ARTICLE

Going Deeper Than Skin Color

Among my third-graders, conflicts often arose over the issue of skin color. “Your mama left you in the oven too long. You look just like a burnt cookie!” “Oh yeah, well you look like a white boy. I bet you ain’t even black.” As a young white teacher coming into a school that is about half African-American and half Latino, I knew there would be racial conflicts, but I didn’t know how they would manifest themselves. I assumed that both groups’ first concern would be the oppression and racism from white people. I was not expecting the intense criticism that I found within the African-American community of its own members.

Among my third-graders, conflicts often arose over the issue of skin color. 

“Your mama left you in the oven too long. You look just like a burnt cookie!”

“Oh yeah, well you look like a white boy. I bet you ain’t even black.”

As a young white teacher coming into a school that is about half African-American and half Latino, I knew there would be racial conflicts, but I didn’t know how they would manifest themselves. I assumed that both groups’ first concern would be the oppression and racism from white people. I was not expecting the intense criticism that I found within the African-American community of its own members. 

I started paying attention and noticed an overwhelming feeling among my students that being light skinned was equated with better. “Light” translated as “pretty” or “good-looking.” And “good hair” was straight and long—unlike the curly hair of most of my African-American students. However, kids who were “too light” suffered as well. Some black kids were afraid of being called white and were taunted by the same kids who were jealously talking about someone else’s “good hair.” Somehow, skin color had become a liability. 

I can remember many comments on my own skin color. I am—unless I’ve been on a tropical vacation—what some people call “alabaster skinned.” Other people call it “pasty white.” Some people encourage me to get some sun, pointing out that I’m just too white. While these comments don’t have hundreds of years’ worth of racism and discrimination behind them, they still make me uncomfortable. The insinuation is that my appearance is not quite right, and if I just adjust my coloring a little bit, I’d be more attractive. 

My mission in my class was to figure out how to help students—of all colors—feel like they are acceptable. We’ve come a long way since I was in kindergarten and received the “flesh” colored crayon to use, which just happened to match my own skin tone but certainly wouldn’t have matched anyone in my class now. But that gave me an idea.

Starting a dialogue is always a good beginning, and I’ve tried to do that with my students.  

One day, I brought a large envelope full of paint chips, with all the names blacked out. I had chosen every feasible skin tone, from almost pure white to deep black, and every shade of red, yellow and brown in between. The students found their skin tone, pasted the chip on a sheet of paper and wrote their own name for the color.  Students came up with many variations of chocolate. There was “peanut butter power.” “Peach milkshake” was my tone. Not one student thought of a derogatory name for another person’s color because everyone was so enthralled with naming their own.

At first we had some tears: “I don’t want to be this color, I want to be that one.” There were also kids who were very unrealistic and picked colors much lighter than their actual skin tone. Eventually, everyone seemed to find their own color, although I was glad when kids began to get creative and figure out that they weren’t one solid color. They found colors for their face and their legs and the palms of their hands. Interestingly, not one child belittled another during this project, as they were so caught up in their own self-discovery.

I’m not sure if this would have worked in all classes; quite honestly, I’m not sure why it worked for this class. Maybe it was just a new approach for them, and maybe it was tapping into their creative side in a way that I hadn’t done before. The name-calling came back eventually, of course, but for that day everyone seemed to be proud to be who they were and be the color of their own skin. Even me.

Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.

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