About Skin Color

When Minette was a toddler learning the words for colors and body parts I once asked her:

– What color are Appa‘s ears?

– Brown.

– What color are your ears?

– Brown.

– What color are my ears?

– Orange.

It made us laugh and it also struck us that she would make such a clear distinction between her father and her on the one hand and me on the other hand. In reality her skin tone is somewhere halfway.

Skin color is a topic Minette broaches from time to time. When she puts her arm next to mine or Appa’s and comments on the contrast. When she remarks that she and her friend whose father is black and mother is white have a similar skin color. She has also asked after learning about the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement (thank you, MLK Day!) whether she would have been segregated as African Americans were.

We always acknowledge the differences she observes and try to answer her questions factually. Children are not color-blind, as any person living or working with them will confirm. Earlier this year I attended a parent discussion about this matter precisely at Minette’s school. Teachers encouraged us to be open to conversations about skin color and to resist a common tendency to downplay our children’s observations on the subject.

As much as the group of people attending the meeting was essentially like-minded, I couldn’t help thinking our perspectives were necessarily different depending on where our respective families stood on the color spectrum — white, non-white, or multiracial?

In the case of non-white and multiracial families, race is not just one of the many aspects of US society we need to educate our children about for them to become aware and responsible citizens. It is at the core of who we are as a family.

Interestingly, “multiracial” is not a term that immediately comes to my mind to describe my family even though it is objectively that. When I think about our family’s diversity – and I do quite a lot, as you may have guessed by now – I think mostly of languages, cultures, food, mores, and places we relate to. Race is not nearly as important in my (conscious) mind.

But then again I might want to think twice about it because I do pay attention to racial differences in other couples and families. Why is it that something that seems to matter when I look at other people is somehow not in the foreground when I look at my own family? One of the reasons might be very plain: I don’t see myself so I am not constantly reminded of the visual contrast between our skin tones. But there is more to it than that, of course.

Race is a topic I will not exhaust in a single post, even focusing on my mere perspective. One of the things I want to talk about too is how very differently the French and the Americans perceive and discuss it. That will be the subject of another post…

2 Replies to “About Skin Color

  1. One of my clear memories of first grade is a boy named Rodney Steele. I envied him for his dark skin and particularly noticed that his palms were of a lighter hue than the top of his hands whereas mine lacked that contrast. When our teacher Mrs. Langdeau complimented Rodney on his writing, I beamed too. This evidence of being aware of and curious about skin color belongs to the earliest memories of my childhood.

  2. Uma asked these questions all the time in toddler years.
    She used to say that she and her dad are a tan color and that I’m a peach 🍑 color even though we are from the same country!

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