From their earliest ages my kids, when describing exactly what distinguishes classmates or neighbors of other races, have referred to them as “darker-skinned” or “lighter-skinned.”
As in “No, not that Joey, the Joey with the darker skin,” or “Who’s Andrea? Well, she’s that girl who danced with me last year. The one with the dark skin who stood next to me during the bon-bon dance in ‘The Nutcracker.’”
Sometimes skin color isn’t the most identifiable trait and isn’t referred to. For example, there is a family from Somalia in my neighborhood. They – children included – all have pronounced accents. One of the girls is every bit as dark as that Andrea from ballet, but when Anna described her to me once she referred to the accent and said she thinks the girl is from Africa, not that she had dark skin. Just referring to dark skin wouldn’t have sufficed in that there is more than one black family with kids in the neighborhood.
My takeaway from all of this is that while my kids are aware of manifest racial differences – to ignore them would be to ignore plain observable facts – they don’t yet equate racial differences with capital-I identity in a formal sense. They’re not yet classifying people into groups. They’re merely noting a part of a person as a means of identifying them when such identification is necessary. Appearance usually is the first thing they’ll go to – and it’s way easier to identify a person unknown to me with that than it is to talk about the car their mom drives or that he doesn’t like peanut butter – but maybe it’s accent or something else. If Andrea had fallen down during the bon-bon dance and caused three other dancers to drop their props, I’m certain Anna would have described her that way and never would have mentioned her skin color.
But they do mention skin color, and this can make it a bit awkward in public at times. That’s because a lot of people think the goal is the creation of some sort of colorblind society where race isn’t even discussed. Or else they’ve been conditioned to think that should be the goal and have become so prickly and sensitive to the very idea of racial differences being discussed that, when they hear anyone talking about skin color, they assume that there is Something Very Bad being said. You largely get a pass with little kids, of course, but there is always that part of you that wonders “gee, does that person think that I’m teaching my kids to be little racists?” Because you too have been exposed to that “we should strive to be colorblind” talk.
But that colorblind society talk seems so naive and unrealistic to me. And I don’t think it’s even all that desirable a goal in the first place.
The classic “we should strive to be colorblind” essay – essays that start an awful lot like this one did, with observations of how the author’s kids view race – usually ends with the inevitably white author saying something about how great it would be if the whole world could see people with the innocent eyes of their children and how maybe we should try to. I get the impulse, but it’s pretty frickin’ naive to assume that’s ever going to be possible, what with the weight of history and the plain fact that our society is not equal and is rarely decent.
We all have been exposed to our culture’s hangups and habits with respect to race and we all know how race has for so long been used as so much more than a means of objective superficial description. How it turns into – at the very least – a means of cultural identification and the basis of any number of assumptions about a person, unfounded or otherwise. How, regrettably, it has so often been used as a means of classification, dehumanization and subjugation. There is so much more baggage to race than my kids know. It’s not just a thing that helps them distinguish between the two Joeys in class.
The very evidence of that is apparent from the subjects my would-be colorblind daughter is learning in school. Anna is learning about the Civil War and Native American Indian tribes in class. She’s pretty savvy and will figure out pretty soon that so much of human history is based on some people assuming their own superiority to others and doing very bad things as a result of it. I’m glad she’s learning that stuff because it’s impossible to understand how our world is organized at the moment without knowing it. And, even if you disagree with that, it’s inescapable that no matter how innocent you are as a kid and no matter how hard your parents work to teach you about equality and decency, mere observation of society will show that not everyone thinks that way, even today.
No, my kids, no matter how great they turn out to be, will be just as caught up, passively or otherwise, in racial baloney as any of the rest of us. Given that the goal of a colorblind society would necessarily require us to pretend none of that exists or has ever existed, it is an impossibility to create it on the terms as usually described.
The hope, however, is that my kids can learn about how the world always was and often still is and manage to maintain the general stance they have now: race is a thing. It often has a lot to do with skin color and language and stuff we as adults try to pretend, in our efforts to show we’re not racists, don’t exist. It’s a part of someone’s identity – often a valuable and beautiful part that the colorblind-striving folks would have us not observe out of politeness – but it doesn’t necessarily define them. There were bad people who tried to do bad things to others out of racial animus. There still are, actually, even if many of them are less overt about it than they used to be. We should watch out for them.
I don’t think that’s nearly as unrealistic as trying to sweep away thousands of years of racial history and to ignore racial differences in a vain (and likely dishonest) effort to appear enlightened. We’re not in a colorblind world now and never will be, no matter how hard we say we’re striving for that.
After all, Joey has dark skin, remember? And acknowledging that doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything. And it could actually come in pretty handy if you’ve told Joey’s mother that you’ll pick him up after school