The well-oiled machinery of social injustice and smoldering hegemony underpin our everyday lives in America whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. It is so subtle that we have willingly accepted it, mainly without question, as simply the way of things.
Those in power keep the power through the well-established order of things. The mentality of 'this is the way we have always done things' coupled with the overwhelming prospect of how would we change the rules even if we wanted to keeps us chugging along in the status quo.
This is evident in our school systems as well. The best education is doled out to those children whose parents have experienced success while those from less wealthy or privileged backgrounds are not afforded equal opportunities.
One component of stratification is based on skin color. Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote in South Pacific that hatred and prejudice towards those who look/act differently from us must be "carefully taught" and I agree.
And yet, children notice that they look different from one another. I have had conversations with other teachers about this and we have debated how to approach it; openly discuss it or ignore it. One view is to let children be children, but more and more we find that it seems we are doing the students a disservice if we sweep their noticings and questions under the rug.
They sometimes say hurtful things to one another because they don't realize the power of their words. These innocent statements have sometimes caused worry for a child and their parents.
Therefore we thought it best to at least touch upon the fact that we have many shades of skin color in our classroom and to celebrate those differences.
We began in art class with each student creating a self portrait (see above). We also read two books, All The Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger and Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney.
Together these books provide an explanation as to how we get our skin color (family ancestry, amount of melanin, exposure to the sun) and celebrate the differences.
A suggested extension activity is to have each student try to match their skin color by mixing paint and then naming it (pancake syrup, mocha, etc.). With the help of Margaret, our art teacher, we gave it a go. (Margaret's tip: When creating skin tones, which is a challenge, it is best to start by making orange and then adding either black or white as necessary.)
Each child made three swatches - one for themselves and one for each person to their left and right - and these were tied together to make a beautiful "Colors of Us" quilt.
For more about how children view skin color click here.