“Why you and Ms. Shannon both light-skinned?” asked Alicia (not her real name) last Wednesday. Shannon is one of my employees. I’m white and she’s black. Not only that, I’m about as white as white can be– Irish descent, fair skin that sunburns in minutes, bright blue eyes, dirty blond hair (currently dyed brunette). Shannon has light/medium brown skin and dark brown African American hair. I think some would say she’s light-skinned and others wouldn’t. But, there’s really no need to examine our skin shades further; the point is that while Shannon and I may have any number of things in common, skin color is just not one of them.
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As soon as Alicia said this, Shannon and I immediately turned to each other, barely managing to suppress the signs of our astonishment. After a second of reveling in the hilarity, I said casually “It’s just about what your parents look like” and that was that.
Later in the day Shannon texted me. She was outside with the kids enjoying the sun of the first truly hot day of the year. She informed me that the girls had started a discussion of sunburn and that another girl, whom I’ll call Tiana, said to the others “Look yall! We gonna get sunburn ’cause we white!” to which Tiana’s friend replied, “We ain’t white!” to which Tiana acquiesced and said “But we like the whitest brown.” Some relevant background information to this exchange is that Tiana is definitely not light-skinned and the girl who protested the statement that they were white is very light-skinned. I feel a bit weird describing my students in terms of their precise skin color, but perhaps I need to take a clue from them and be more comfortable with seemingly non-prejudiced use of colorist discourse.
While the sunburn conversation was far more explicitly aware of race than Alicia’s question, it still shows an interesting attitude towards skin color and a willingness to see similarity instead of difference. I’m positive that all of my students are aware of definitions of race and of its vaguer implications, but it is the kindergarten girls who talk about it. And they talk about it a lot. Their spoken thoughts related (from an adult perspective) to race issues are refreshing, interesting and almost always good comedic fodder. I don’t find their conversations and statements to be noteworthy in a “kids say the darndest things” kind of way (although such utterances and exclamations are not in short supply). It’s not any childish naivete or innocence that intrigues me. Instead, I think these Kindergarten dialogues on race show a new and surprisingly consistent attitude towards skin color.
I don’t think I’ve heard any of the boys discuss race or skin color. It’s always the kindergarten girls who talk about it. The subject arises very casually and is frequently embedded in a discussion of looks, fashion and make up. When the girls talk about make up, they immediately transition into the conversational cadence and social skill of full-grown women even if their taste level is still decidedly 5 years old. So when Michaela (fake name #3) asked me a while back why I have blue eyes, I didn’t really sense that her aim was to passively examine my racial identity (although that may have played a role). Because my eye color was questioned alongside complements for my hair and sunglasses, and suggestions that I get “the stick on nails at the place where my mom goes”, the question was part of a collaborative aesthetic judging session as opposed to a collaborative racial probing.
I haven’t given as much thought to colorism as I have to racism largely because I’ve always thought of color-focused discourse as both an integral part of the most basic racism and another channel through which people particularize their racism. Until recently, I’d never considered the possibility of a racially neutral skin color discourse. In general, I’m of the opinion that a great percentage of all social and aesthetic discourses are structured by race to some degree. Further, I usually argue that– to speak broadly– racial structures are a problem. Because of this, it’s hard for me to maintain my hope that the color-focused discourse I hear from my kids might signal a new way of dealing with what we’ve always called race. Perhaps this is an excessively Utopian thought, but I think the casual attitude these kids display when talking about skin color in mixed race settings provides hope. Inevitably they will all come to greater consciousness of the politically fraught nature of racial discourse. Is it possible though, that twenty years down the line when Alicia makes more relevant visual observations, that she might talk of me and Shannon as ‘fair-skinned’ and ‘brown-skinned’ instead of white and black? Could focusing on skin color for what it is–a surface attribute with many variations– and not as an immediate indicator of dialectical difference change the meaning and relevance of race within our society?