Moving Past Color-Blindness

June 25, 2020 § 2 Comments

I have been drafting this post in my head for two weeks, terrified to put pen to paper for the dozens of ways I will certainly mis-step. Raising children dedicated to equity and justice has always been important to me—if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll recognize it as a frequent theme here—but only lately have I pushed myself to consider the ways my own privilege, upbringing, and anxiety have stood in the way of that. It is clear that I cannot raise my children to be antiracist if I am not prepared to do the work myself.

When my daughter was three, I brought her to the pediatrician’s office for a rash. As we sat in the waiting room, watching and remarking on the colorful fish swimming in the aquarium, my daughter suddenly turned to me. “Mommy, is the nurse going to be black-skinned?”

Embarrassment rose in my cheeks. “Oh honey, I’m sure any nurse here is a good nurse. Let’s not—”

Her interrupting voice rose about ten decimals. “Because I am not taking off my clothes for anyone with black skin!”

Just typing this, my hands are shaking. I am back, seven years ago, in that waiting room, aware of all eyes upon us. Aware of the brown-skinned couple with their newborn baby sitting directly across from us. This can’t be happening, I thought. This can’t be my child. She goes to a preschool with a multicultural curriculum. We read books with racially diverse characters. She plays with children who look different than her. Shock, outrage, and humiliation flooded every inch of my being.

Caught off guard and determined to rid myself of my own shame, I fell into a trap familiar to many white parents. For starters, I came down hard on her. I took my shame and put it squarely onto her. I was going to stop this talk immediately. I was going to prove to everyone listening that this was unacceptable behavior in our family. I was going to make it…all about me.

“Stop it!” I said firmly. “We do not say things like that.” Then, I started rambling about how we shouldn’t judge people by how they look, how underneath skin color we’re all the same, how we’re all one big human family, and so on. You know: the speech. The color-blind speech. The one where white parents tell their children to look past skin tone to the person underneath. The one where we imply that because skin color is something we’re born with, something “accidental,” we shouldn’t draw attention to it. The one where we try and push on our children a version of the world we’d like to inhabit, as opposed to the one we actually do.

My three year old was observing—albeit not kindly or subtly—that not everyone looked the way she did. And she wasn’t sure if that was OK. She was scared. She was uncomfortable. Because we weren’t talking about skin tone or race with her at home, because our conversations (however well-intentioned) steered mainly towards platitudes of kindness and acceptance, she had begun to internalize the racial assumptions around her. She had used the descriptor “black-skinned,” I later realized, whereas if she had simply been observing skin tone, she would have said brown skin or dark skin. The word she chose was a reference to race. A loaded word. Something she had heard. Something she didn’t understand. Something she was beginning to associate with something less than.

We don’t want our children to use race to make judgments about people, so we’d rather them dismiss race completely. Except, in a society where race is embedded into nearly every policy and practice, it is impossible not to see race. So instead, what we are really communicating to our young children is, I know you notice these differences, but I don’t want you to admit it. (Including to yourself). Good white liberal children don’t talk about their black and brown friends as being different from them. Even more problematic, good white liberal children love their black and brown friends in spite of these differences.

Of the several excellent antiracist themed books I have read over the past weeks, one with direct implications to white parenting is Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America. Her chapter, “From Color-Blindness to Race-Conscious Parenting,” encourages parents to notice and name race early and often, to empower white children with the language-based tools to call out racial differences and racist assumptions.

“Race matters everywhere one turns in our society. Thus, color-blindness can only mislead and present children with a false view of reality. Even if it is used as an aspirational message, color-blind teachings backfire badly. They convey to children that something is wrong with people of color, ask them to ignore their own observations, and fail to support them in developing language for their own experiences, thus actively impeding a crucial area of their moral and social development […] If we want children who value everyone, and who deeply and authentically understand we’re all part of a shared humanity, if we want them to actually live in ways that help to realize equity, the only route is to consciously and explicitly teach them about difference!”

Despite what I hope have been many enlightening conversations about race with my kids in the years since that pediatrician visit, I continue to obsess over what I wish I had said to my daughter that day. How I wish I had put my arm around her and said, “Oh wow! You are noticing that not everyone has the same skin tone as you and I do. I bet you have a lot of questions about that. I’d like to help you understand and name some of those differences.” How I wish I had paved the way from an earlier age to explain that skin tone—and the construct of race—is a very big deal in our society, so she was right to notice it. That people for hundreds of years have been ascribing different traits to different skin tones, and because of this, we might look at someone and assume they’re a certain way, even before they open their mouth. But when we feel comfortable talking about these assumptions, we can also begin to prove them wrong. To dismantle them. To stand up to them.

I wish I had told her that race can be a beautiful thing. That it connects to family, culture, and community; that it conjures up history and meaning, joy and pride. Biases are destructive. Differences are exciting.

