How do you react when your 6-year-old enthusiastically calls you “the world’s best white person”? What are the implications on how she sees herself? What conversation is her proclamation supposed to start?
Minette has just finished reading I Am Martin Luther King Jr., one of a series of smart children’s books on significant famous people authored by Brad Meltzer. She turns to me and remarks that white people did not want to end segregation because they were better off that way. I say that’s true, most whites did not want to change things, but not all of them. Some did see there was a problem. “The nice ones, like you! Maman, you’re the world’s best white person!” “La meilleure blanche du monde,” she says in French. This catches me by surprise and I am happy nobody’s there to smirk and observe my reaction. Minette is hugging me so it’s easy to hug her back and laugh it off.
In her graphic memoir Good Talk, Mira Jacob, a dark-skinned Indian American relates some of the many conversations about skin color initiated by her young son, whose father is white. As much as she wants to engage with him and answer his questions honestly she often finds herself puzzled and confused. Like when he grills her on Michael Jackson’s skin becoming lighter and lighter, which leads him to ask if his own father had once dark skin.
She also remembers conversations on skin color she had or heard growing up. Her skin tone was distinctly darker than that of her parents and brother and that was pointed to as a matter of concern by relatives back in India. She was quick to learn first hand that colorism (as in the lighter, the better) is a bias shared by many people of color. Appa confirms this remains largely true in today’s India, where skin color is a blunt proxy for caste.
Minette is not as relentlessly inquisitive about skin color as Mira Jacob’s son but there is no denying the subject is on our minds in various ways. Lately Appa and I were struck by a self-portrait she worked on at school. She colored each half of her face in a distinctly different shade: one light, one dark. She says that’s because the mirror reflection she was checking showed her left side in a shadow. Still, I can’t help looking at the portrait and seeing another, deeper meaning. Is this how she sees herself? How she might come to see herself?
The mere fact that she calls me white suggests she does not see herself as white. Even though it makes sense it somehow comes as a surprise to me. I can see how this illustrates a typical assumption: as a white person I am not personally concerned by race and so my child is not either. Meanwhile, I am in the midst of reading a book that pinpoints exactly this white bias (“I am not personally concerned by race.”), among many others. White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, is about how all white people in Western societies (including white liberals) are connected to and instrumental in systemic racism and about our conscious and unconscious ways of denying this. It’s an understatement to say this is necessary, and uncomfortable, reading. I think what makes it a very particular experience is the sustained scrutiny every white reader is faced with throughout the book.
There is no closing the skin color chapter for Minette, Appa or me, just exploring it, talking about it when the subject arises, and participating in meaningful changes to the best of our abilities. It’s an essential thread both in the society we live in and in our own family, so I look at such alignment with a sense of purpose.