What am I doing wrong? That’s the first thing I thought as I stared down at a drawing my five-year-old daughter had created of herself. Long blond hair, blue eyes and conspicuously colourless skin, staring back at me from the page.
“Who is this?” I said.
“Me,” she said proudly.
“Why didn’t you draw yourself brown,” I asked.
She smiled mischievously, hid her face and said, “I didn’t have the colours.”
I know this is not true. Her classroom is stocked full of crayons, markers and pencil crayons of all colours. I also know this is not the first time she’s drawn herself like this at school. The first time I saw the picture, I thought that having a conversation about it would be enough. I was wrong.
This time, the drawing came neatly packaged for me, folded into a “My first year in kindergarten” progression booklet, which was thoughtfully created as a keepsake by her teacher. Except it didn’t tell my daughter’s story—she’s Black, not colourless. The story it told me was not the one that was intended. What I saw clearly is that representation matters.
My daughter is surrounded by whiteness. This isn’t intentional. Her teacher, like so many others, like so many schools, tries. The classroom has books with brown children, they have toys with skin colours of all hues, the teacher bought decorations that line the halls showing smiling boys and girls of all shades of brown and white. But all this effort and thought means that representation is there on the surface, but not there at all where it matters most: the core.
For my daughter, growing up as Black child in a world designed from a colonialist, Eurocentric point of view means that from the time she wakes up in the morning to when she goes to bed at night, everything exists within that perspective.
Lack of representation creeps into even the most well-meaning teachers’ classroom, like the innocent box of peach-coloured Band-Aids carefully placed on the cubbies for all kids to use if they need them. It’s in the faces of the teachers, administrators and daycare and custodial staff who greet my daughter each day. These are the important people. The people who are shaping her formative years—and they are mostly white. It’s in the hot lunch foods that we choose from each month, all acceptable and palatable forms of ethnic food: Italian, Greek, but not Caribbean, Asian or South Asian. It’s in the un-coloured features of the characters on pages she is given to colour in. Use your imagination, she is told, but the default is white, the features and the hair are not hers.
This is the way it is. This is what happens when you live in a world that was not created with you in mind.
It does not matter that there are two biracial children in her class, or that there are kids of many other races at her school. That doesn’t matter, because the messages she is receiving, unintentionally, are that white is right and proximity to whiteness is better. So when she takes out her crayon to draw, she draws as she wishes she was, not as she is.
What happened in those 10 months of kindergarten is a microcosm of what happens in society. My daughter, like all other Black children, entered a world that bombards her with messages that place priority and value to whiteness, while at the same time professing that colour—their colour—is meaningless or invisible. Think about what must be going on inside her little head for her to want to strip herself of her colour and curls.
The response that is so often given by well-meaning adults is one steeped in the idea of colour-blindness, that colour doesn’t matter, that children draw themselves as pink, purple and polka-dotted, and that’s OK. The fact is that pink, purple and polka-dotted people do not exist. And any child using their imagination to draw themselves that way is not replicating what they think is a more acceptable way to look, as they do when they draw themselves as white with blue eyes.
This denial is in fact a form of white fragility, a term coined by Robin DiAngelo, author of the bestselling book White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. White fragility is the defensiveness that white people express when it comes to discussing issues of race. Saying things like “I don’t see colour,” “my husband is Black,” “my Black friend doesn’t have an issue with this,” “talking about race is divisive” are all forms of white fragility. They are said often with the intention of delegitimizing the experiences of racialized people.
The fact is, I really was not surprised by my daughter’s drawing. We went through something similar with our son. But his narrative of drawing himself as white was disrupted one afternoon by a Black teacher at a conference for Black families. After making a clay mould of himself using deep brown clay with Black plasticine spiralled and curled to represent his hair, he came running out and said, “I love being me.” After that experience, his drawings reflected his change in perspective. I don’t know what the teacher said to him in those hours. I only know that I gave her my child and a few hours later, in a classroom with a Black teacher and Black students, he came back to me confident. Even now, over two years later, he still has a keen awareness and strong sense of self.
That is the power of representation. It is why we drive 40 minutes one way every Saturday to a predominantly Black dance school where our daughter can see kids like herself. It is why we surround our children with positive Black images, Black dolls and reflective toys. It is why every morning we build them up before they even leave the house, encouraging them to recite affirmations designed to reinforce their strength and arming them against a world that will, if we let it, break them down.
“I am enough.”
“I love myself.”
“I love my hair.”
“I love my skin.”
We are still working with my daughter to help her celebrate and love her melanated skin. I try not to worry too much about it, because I know this is a rite of passage for Black children. I too thought I was white at five, until I was told differently by my perplexed mother. I know we will get there. I know my daughter will grow up to be a confident and proud Black woman. What I don’t know is the toll it will take on her to get there.
This article was originally published online in November 2018.
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