I wish I had read her a picture book like Black is a Rainbow Color (Ages 3-8), an emotionally stirring new anthem to Black identity written by Angela Joy and illustrated by Ekua Holmes. I wish I had allowed the language in this book to help re-frame my daughter’s idea of Blackness. Of the color black itself. Though created with Black children in mind, Black is a Rainbow Color is a valuable window for any child into Black heritage: its richness and complexity, its joy and pride, its strength and resilience. In as much as its poetic language is layered in meaning, with phrases invoking pivotal moments or people in Black history and culture (the extensive back matter draws out these connections in greater detail), the book is an excellent primer for parents as well. In fact, in the book’s dedication, Angela Joy has inscribed: “For children who ask difficult questions, and adults who brave the unknown for answers.”

A young Black girl sits on her front stoop contemplating how black isn’t a “rainbow color.”

Red is a rainbow color.
Green sits next to blue.
Yellow, orange, violet, indigo,
they are rainbow colors, too, but
my color is black…
and there’s no BLACK in rainbows.

And yet, the color black is all around her. The girl recalls pleasant things in her everyday life that are black, from the “dirt where sunflowers grow” to the “bottoms of summertime feet.” The illustrations bolster the meaning of certain phrases, like the “soft circles that spin-nnn down the street.”

Soon, the girl realizes that Black is as much a color as a culture; the two are intricately connected. Expanding her definition of Blackness, she moves beyond the concrete things around her to encompass a vault of shared experiences and memories. “Black is a rhythm./ Black is the blues./ Black is side-walking/ in spit-shined shoes.” Above we see a visual parade of black-clad feet on a montage of newspaper clippings. The back matter explains that the “spit-shined shoes” are an ode to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, when in the wake of Rosa Parks’ arrest, the Black community protested segregated public transportation by shining up their shoes and walking all the way to work, school, and church.

On another page, the black of Thurgood Marshall’s robes is recalled alongside the black of railroad tracks—a common symbol of Black freedom. Black-eyed peas and the shadows of Southern magnolias are invoked with equal reverence.

The theme of Black strength and resilience amidst pain and suffering runs throughout the book. “Black is molasses from tall sugarcane” refers, of course, to slavery, while “Black is the mask that shelters his rage” refers to the silent suffering depicted by Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem, “We Wear the Mask,” printed in full at the book’s end. In another poetry reference, this to one by Langston Hughes about deferred freedom, the girl tells us, “Black is the skillet for bread to fry./ Black are dreams and raisins…/ left out in the sun to dry.”

“My color is black” begins to build in momentum, as the girl launches into examples of uprising. One spread depicts stained glass windows of the four women founders of the modern Civil Rights Movement, while another references MLK Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. Still another showcases a “Black Lives Matter” rally. “Black is the heart of a candle and flame./ Black is the power of movement in pain.”

As the girl increasingly identifies with the color she describes, she expands her definition to encompass family and community. “Black is the love that lives inside me,” she tells us, as she looks at a photo album with her mother and brother. Towards the end of the book, she likens being Black to the branches on a tree, seeing herself among the names of many, “weaving, wrapping, lifting,/ laughing, hoping, grasping, quiet,/ strong./ Our color is Black.” For the first time in her usage, the word is capitalized. It has become much more than a color.

There may not be any black in a rainbow, but Black is a rainbow in and of itself.

Celebrating differences, even specifically celebrating Blackness, will not alone move our white children towards the work of antiracism, not unless we supplement these discussions with ones about how our own position at the top of the racial hierarchy continues to translate these differences into inequities. But it is an important step towards moving our children away from color-blindness. Even the index at the book’s end, which defines and traces the various “Black Ethnonyms” across history, grounds us in language critical to the conversation of race. The conversations we don’t run away from become the conversations where real change begins.

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§ 2 Responses to Moving Past Color-Blindness

  • I understand your hesitation about creating this post. I’ve felt the same and haven’t found the courage to begin. However, as always you have expressed some important thoughts in a thoughtful and creative post. In fact, the response you wish you’ve said to your daughter is exactly what I would want to say to a little one, however I’m certain I would have said something very similar to your words many years ago. I’m sharing your words with my niece to inspire her as she responds to her toddler’s thoughts about his observations. Thank you, Melissa!

    • thebookmommy says:

      Thank you so much, Susan. That means a lot. I went back and forth about whether to write this piece, then whether to publish it. I hope it will resonate with people, that it will help some recognize parts of themselves in it or, like you say, even inspire people to take on some of these difficult conversations with their own family members. In any case, I know I have a lot of work ahead of me but, as I make my way, I’m grateful to have supportive communities like this one. I offer you courage to put yourself out there–I know you will find the way that’s right for you. There’s no hurry. This has to be a marathon, not a sprint.

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