What They Don’t Teach in Teacher School: What light-skinded means

As I work on my manuscript I thought y’all might like a sneak peek. My book is at least partially about how the lessons I learned in teacher school were completely un-useful my first year of teaching. Check back next Tuesday for another lesson I learned the hard way, or look at the list compiled in the tab up top.

What Light-Skinded Means

I had one inter-cultural education class. It was taught by a blonde haired blue eyed professor. Her name was Midnight Sun. Half Swedish, half American Indian, Professor Midnight Sun had been raised on the reservation. I wish I could tell you that I paid attention to every second of that class, but that isn’t exactly true. I do remember a lengthy discussion about Columbus day, and how the Europeans discovering America was not exactly a happy day for my professor and her people.

The one good thing we did in that class, was have a service project. We were forced to volunteer in places outside of our cultural comfort zone. Twice a week my friend Karl picked me up and we spent time at the boys and girls club. I learned how to do two things at the boys and girls club. I learned how to play carpet ball, and I learned how to smack talk. I have never played carpet ball again, but the smack talking has repeatedly come in handy. No one can teach you how to smack talk like some nine-year-old black kids waiting for their momma to pick them up.

At the time I thought I knew a whole lot about race, especially for a white girl, especially in comparison to my classmates. This may have been true but I was still severely lacking in the knowledge I needed. It shouldn’t have been my students who first taught me all of these things.

I opened the semester with a short story called “A Visit to Grandmother” on the recommendation of my colleagues. They said that the conflict was really obvious and the students could relate to the characters . They seemed to know what they were talking about, so I took their advice. I didn’t have time to read the story ahead of time. I hadn’t yet wrangled the beast of weekly paperwork I was required to turn in, and at three days into school I was already behind on my grading.

We read the story out loud together. The students and I took turns reading as we stopped every once in a while and I asked them questions. We tracked the line of the plot on the board. We got to the climax and the father in the story confronts his mother (hence a visit to grandma’s) for showing obvious favoritism to the father’s older brother. The father in the story claims it is because the older brother has lighter skin than him. We put that on the board and finished the story. Then we went back to talk about it.

“Okay, why does the father think his mother favored the older brother?”

The kids responded readily with the answer. “‘Cause the older brother is lighter than him.”

“Okay,” I said, “but that is ridiculous. That doesn’t even make any sense. What do you think the real reason is that the older brother was favored.”

I think it was the first time that school year my class had been completely silent. The students were looking at me like I was the ridiculous one.

Did you know that discrimination amongst black people based on how light or dark their complexion is, is a thing? Yeah. It is. It has been a “thing” in America since the slave owners started favoring their biological children with the slaves and placing them in the house to do the easier work. My students told me all about it, in broken bits and pieces spewed to me from shouting one on top of the other I got a pretty solid education about skin color and discrimination within the black community.

My students were trying to describe various skin shades to me. There was coffee, and caramel, and coffee with cream. There was light-skinded and very light-skinded. Then there was black. One of my students was so dark the kids called him “Black” like it was his name. He had skipped class that day so the kids were trying to describe to me who it was they were talking about skin tone wise. My eyes had not yet adjusted to all these shades of brown, and I was still having trouble deciphering between them all.

“You know, BLACK.” They kept saying to me, as though that should be the only descriptor I needed. They didn’t bother to tell me where he sat, I wasn’t even sure which period he was in. “You know Ms. Norman, BLACK, the black one.”

It slipped out of my mouth in frustration “You are ALL black!”

The kids stared at me in horror. How could I dare say that? Of course there was a difference. But there wasn’t to me. I had no idea what they were talking about, and now they knew.

Now I get it, I get just how offensive that was. I get that I wasn’t seeing them the way they needed and wanted and deserved to be seen. They taught me how to do that my first year, that beautiful brown rainbow of students. They taught me how to see all of them in all of their shades. They taught me about their experience and how it differed from mine. I am grateful to those kids, for being so willing to teach me. But I wish I could have given them a teacher who already knew. Those kids deserved a teacher who had been taught about race in teacher school.

