple manner.
“Developing empathy, compassion, respect and a sense of justice in kids at an early age helps them to grow into responsible and wise adults, who can raise their voice against any injustice prevailing in the society,” she concludes.
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