Monday, November 17, 2014

Let's Talk About Skin Color!

It may always be a concern among some parents in Portland: “How can we provide our children with a more racially diverse environment so that they won’t get biased?”  It doesn’t seem so easy for us adults to find that environment either.  Your work, a supermarket you regularly go to, your yoga class, a dinner party that you may often be the case that you are surrounded by a particular racial (or ethnic) group (in my case, it’s either white or Japanese).

You can keep on asking: What is wrong with Portland?  Why is it so white?  But there is no point in waiting until Portland becomes a more racially diverse or less segregated city to talk about skin color with your children.

More than 10 years ago, I was working as an assistant teacher at a nursery school in Boston.  It was a diverse place in different ways such as race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. One time, a brown-skinned girl said to a white-skinned girl (they were both 4) “My mom said brown people are better than white people” and the white girl said “No, white people are better.”  I remember feeling both excited and nervous as that type of argument occurred.  But one teacher (white) immediately reacted to the girls with a somewhat strong tone in her voice saying “Stop!  You cannot say that!”  That was probably a moment when the children learned: skin color is a taboo subject.

You might not see those kinds of old-fashioned reactions to the topic as often anymore (at least around here).  This teacher who said “Stop!” probably had a strong sense of justice for racial equality and did not know any better way than avoiding talking about it.  But yes.  There is a better way.

How and where should we start then?

I met a wonderful scientist named Katie Kissinger (Portland local) at the Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice last year.  She presented her workshop “Teaching Skin Color” at the conference and I was inspired with her great ideas about how to approach this potentially sensitive topic with our children.

One thing you can always keep in mind is:  skin color is science.  It’s biology.  It’s OK to talk about it!

At this workshop, Katie had lots of paint color sample strips that she uses with her students.  They are all slightly different shades of brown from light to dark that can be people’s skin color.  But there are also strips of  “black” and “white” included in the pile.  This way, children eventually realize the myth of skin color definitions, Black and White.

I was very excited about this activity and made a trip to a neighborhood paint shop the following day.  I told store staff why I wanted to take some of the paint sample strips and he was very happy to help and let me take as many as I wanted.

Each of the color strips came with their own unique name, such as “milk and honey,” “red river clay,” “moonlight,” etc.  When I tried my first skin color group with Tumbleweed kids, learning those colors was a big hit.

As Katie also pointed out at her workshop, the kids were often choosing completely different color for their skin from what it actually is.  For example, LC with very light skin picked up “autumn bronze” (one of the darkest colors in the pile) saying “this is my skin.”  Does it mean kids are generally color-blind, as is sometimes said?  No.  If so, they wouldn’t notice the “purple spots” on my face or my “yellow tooth” that I myself don’t even see.  The important part is that there is no “right” color for their skin and we can acknowledge how each kid perceives their own skin color each time (because it changes frequently).

Another big hit in the group was talking about melanin.  Katie’s book All the Colors We Are explains skin color based on melanin, ancestors, and the sun.  By talking about these essential factors that determine our skin color, the children started noticing more subtle difference in tones of their own and others’ skin.  “I have more melanin than her because my skin is darker.”  “My ancestor came from a not-so-sunny place because I have light color.”


So, that’s a good start.  But of course, skin color is not just science.  Over generations, skin color has been used to divide people into racial groups and each group has been conveniently labeled by certain groups of people with power.  That norm is so powerful that the challenge to change it is certainly not easy.

At that workshop, one preschool teacher in attendance shared her anxious feeling, saying “I just don’t want to be the first one who introduces this topic to my kids.  They are not biased yet.”  I can relate to that feeling.  Why would you give them the idea of racism if they don’t even know it yet?

There is a story that T’s parents JS & JU shared once about T’s older brother G (Tumbleweed graduate), who now goes to a kindergarten.  G, who is white, was telling his parents about his new friends: one is African American (A) and the other is caucasian (B): “I could remember A’s name right away because his hair is curly just like mine but I couldn’t remember B’s name because his hair is straight.”

This is not usually the way we adults identify other racial group people, no matter how much we wish we could do so.  Again, this doesn’t mean G is color-blind.  He was more interested in his friend’s curly hair and identified him as a curly-hair buddy and the difference in skin color wasn’t an important factor to recognize this new friend.

If you don’t want to be the first one who introduces the skin color topic to your children like G, it is totally understandable.  But here is a question:  do you want anybody (or anything) else to be the first one who does that job for you?  It can be an advertisement on a magazine at a dentist office or it can be news about a white cop beating a young black man.  It can be a package of candy at a pharmacy or it can be a Latino family next door who had to leave their house.  Subtle or not, they will learn something from whatever they hear/see.

Luckily, there are great books on this topic that you can read with your children.

All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger
All Colors of Us by Karen Katz
All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka

Those three are perfect for preschool age.  Tumbleweed kids love them!

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
Sister Anne’s Hands by Marybeth Lorbiecki
This Is the Dream by Jessica Alexander

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