11 thoughts on “What They Don’t Teach in Teacher School: What light-skinded means

  1. While this was never an issue for me, I get it. Im black. A pretty shade of chocolate brown. I’m Marvia first. I am always me before I’m anything else. I’m a woman who just happens to be brown-skinned. It’s sad how many African Americans discriminate against themselves. It’s an unfortunate reality. I didn’t have to deal with that growing because I grew up in a military family. We got used to be around people of diverse backgrounds. Color did matter. I love your stories Abby, they remind me how tough teaching is because you have to know the cultural environment to have a deep impact. Like you, my students taught me more than undergrad education courses ever could.

    I watched Dark Girls on OWN last week – powerful documentary on the painful schism between blacks and the harsh, bitter reality of internal racism. There are no easy answers.

  2. Yes, a lesson learned…but you had the privilege of those little messengers to teach it to you. I’m not sure it would have made the same impact if you had been given that information in a study guide. I learned about racism in school/ college, but being in a military family like Marvia above, I did not really witness it firsthand until I was in college–and then I saw how my black roommate was discriminated against by white and black alike. It was a huge, and sad, realization for me!

  3. God bless you child. I had similar experiences when I worked in a pretty much all Black middle school in Savannah, Georgia. Your experience is something I don’t think White people can teach to other whites. We can talk about it among ourselves but we never really internalize it until we are surrounded by people different than ourselves. When we find out that “all white people look alike” to our new Black friends, then we realize how blind we really were.

    Beyond the skin shade issue, African Americans also judge each other on hair type and eye color shade too. Watch “School Daze”, Spike Lee’s movie about Black college life. There is a great musical number about “good and bad hair.” Chris Rock also made a movie called “Good Hair” that explores this in depth.

    I have had similar experiences working in Southwest Florida regarding the multitude of Hispanic cultures. It is funny (well not really funny) that almost all people hold five common stereotypes about people from other races or cultures. 1. They are stupid. 2. They are lazy. 3. They smell bad. 4. They have too many babies. 5. They drink and use drugs. Stereotypically most white people think this about any person of color. But did you know that Nicaraguans think that about Costa Ricans (their countries border each other)? It seems that many Hispanic cultures believe those five things about Mexican. Cubans think that about Puerto Ricans. I know I am stereotyping but these are things I have heard people say about others.

    I think it goes back to our caveman days when you were not sure who was friend or foe and did not have the language to figure it out before the first blow was struck. Now we have the language but were are just afraid to use it because we think we already “know” about people different than us.

  4. I’ve had similar experiences working with students whose cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds are different than mine. I think it honors them and their cultures that you care enough to ask the clarifying questions and for explanations and then listen without judgement. One of my biggest lessons as a teacher (I’m still relatively new, about to start year three) is that it’s okay to not know the answer. It’s okay to not understand things. And it’s okay to be honest with our students when we don’t understand. I think it means a lot to kids, too, when they realize that they have something that they can teach you. It flips the hierarchy in a meaningful way and, in my opinion, improves your relationship with your students. Thank you for telling the honest stories about what it’s like to teach children who are very different from you. As someone in your shoes, these mean a lot more to me than all the Ron Clarks/Freedom Writers/white-teacher-savior stories in the world. We need more real dialogue.

  5. Nice writing Abby, Jav…’s sister had to change Highschols to keep from being beaten up by black girls because her skin was too light, her hair was too light and her curls were not tight enough.

  6. Pingback: I Will Not Shame Myself for My Story | Accidental Devotional

  7. So let me get this straight.. People of color, african americans, blacks, whatever, ENCOURAGE judgement based on skin tone? Why are black people so prejudiced? I get shit day in and day out for my supposed prejudice, just for being white.. and you’re telling me that in the meantime, black people are dividing their own race up based on shades? The fuck? I give up.. I’m so frustrated with black people, I could honestly say I wouldn’t miss a thing if I were to never see another black person in my life.. This is frustrating as hell. Racist ass… Just no.

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