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.