He always starts out his questions with that sing-song inflection in his little high pitched voice.
“We’re brown, right?”
He holds out his arms for my examination. I lean in to take a closer look.
Yup, still brown.
“Yes, honey. We are brown,” I say.
“I am dark brown. You are light brown,” he informs me.
I smile at the distinction and wonder what’s making him have this conversation with me at his close to, but not yet five years of age.
He goes on to tell me the colors of all his classmates. They make up quite a rainbow. Nico relays his observations in a matter of fact way. The different colors don’t seem to bother him or affect him – he just recognizes that they are there. I am thankful for that. I want him to applaud his differences and the differences of his classmates, but I don’t want him to feel like an anomaly in a sea of white faces. Being the only one that is different is hard and I remember my own questions at his age:
“Mommy, why does nobody else look like me?”
“Papa, is my skin just dirty?”
“What color crayon am I supposed to use to draw me?”
“Why did those girls say they won’t play with me because I’m brown?”
The crayon question raised a particularly challenging dilemma. I remember friends holding up the peach near my skin and dismissing that as an option. Then the yellow. Nope? Maybe Burnt Sienna? No, that was too dark.
They never did quite find the right match, so I am pretty sure I ended up orange.
Growing up as an ethnic minority in a predominantly white, blue collar town was not easy. My differences were called out to me by some of my less subtle classmates. Often. Whether it was the color of my skin, the way my parents spoke, or the small dot on my mother’s forehead, I always felt like these differences set me worlds apart from the crowd.
On Halloween, some of the kids would be so sweet to us! The would gaily wrap toilet paper around our front yard. The trees, the house, EVERYTHING. Man, it was so pretty. I think they even used the 2-ply stuff. That’s some quality shit. Sometimes, they wouldn’t even wait for Halloween. They would do it, “just because.” I especially loved when people would write creative signs on our doors or windows. Stuff like, “Go Home!” As if I was E.T. or something.
Yeah, that was really special.
I know this may sound hard to believe, but some of the teachers weren’t much better either. Some of them were just as scared of “different” as some of the kids. To this day, I don’t understand how some of my elementary school teachers ever went into teaching. Some were better at hiding their distaste towards the few minority kids than others, but some were just blatantly hateful (Hmmm, hmm. Yes, I’m talking to you, Mrs. Williams). You made 3rd grade a dark and dreary place, indeed.
In high school, when I got into my first choice college, the University of Virginia, and nobody else in my class who applied did, my teacher informed everybody else not to worry. After all, he said, pointing at me, “Look who’s the minority.”
Growing up different was hard. There is no way to sugar coat it. The experiences I mention here hardly can touch on how powerfully hurtful some of those life lessons were.
My child is starting to recognize a little of how the world sees him. I like to think that the world has become a little kinder and that the things that made me so different so many years ago have been diluted as diversity has grown, especially in the area we have chosen to live and raise our children. I like to hope that what Nico will experience being brown today, will be nothing like what I experienced as a child.
I intertwine my light brown hand with my child’s darker brown hand and hold it tightly. I look him in the eyes and smile when I say, “Yes, Nico. You are brown.”
He smiles back up at me, his big brown eyes poking through his wayward bangs.
And then I say something to him which nobody ever, EVER said to me.
“And no matter what color your skin is, you are absolutely perfect.”
Because he is.