When I was little, I didn’t know much about racism.
This, in itself, was a privilege. In my white neighborhood amongst my white family friends and our white government, no one really seemed to converse about it often.
If you had asked me a few years ago, though, I would’ve said that from day one, I have lived an anti-racist existence. Even when I was a child who knew nothing about the racial disparities that have plagued our country since its birth. Even when I had to wait until high school to get a comprehensive definition of structural racism. Even when most of the books I read were by white authors. Even when.
But that was before.
It was before I realized how racism is etched into all of our daily lives, and for us white people, we are born into a system where we are the oppressors. We are the race that has been privileged for so long that we forget that racism is in our roots (and some of us refuse to ever learn it). I wasn’t born into antiracism; no one is inherently antiracist. Even the most innocent of us, even the most “cultured” of us. Even the well-travelled ones, the ones who appreciate diversity, even the ones who claim to treat everyone the same. But no one is immune.
And here is the “after”: The precise moment that I realized, soberingly, how connected I have always been to racism.
Last week, I saw a news article about a young girl named Bellen Woodard in Loudoun County, Virginia, who started a campaign called “More Than Peach” that was designed to incorporate diversity into crayon colors. Woodard noticed in her classroom that the peach-colored crayon was often called the “skin color” by her white classmates, and that there were rarely crayon colors available that fit her own skin tone or those of the other BIPOC children in class. She found herself disturbed by this, and created a project to distribute crayons of all skin colors to many schools in her area. It made the news, and it became a much bigger project than she originally anticipated. She’ll make history. I’m happy for her. I think it’s wonderful what she’s doing.
But after reading that article, I spent the rest of the day deep in thought. Something inside me was disturbed, guilty. I began to reflect on my own educational experiences.
I grew up in south Minneapolis, in the very south part of it, which is a hugely white area. The elementary school that I went to, even though it is public, was also extremely white. Currently, their student population is over 80% white. I don’t even want to know what the percentage was for when I was in school there.
I was taken back to my first-grade classroom. All of the students were white, except two girls — one was the daughter of Mexican immigrants and the other was of mixed race, as her dad was Black. It’s disheartening to me, though, that only two students, out of a probable thirty-six, were students of color.
And then I thought back to all of the times we doodled in class. To all of the times when the teacher would ask us to make self-portraits. All of us would scribble ugly drawings of our faces and color them in to match our skin. Except for the kids who didn’t have crayons the color of their skin.
It was customary in my school for someone to call out, “Hey, pass me the skin-colored crayon!”
No one batted an eye. Not even the teacher.
And everyone instantly knew that they meant the peach-colored crayon. It was peach. Not skin-colored. Not flesh. Peach. But we all called it skin-colored. It was the color of skin we were so used to seeing. The color of skin that, in our minds, had become default. As if there existed nothing beyond it.
How racist we were.
I remember that I was friends with the girl in the class who was mixed (I still am, actually). Her skin was the color of deep brown. When we colored our self-portraits, she didn’t know what color to use. She leaned across the table to peer into the bucket of crayons. There was a brown the color of dirt. There was a brick color, a mix of red and brown. There was a deep black. But there was no color for her skin.
And for the other kids, the kids whose skin was not quite Black and not quite white — they didn’t have anything, either. The brown was too deep. The peach color was much too fair. But what else did they have? A scarlet orange. A brick red. Nothing else.
When I looked at the peach-colored crayon, I didn’t think of it as peach. I thought of it simply as skin-colored. Flesh. Not my skin color. Not my flesh. But a general color, a general flesh. One that exposed the racist and narrow-minded system that had been my upbringing.
I realize now how damaging it was. Not just because the kids in the class didn’t have a color for their portraits. Not just because they felt that they didn’t have a place. But also because “white” was our default; “peach” was our default. And that is damaging in itself.
When whiteness is seen as the “norm” in society, we are creating damage by choosing not to see, learn about, and celebrate diversity.
It reflects the same sentiments as the saying, “I don’t see color.” Innocent, maybe. But unbothered. Oblivious. And terribly oppressive. Covertly racist.
I have learned, now, to appreciate diversity. To notice it. To seek it. To understand it. But I had to work towards that. And still, regardless of how much work I put in, I will always be a work in progress. I will never be perfect, and that’s OK. In this system, it’s my job to know that, and to keep persisting to be better despite it.
I think of how many people I unconsciously hurt or excluded as a child when I called out to someone across the room, “Hey, can you pass me the skin-colored one?” I think of how privileged I was that I was so oblivious to how racist the whole thing was, and how I wasn’t more enraged that friends of mine were being boxed into the obscenities of an oppressive white culture. I think of how racist our society must be (and how racist I must be, within it) to take almost two decades to think about this and to truly reflect on it. Maybe some of you out there are thinking, Yeah, but it’s just a crayon. Or, It sucks, but you didn’t mean to be oppressive.
But I don’t care. That’s exactly my point. I was raised not to think about it. And what a privilege.
And that’s exactly my point. It’s just a crayon. It’s just another small result of white supremacy. Something as simple as an art utensil becomes racism’s canvas.
I can’t take back what I have already done. I can’t go back and knock some sense into my first-grade self. But what I can do is work to be better, always.
And if there’s anything that I’ve learned from this reflection, it’s that racism is systemic. It’s not about intentions. It’s not about “appreciating diversity” or “treating everyone the same.” It’s not about whether or not you scream racial slurs to someone on the street.
It’s about realizing that racism doesn’t give a damn about where we came from or how we feel. It’s about realizing that if we’re white, it’s been etched in us from day one.
We never should have been able to ignore that, but for so long, we could. And we still can. Because society is built that way.
But why would we want to let it continue?
Don’t we want to do better?