I’ve had some experiences in the classroom lately that have me thinking about skin color, children, and my role as a teacher.
The thing is, I’ve always been unusually color blind. My father is Mexican and my Mother is Caucasian, so maybe that’s a piece of why. When I was very young I became attached to a baby doll, as many young girls do.Unlike most girls dolls, mine was a beautifully dark chocolaty brown color. I called her my black baby. I’m not sure where I got the term “black” at age 3 years old or less, but the name stuck. I kept, loved, and slept with her till my dog chewed her to pieces when I was a young teenager.
My life was fairly free of racial tension land prejudice until I hit upper elementary school age while living in Arizona, where immigration tensions were high. People didn’t believe me when I told them my dad was Mexican because I had red hair and freckles. Kids at my elementary school would say things like, “You sure your mom didn’t sleep with the mailman?” Apparently half Mexican babies are supposed to be brown, and I was never dark enough for that part of me to be accepted by anyone outside my family, not even other Mexicans.
Luckily, I spent my childhood moving around the western side of the country, and I was exposed to many different people and perspectives.
My first encounter with another type of prejudice came in the 7th grade, when Jeremy, an African American boy, admitted between classes that he had a crush on me. My friends all wanted to know what I thought. When I told them I was flattered but too young to date, they were flabbergasted!
“So you like him?”
“He’s nice. I’d go on a date with him if I were older.”
“But he’s black!” one of them said to me.
“And my dad’s Mexican,” I reminded her. “He’s a nice guy and he’s my friend.” That’s really all that mattered to me. I remember trying to understand why my friends cared about his skin color, but I couldn’t.
I don’t know exactly where I missed the memo on skin color. I’ve made many a blunder over the years as a result (Do not touch kinky hair, no matter how cool it looks! And don’t even get me started on stereotypical food references. Fried chicken, mayo, oreos… Only have very trusted friends explain those to you!!!).
For some reason, my 305 year old students are so much more aware than I was. They don’t say anything outright, but I see it in their behavior, their preferences, and their comments. The thing is, I’m seeing a pattern where racial naivete in the younger ones progresses into shame and prejudice in the space of 2-3 short years.
Take my 3 year old daughter, Tutu (I’m using code names to protect my student’s privacy). She’s three – aware of different skin colors, but unaware of the baggage we older folk tend to attach to them. For example, one sunny day I took my class to sit under the tree in front of the school to read a story. In the distance, one of the children saw a man walking up the sidewalk. “Look! It’s Derek” she excitedly announced. Derek is the afternoon teacher. I observed the man as he approached. He wore a hoodie, sweats, and even had a beard like Derek’s, but it was not him. I informed them of the sad fact just as he came within earshot. Tutu yelled, “But he’s black and Derek is black!”. Thankfully, the man had earbuds in and didn’t seem to hear. It turned into a discussion about the similarities and differences between this man and Derek, but in the end we all agreed it wasn’t him.
Over the next few days I noticed the children pointing out their skin and eye colors, so I read them the story, ” The Colors of Us” by Karen Katz. It tells of a girl who takes a walk around town and puts beautiful names such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey to the skin colors of the people she sees. It wasn’t long before the children began looking for the names of their skin colors. One boy in my class, we”ll call him Sunshine, has skin that’s chocolate brown.
One of the other children said, “Look Sunshine! That’s your color!” when we came to that page in the book.
“No! I’m this color!” he said as turned the page to a significantly lighter skinned person.
The other children tried to disagree, but I could see Sunshine was getting upset, and not wanting to sour the experience for him, I told them not to bother Sunshine. The subject was dropped and we continued the story. Two pages later we reached a color similar to sunshine’s chocolate brown, though slightly darker. The girl in the book calls it bronze and amber, “like a beautiful jewel”. Acting on a hunch, I told the children that this had always been one of my favorite colors (and it really has!). Sunshine got a little smile in the corner of his mouth. When we reached the end of the book, the children all announced the color closest to their skin. Sunshine pointed to the girl with the chocolate brown skin and proudly said, “This is my color!”
