Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Colors Of Us

We were driving home after preschool, my daughter Josephine and I, talking about our day. Then quite decisively she said, "I don't like Citta." Citta was an au pair from Senegal who occasionally worked with us in our cooperative preschool classroom.

"Oh no, you don't like Citta," I replied hoping that it had something to do with her demeanor or behavior, but with a sudden lurch of the heart.

"I don't like her skin," she continued. "I don't like dark skinned people."

My 2-year-old had touched the third rail and while we lived in one of the most ethnically, racially, and economically diverse zip codes in the US, our school drew most of its students from the more homogeneous north end neighborhoods of Seattle, resulting in a less than representative assortment of skin colors at school. I can hardly describe the spike of shame and panic that shot through me when she said it, a new parent's fear that he had somehow made a racist of his child. It took me a couple minutes to fight that feeling down, knowing that she was, of course, not a racist.

From the time my child was born I committed myself to honesty. Even as we swaddled her in her crib, I told myself that when the time came, I would be prepared to have frank and open discussions about sex and drugs and all those other topics that parents so often sweep under the rug or, worse, about which they over-react, scaring their child into hiding their questions, thoughts, and feelings at the risk of upsetting mom or dad. For sex and drugs I was ready, but I hadn't prepared myself for this one. I did manage to remain calm. I told myself that this is one of those topics that we have to bring fully to the surface and discuss without judgement.

I tried to keep the conversation casual, "I like Citta. She has a pretty smile."

"I don't like her."

"Because of her skin color. Is there anything else you don't like about her?"


"Is she nice to you?"


"Well, then you like that about her, right?" She didn't reply and we drove in silence for a bit. Finally, I said, "I like people who are nice."

She answered, "Me too."

"Salvador's nice. I like him too. He has dark skin."

"I like Salvador."

"And Alnur has dark skin."

"I like Alnur."

We drove in silence again for a time before she said, "I like Citta, I just don't like her skin." That was the end of the conversation for then, but it provided a nice starting point for the rest of the conversations we've had about race over the years.

I don't believe it's possible to discuss Martin Luther King, Jr. without a conversation about the color of our skin.

I like to use The Color Of Us by Karen Katz as the starting point of our exploration of skin color. It's fun how Lena and her mom walk through their neighborhood describing the various shades of brown they find amongst their friends, family and neighbors. Most of the descriptions use food similes (e.g., cinnamon, chocolate, butterscotch, etc.) and we say, "Mmmm," after each one, savoring it together. We put our arms together to compare the colors of us (one of my great eye-openers came when, while doing this, I discovered that my own skin was several shades darker than that of an African American boy in our group). And we paint with a collection of "flesh toned" paints, mixing them together to discover the endless variety of hues.

Like I did with my daughter, I try to not be heavy-handed, although it's tempting each year as some kids always insist, despite the evidence in front of their faces, that their own skin is not at all brown, but rather white or red or yellow. I don't expect to solve the world's racial challenges in our little preschool classroom, but I do hope to surface the conversation and try to discuss it without judgement.

This year we tried a new skin color mixing project, one inspired by this make-up commercial:

We used sheets from a paper artist's palette for this because I wanted a surface that didn't absorb the paint. You could use plexiglas and wipe it off between kids or even wax paper. Each child started with 2-4 small puddles of skin colors, and the only tool the children had at their disposal were toothpicks.

When we do this again, I think I'll cut the paper in half and use a tool of somewhat larger gauge than toothpicks, but it turned out to be an interesting exploration, one that resulted in all the colors of us.

As Josephine grew older and more sophisticated our conversations about race have too. I don't worry about her any longer. In fact, she and her friends have it much more together when it comes to race than did my generation. I still remember my neighbors in South Carolina freely using the "N" word to describe those people who lived on the other side of town. Martin Luther King, Jr. was still alive, yet I don't have any memories of him or his struggle being discussed around the dinner table. Maybe the grown-ups thought it wasn't a proper topic for a 6-year-old when MLK was assassinated, but I didn't hear about it until much later, as a dull historical fact rather than something that had happened only a few short years ago.

Two years after my conversation with Josephine about Citta, as I picked her up from preschool, she asked, "Did you know that everyone is the same color?" The way she said it, I knew she had a joke to tell me.


"Inside everybody's pink! Even the boys!"

I was a stay at home dad, the sexism conversation was one for which I was prepared.

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Ms. C. Johnson said...

Thank you for this post. I have had similar discussions with my children who are biracial. I too believe this is a topic we should not be afraid to discuss with our children.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this beautiful post!

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

This is a very good post. I'm glad you were able to be neutral with your daughter when discussing her feelings about skin colour. I think you spoke so well with her.

I like the way you talk with your children about our skin colours, and this book sounds great, and your art activity is wonderful.
I like supplying all the colours for skin when offering paint and crayons as well.
Well done, Tom!!

Jennifer @ Natural Parents Network said...

I am clueless how to even approach race differences with my children. They are biracial, Native and Caucasian, but all look very different from each other: from blond hair blue eyed to dark hair and brown eyes. Genes are funny that way. I have this hope in me that it will just lead them to thinking everyone is just supposed to look different and it has very little to do with who they are as a person.

heidi said...

Thank you for this post. You have a beautiful way of writing about your insights and this blog has challenged me to think about my interactions with my own children in new ways .

Saya said...

This really hits close from home, as I do have a son who is biracial, with my ex... We moved to a city where vast majority of residents were "white". He was the only one non-white in his class, one of the few in entire elementary school. One day, he came home and told me that he wanted to be white with yellow hair like everyone else, that he hated to be brown... it broke my heart.

I'm not going to get into about my ex, but I'll just say he was away from home a lot because of his job, and wasn't very involved with our children when he was home. Everything fun we did/my son did was with me or our neighbors who happened to be white also.

Anyways... I was preschool teacher then too, so I knew where to purchase the "multi-cultural crayons". We did what you did in this post... we compared each other's skin color with the crayon, found out that he wasn't brown, he was tan, just like me.
He still said "I wish I was white." I replied "I wish I was green." He smiled and said "I wish I was purple." I said "I wish I was blue." we went back and forth with different colors. Then I said "I wish I was all these colors, but I think I love how I am the best. And I love how you are the best."
My son replied "Me, too. I love us just the way we are the bestest."

Talking about racial issues are so much complicated... in and out of the particular race, because it's all connected - it's not just a issue of outside of the race, or vise vasa. It's so difficult, sometimes, to be objectively discuss about the issues because it's all connected to our emotions. But we can't avoid the conversations on this topic with our children, no matter how hard, because it is connected to them, too.

Sorry about the rumble, I'm gonna stop now :)

MOM #1 said...

I'll be brief. I love this post!