Thursday, July 19, 2012

Plain Jane

This morning at breakfast Peanut announced that she is plain. I was pretty sure I understood the root of her comment and pressed for more details. She kept talking. “I mean I have white skin so I am plain.”

“That is not true,” I argued, realizing at some level that I was attempting a conversation with a preschooler before eight o’clock in the morning that I don’t even like having with adults. “Your skin is plain because you don’t have any tattoos or scrapes or polka dots. All three of you have plain skin. Just because skin is a different color doesn’t mean that it is not plain.” I kept going, way past her developmental level, into the subdermal layers of historical racism, where biological definitions of race (a deadly gift of the Age of Science) do their work at gut level. She pushed back, insisting on her plainness. I explained that when she decides that her white skin in plain, she is saying that anyone without white skin has to be defined as Big-D different, which is both untrue and unfair. “Ya, well, my food goes in my mouth and down to my leg, and then to my other leg and up to my brain,” she said, effectively changing the subject.

I continue to be sadly fascinated by the ways white kids growing up in mostly white communities “learn” about their position in the world. I would like to imagine that our home is a place where hierarchical messages about skin color meet with compelling counter-evidence. But this morning’s conversation, and the many others we have on the topic, prove again that helping all my children rethink skin color is lifetime work.

And really, where does a kid who wears most of her clothes backwards, likes holding taranchulas, and spends an entire day with half a box of corn starch in her hair (to absorb the tube of sparkly lip gloss that mysteriously missed her lips) get off defining herself as plain? As if.

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