Tuesday, September 27, 2011

By Rachel A. Wakening

It started innocently, this little awakening.

Riley was playing with his new stamp set, a stamp set made by an ubiquitous maker of non-toxic, eco-friendly toys.  He had been decorating himself, his dad, and Aria, and wanted to give me a stamp as well.  He picked up the peg with the smiley face, dabbed it on the orange inkpad and pressed it on the back of my hand.


We suggested he try again.  Red.  He pressed harder this time.  Still nothing.  From a lifetime with my dark chocolate complexion, I knew we could stamp all day and I’d have not mark the first to show for it.

An explanation rolled off my tongue, “It’s not showing up on Mommy’s skin because Mommy’s skin is dark.”

Riley thought for a fraction of a second. “Mommy’s skin is dark. My skin is light.”

My heart sank.  Surely he had seen the difference before, but now he knew it.  He was AWARE.

“Oh boy,” J said.  Knowing a seed had been planted, we didn’t offer anything in response. We hoped he’d move on. He had merely seized on to what I had pointed out.  It was a simple observation.  My skin is dark.  He is light - light enough for the stamp to show up on him.  To him it was simple fact, nothing more.  

To us, it was like opening Pandora's box.  

In the car, on the way to a birthday party on the Northside of town, Riley repeated, “The stamp wouldn’t show up on you because you are dark.  I am light and Aria is light.”

“Yes,” I answered.  I wished this subject would go away, at least for a few years.  Didn't I deserve some time to prepare?  To buy some books? To do a cute lesson with some dolls or something?  I felt prepared to talk about sex in several, or many, years.  But this - now?

We went to the birthday party hosted by a friend of mine who is South Asian.  Many of her relatives were in attendance.  The rest of the guests were white.  I wondered what Riley was thinking about the skin colors of the guests.  He didn't mention anything.

On the way home, however, Riley returned to the concept that had made such an impression on him.  “Mommy’s skin is dark.  My skin is light, Aria’s skin is light and Daddy’s skin is light.”

He had made the connection - seen the continuum.  And while his almost three year old brain was finding order in the world by making comparisons, for me, after a lifetime of being the dark one, I felt stung.  I knew he wasn't saying anything to hurt me.  I knew he knew nothing of the racism, or even the colorism that exists among people who are not white.  He knew nothing of the history of race in America, where color is the foundation 
of a caste system that once decided free or slave (not to mention one's place in the slave hierarchy), and did and still does define life or death, and happiness or degradation.  Nothing of the color code, the code that some use to decide who you are, where you came from, whom you should love, what you are entitled to and where you belong. 

He'll learn about this later. 

Or maybe sooner than later.  Just two weeks ago Riley asked, “Who is 'by Rachel'?” And thanks to the stamp set made by our wonderfully environmentally conscious, yet unwittingly un-politically correct toymaker, I suppose he’s almost ready to be told.  He is a little sponge, soaking up everything and searching for meaning -- meanings whose history he'll someday understand. Meanings he’ll interpret and redefine for himself.    
I never realized his awakening would come so soon.  I know to him it’s like saying someone is wearing a red shirt or blue pants - just a way of describing people.  And as we are now pointing out the color of everything from cars to clothes to food, it is natural to do the same with skin tone. But it's a fact of life that many descriptors are loaded -- many are best left unsaid.  I remember when Riley called a woman we know fat. And she is fat, or overweight, to be more sensitive.  Even though he didn't say it to her directly, I felt concerned and embarrassed, as though he had insulted her right to her face. Adults and children alike get into sticky situations using adjectives, however accurate, whose connotation carries immense psychological and sociological heft.  When we are teaching our little ones to take in the world and to make observations, how do we tell them not to draw attention to what is?

It is a challenging parallel lesson.  

As I mentioned in my post Leaving Mulatto Heaven, our neighborhood is a model of diversity.  We have friends all over the skin color map.  Based on the members of our family, and with all the people we know and love, people whose homes we are in and out of and vice versa, I can’t imagine Riley seeing anything but beauty in the rainbow of hues of our friends.

And he’ll never look at a stamp the same way again.


  1. I think it is better to come from you and your hubby than for him to learn a version that differs from yours. I taught my kids about the difference in skin tones. I told them that God thought that just 1 color would be boring so He began to experiment with color mixtures until He found the right one for every person on earth. They see God as a great artist and people as His masterpieces!

  2. I think this post hits home with a lot of issues. But the color of a person's skin can be a loaded one. My son is thankfully in a class with kids from all different backgrounds. While he hasn't gotten too curious about the Why in it, he still searches for what to call someone who looks different then him. More than color, my son gets fascinated and preoccupied with someone who has a disability, and I struggle as a mother to help him make sense of things, while at the same time trying to tell him to mind his own business. My daughter hasn't even noticed differences yet.


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