Ever since this experience, I’ve pondered why he reacted the way he did to this book. Why did he think lighter skin was better before I said something? I’ve seen this in other children in my class too.
On one occasion we had only 4 children come to class. Spiderman’s usual friends were all gone, so he played with Tornado, a boy who looks like he could be Dominican and who has a speech delay. Spiderman, who is a tall caucasian boy, told me he didn’t used to like Tornado, because he has “fuzzy hair”. Then he said, “But Tornado is actually pretty funny. Like when you were digging with us and he put sand on your pants for a joke, that was funny”. He said this ponderously, as though processing something significant. He’s been kinder to Tornado, even under peer pressure from friends, ever since.
Tornado will only play with the light skinned baby dolls at school, despite the many darker shades we have available. Why is that?
How do we go from Tutu’s ignorance, to Sunshine’s, Spiderman’s, and Tornado’s preference for light skin and smooth hair? My guess is that the answer is all around us in conversations and in our media – our society.
But I am not concerned with pointing out every negative influence. That’s beyond the scope of what I can write just now. I think it’s more important to focus on what we can do to combat those influences.
In this age of political correctness, many people like to just avoid the subject of skin, stereotypes, and racism because it’s safer. But skin color can’t be taboo. Its a part of all of us, and silence doesn’t make it go away or turn us color blind. Rather, silence allows the existing racist messages bedded in society to continue on to the next generation, perpetuating the problem.
I used to think that if we stopped talking about racism, it would go away. I was wrong. The concept of different races is false. There is only the human race. But racism is so built into our history, our culture, and our institutions that it’s going to take continued conscious effort to get ride of it.
As I think back on the experiences of my childhood that shaped my beliefs on the issues of diversity, color, race, and prejudice, I remember interacting with people who were different from myself. I remember reading books that promote diversity, and having meaningful discussions about those books. I remember taking a whole class in high school called Cultural Diversity, where we learned about the negative impacts of prejudice and stereotyping, and how to speak assertively on issues like homelessness, sexual orientation, immigration, religion, and race. First and foremost though, I remember knowing at a very young age that all people on earth are children of God and that he loves them no matter what.
The relationship between all of these experiences is that in each one, barriers were explicitly broken down. It didn’t happen by itself. Teachers, friends and family went out of their way to shape my view of the world. Discussions about diversity were never taboo, and they were often emphasized.
So let’s break down some barriers for our children. Let’s undemonize the word “brown”. And while we’re at it, though this may make waves, I’d love to forget the terms “black” and “white” altogether. As Jerry Spinelli puts it in his book, “Maniac Magee”,
“For the life of him, [Maniac] couldn’t figure out why the East enders called themselves black. He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black.”
“Maniac kept trying, but he still couldn’t see it, this color business. He didn’t figured he wasn’t white any more than the East enders were black. He looked himself over pretty hard and he came up with at least seven different shades and colors, right on his own skin, not one of them being what he would call white (except his eyeballs which were not any whiter than the eyeballs of the kids in the East end).”
So why continue this black and white business when there is so much negativety attached, and when none of us is really black or white anyway?
I’d rather send the message loud and clear that we must embrace our diversity like we embrace the many colors in a bouquet of mixed flowers. There is no right or wrong color for flowers. They are just different. All are beautiful, and we call them the color that they are.
I think we can, and should, teach that concept early, in the moments like those I’ve been having with my young students. These are the teaching moments that can turn color from a source of shame and prejudice into a bouquet of beauty.
Because no child should feel like they are less than.
No child should feel less than beautiful.
No child should feel less than intelligent.
No child should feel less than capable.
No child should feel less than confident.
No child should feel less than loved and wanted.
And as I, my students, and others speak for the beauty of diversity, we may in time change the voice of society. I can only hope.