Books | Winter 2012
By Elissa Cook
Vivian Gussin Paley
Harvard University Press (2000), 160 pages
“You’re like milk and I’m like chocolate,” Mariam* says, glancing at me. We’re en route to a fieldtrip and we’ve both been silently staring out the window for a couple minutes, so this comment takes me a bit by surprise. But I don’t have to think long about the logic behind her words; Mariam is Somali and I am white.
Two years ago, I would have felt incredibly uncomfortable with this conversation, but my time at SPU — most notably, my work with Perkins Center Teaching Fellow Max Hunter — taught me a lot about how to respond when race comes up. So I just laugh and reply, “You’re right! And milk and chocolate go really well together, right?”
Talking About Race
This incident is neither the first time nor the last that I will blink at how candidly my students can talk about color. Since October, I’ve kept a list of times that race comes up at school. This idea was partly inspired by Vivian Gussin Paley’s White Teacher, which I reread in an attempt to gain perspective on my own position as a white tutor in a school where the vast majority of students are children of color. In the book, Paley, then a kindergarten teacher, discusses the anxiety she felt around her black students and the way they interacted with the rest of the (white) class.
When her school began to integrate, Paley didn’t know how to handle the children’s comments about race, especially when they were non-malicious statements of fact. She writes about a time when Paul, a white boy, told Alma, a black girl, that she looked “just like chocolate pudding.” While most of the children paid no attention to the conversation, Paley had no idea how to react to this statement:
“I became rigid and pretended not to hear. Alma was looking at Paul with interest. She did not seem to feel insulted. Is it an insult or not? I couldn’t decide. Do I react? To what? She does look the color of chocolate pudding. But he shouldn’t say that! You never say anything like that to black people. … What am I supposed to say? Say nothing. Alma’s already uncomfortable with me. If I say anything to draw attention to her blackness she’ll never talk to me.”
So many Americans today struggle with this same paralyzing uncertainty. Yet my students talk about race frequently and candidly. As children, they have not yet learned that this is a largely taboo topic in the United States. And again, as children, they are constantly noticing new things about the world and pointing them out with the innocent frankness that frequently makes adults cringe.
Seeing in Color
During a tutoring session in which the children learned the word alike, a kindergartener with pale skin pointed out (with no prompting) that she and I look alike, and so do the three dark-skinned kids in the group. Another time, one of my African-American boys related how “this white kid pushed me.” Upon seeing a picture of a light-skinned African-American girl in a book, another black girl commented, “Yep, she’s mixed.”
To say that kids don’t see color is clearly foolish. They can and do form friendships with children of other colors, but they still understand that they look different from each other. And when they’re not allowed to discuss this difference that is so blatantly obvious to their eyes, it becomes a source of discomfort, fear, and shame.
One of Paley’s most important points in White Teacher is that, for kids to be comfortable talking about race, they have to be in an environment where adults are comfortable talking about race. Paley relates an incident when a white teacher tells a black parent that all the students look alike to her. The parent responds,
“‘What rot. … My children are black. They don’t look like your children. They know they’re black, and we want it recognized. It’s a positive difference, an interesting difference, and a comfortable natural difference. At least it could be so, if you teachers learned to value difference more. What you value, you talk about.’”
Unfortunately, an atmosphere of valuing — or even talking about — difference is noticeably missing in much of our country. While I waited for the buses with the kindergarten class one day, Damien’s father came to pick him up. Damien is light skinned, but clearly part African-American; his dad has dark brown skin. As he walked away holding Damien’s hand, Suleiman, a precocious Somali boy, shouted out, “That’s Damien’s dad? Why is he brown?” His teacher laughed uncomfortably and quickly shushed him. What could have been a great opportunity to talk about mixed-race marriages was turned into just one more incident teaching children that’s it’s not OK to talk about race.
And why, really, is it important for all of us — children and adults — to talk about race? I think part of the answer to this question lies in an experience I had with one of my African-American third graders. We had just finished reading a story about a cat with green eyes. As we were leaving the library, Anaiyah said thoughtfully, “My eyes are brown. I wish they were blue.”
Immediately my mind jumped to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a novel about a young black girl’s desperate yearning for blue eyes — and the devastation that ensues in the course of her quest. While the book was written in 1972, Anaiyah’s story shows that it’s just as relevant today. Pecola, the main character in the book, is called ugly all her life, and is convinced that if she had blue eyes, she would be beautiful. When I asked Anayiah why she wanted blue eyes, she replied, “Because they’re pretty. And it’s my favorite color.”
Clearly, the current “let’s pretend to ignore color” mentality hasn’t helped Anaiyah recognize her own beauty. What might have happened if she’d been able to talk about race from the beginning, learn about skin color, see the deep beauty of every shade of skin? Might she not come to appreciate her own brown eyes?
I certainly don’t believe that I have everything figured out. But more and more, I keep thinking: My kids are not colorblind. They need to talk about race, both to love themselves and to love each other. It is up to us — the adults in their lives — to give them the safety and the trust that they need to do this.
*The names of the children in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
Elissa Cook graduated in 2011 from Seattle Pacific University with a major in Spanish and a minor in English literature, after which she returned to her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. She is now a kindergarten literacy tutor with Minnesota Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program.
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