43: The Colors of Us

43: The Colors of Us

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Colors of Us

Everyone is kneaded out of the same dough but not baked in the same oven.

~Yiddish Proverb

Nevaeh angrily proclaimed, “I’m not black! I’m white!” She was one of the many beautiful mixed-race children in my preschool class. It was October, and I was only a couple of months in as a first-year teacher. Fresh out of college, I was both excited and terrified by what this year had in store for me. We had already established our daily routine, and I was picking up on what made each of my students tick. This proclamation, however, was a curveball. It needed to be addressed, but how?

“I’m white, and Maya’s black!” she said again, referring to her lighter-skinned younger sister.

“Better than being orange like Dylan!” chimed in another boy.

Something needed to be done.

Fortunately, one of my last college classes was children’s literature, and I had read a wonderful book entitled The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. In it, a little girl wants to paint a picture of herself with brown paint, but it’s not quite right. As she walks through her neighborhood, she sees her friends and family and realizes that each is brown, but a different shade of brown, like honey, cinnamon, dark chocolate, or the sandy beach.

I had the book and pitched an idea to my director. Race and skin tone had become a negative topic in the classroom. I wanted to read the book with the class and see how they identified with each of the delicious (positive) descriptions. Then I wanted the children to mix paint to create their own skin tones. We would use the paint to stamp their handprints on a large banner with the words, “The Colors of Us.” The purpose was to tear down the black/white fence and help them to see that we are all different shades of brown, created from the same base. It’s not one or the other, but a spectrum. She agreed, but we needed to let the parents know what was happening. We included it in our weekly newsletter and invited parents with any reservations or concerns to address them with us. The letters were sent home, and my co-teacher and I began preparing, both the materials and ourselves.

The following Monday was the big day. We began with our “Good Morning” song and Circle Time activities. At last, it was time.

“Okay, class. We have a very special book to read today. Someone wrote a book about us!” I said. “It’s about a group of friends, just like all of you, and they had to paint themselves. What colors do you think they used?” Most of the answers were the expected black, white, and brown, but a few were different.

“Umm, I don’t really know what color I would use ‘cuz I’m kinda both.” And another, “Yeah, I don’t think they make this color.” It was the perfect segue. “That’s a very interesting observation, Michael, because the friends in this story had that challenge, too. Let’s see how they solved it.”

So, we read. The pages were filled with colorful pictures of the little girl describing her friends and family using tasty descriptions like “cinnamon sticks” and “hazelnut.” With each description came a comment from the kids. “Hey, that’s like me! I’m like cocoa!” Or, “That’s like my momma. She’s like peanut butter and Daddy’s like milk chocolate!” It was beautiful. The children were excited to identify with the characters and to have a positive association with all the different shades. Now came the tricky part. “How would you guys like to make handprints with your own skin color?”

There were lots of excited “Yeahs!”

We set black, white, and brown paints on the tables. When I asked Nevaeh what color she needed, she looked at the white paint and then down at her arm. “I’m not white, am I, Miss Deborah?”

I held my very Caucasian arm next to the white paint. “Hmm… I must not be white either.”

She giggled and said, “Of course, you are! You even have white hair. Well, kinda yellow. But that paint is not your color.”

Then I brought out some of the various flesh-toned paints, and none of them were a perfect match either. I asked, “What do you think we can do to make your color?” We had mixed colors before. Blue and yellow. Red and blue. The week before, we had used white and black to make colors like pink, lavender, and maroon. The stage had been set, and Nevaeh performed right on cue.

“This color,” she said, “is kinda close, but not dark enough.”

“What can you do to make it darker?” She dipped her brush into the black paint, swirling it with the tan paint to create a beautiful mocha. Smiling, she swiped some on the back of her hand and held it high in the air.

“I did it!” Nevaeh proclaimed, “I found me!” And indeed she had.

~Deborah Elaine

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