“The one with a burnt face! I’m talking to the girl with a burnt face.” Quipped a child pointing at me in a busload of teachers and school children during my early days in a new school as a teacher. (No, I do not have a burnt face, just a brown one.) All adults turned to look at me in utter horror. I smiled disarmingly. This was my world. You see, my parents grew up in Kenya under the British colonial rule. During the mid-60s, they celebrated their young love to the retreating footsteps of the imperialist and the confused jiggle of a Neo-colonised republic, a dog still on leash by her colonial master.
Under colonialism, my parents’ identity had been stolen and tarnished by the master’s prejudice and his trade-off of community for capitalism. As this identity was not to be suddenly recovered through the birth of a republic, a colonised mind became my due inheritance where my worth as a human being, my very existence, was to subconsciously be measured by the white man’s yardstick. I place no blame on my parents for dis-empowering me with this lifelong burden of a diminished a view of who I am, or at least who I ought to be. After all, you cannot give what you do not have.
But, be it at home or abroad, I would live in a white man’s world. A world in which, from a colonised mind or his definition of me, I would never belong. While at home I would strive to be like him in manners, technology, or whatever he called civilisation. While in his country I would strive for acceptance or, so to speak, for his permission to live. To be me. The ‘me’ I did not know but might perhaps discover if I ceased to look at myself and my world through the lenses of racial prejudice he had handed to my parents, who in turn handed them to me.
This brings me here, ‘the girl with a burnt face’ in a bus full of children. Here, I’m trying to craft new identity lenses to pass on to my children, in hope that they will not refrain from living because of fear of man’s perception of them. Or worse still, rob another’s life by being instigators of ethnic prejudice.
Being called a girl with a burnt face was neither intentional racism nor ignorance. It was rather clever, I think. For this was a child trying to interpret how a non-white person fit in his world from what he knew of that world. Perhaps he had never seen a dark skinned person before, and until that encounter, everyone in his world was white. In his mind therefore, I must have been white but had somehow lost my whiteness.
He might have thought of my skin colour as (white) burnt toast, or better yet burnt toast smeared with a generous amount of Vegemite. Not long before this bus incident, a 4 year old had stared at me during a lunch party before finally summoning the courage to ask, “Why are you wearing black lipstick”,(all lips in her world were pink. Why weren’t mine?) and later, “What colour skin have you got on today?” Now, picture me picking and choosing my skin colour every morning, depending on mood or occasion!
Unfortunately, in many cases throughout history to current times, racism is vile, unyielding, and grievous. But most young children are not intentionally racially prejudiced (unless directed to be so by parents or carers). Instead, what might come across as racism or ethnic prejudice from children is simply confusion sprinkled with a good measure of curiosity. Instead of taking offence, try and find the sincerity and humour in it, and the opportunity to educate on race and ethnicity.
Take for instance a brother-in-law of mine. On his first encounter with a black person in their home when around 4 years old in the 90s, he retreated to his room and would not come out. How rude. How racist. How embarrassing for his parents. His father’s coercion of him to come out and welcome their guest fell on a young brain hard at work, trying to ponder the complexity that is the question of colour.
After some minutes of silence, this 4 year old looked at his dad in utter triumph and said, “I know! When God made him, he used black clay!” With that he walked straight to the guest, extended his hand for a manly handshake, and took his place at the dinner table. The black man now made sense to this little brain. There was no more confusion or cause to fear. For we fear what we do not understand, because what we do not understand intimidates us, just as at the very root of racism is ignorance. Children are not any different.
His brother (my husband) thought that black people are so because they do not wash, and would try to protect his school lunches from melanin-rich fingers. I’m glad to report that he has since outgrown this childhood ignorance enough to have a brown wife, and I often tease him that his food is now forever contaminated.
And what of my own brood? My 3 and 5 year-old children are currently obsessed with why I am ‘brown’. Recently the older one asked me how it was that he grew in my tummy yet came out ‘yellow’ and not ‘brown’. I told him I ran out of toner. He asked me when I would turn ‘yellow’ like the rest of the family, being too young to realise that he has some of my ‘brown’ too.
Ah, the complexity that is the question of colour!
Is his question the usual pressure on the people of colour to conform to a white ‘norm’ in various life aspects? I doubt that. The more likely reason is that his family is a puzzle. I thought I should tell him I was adopted. The black (brown) clay analogy would be equally convincing. But since I have been gifted both the privilege and the challenge of raising caramel children in a white world, how could laying the foundations of identity with a lie dissolve confusion and empower his young mind?
I considered the anti-racism slogan that I grew up parroting: “We are all the same because underneath the varied skin colours, the flesh and blood is just the same red.” How insanely lame and infuriating an argument against racism! (If referring to blood types, that is a little in the right lane)
Because if it is all about what is underneath the skin, have you considered that bloody chunk of steak you are about to plonk onto the barbecue? Well? Does it suddenly qualify the bovine kind admission into human sphere on equal standing with you? A long lost cousin perhaps! Except this would make me uncomfortably cannibalistic, so I thought the vegetarian route a much safer option.
That is where trees came in. In species and classifications and sizes. With differing textures and flowers and leaves and nutritional or medicinal profiles. None looking down on the other or explaining to the other how to be a tree. None feeling belittled by the size or type of fruit it produces or when it produces it. And just as there are all kinds of trees, there are all kinds of people groups. Some are brown, or ‘yellow’ or black, or red. But they are people. Distinctly different, but similar. Oh so similar.
So we went for a walk and identified all kinds of trees in the neighbourhood comparing such qualities as textures, height, leaf/canopy shapes and colours and fruit. We tried to imagine them as different kinds of people in our world. “What do you think it would be like to have just one type of tree on our street?” I asked. We have since discovered other amazing trees in our world, some of which we share with you here.
That is how I put little minds out of puzzlement and confusion about colour. Until we must talk about the quantity of melanin in each family member, we are happy with this analogy of trees. Like different kinds of trees, we are people groups in equal standing with each other, basking in each other’s uniqueness as it ought to be. In fact, as it was before being corrupted and twisted for power and profit.
Perhaps we can teach our children how to be like a tree; deeply rooted and secure in their identity and role in the world, their ‘forest’. We might empower them to build on and enjoy the cultural wealth of all the people in their world. And hopefully, we can give them a world without prejudice. Their internal world at least, if not the whole world beyond.
I remain yours endearingly, the girl with a burnt face, raising multi-ethnic children in a primarily white cultural environment.