My conversation with five-year-old Riley about skin colour bubbled up without my intention. It had been triggered by another child in the kindergarten class who proudly had shown Riley and me a picture of a dog she had coloured.
“The dog’s eyes are so blue and bright!” I commented. Hearing this comment, Riley looked into my eyes.
“Your eyes are blue,” she said.
“Yes, they are. And your eyes are a beautiful brown!”
Riley looked at her hands. “I can make the colour of my skin.”
“What do you mean Riley?” I asked.
“I can make my skin colour on paper,” she replied.
We searched for some blank paper and a small tin bucket of coloured pencils and crayons. Riley fingered through the drawing tools looking for the colours she had in mind. “I need brown, white and peach. I made my colour before,” she confided.
Riley began with a light brown colouring pencil and layered it with a white crayon, and then a pale peach colour. She looked analytically at the shade she had concocted. “It’s not dark enough. It needs to be browner.”
I pulled out a couple of different shades of brown from the bucket, and Riley selected the darkest brown to blend into her shading.
“That’s too dark!” she exclaimed with obvious dismay in her voice. But just as quickly, her next sentence lilted with joy. “That’s my dad’s colour!”
Riley had a new idea. She would portray her family in colour swatches. She intensified her dad’s colour patch with a bit more dark brown, and then created a lighter peachy-white patch to represent her mom. Then Riley returned to recreating her own skin colour, reworking it with various shades of brown, peach, and white. Riley looked up from her paper. “That’s it. That’s my colour.”
“Hmmm. Let’s double check,” I suggested. “Try holding your hand next to the colour you made. Does it still seem right?” I asked.
Riley held her finger next to the colour patch she made for herself. When she held her finger palm-side down, it wasn’t quite a match.
But when she held her finger palm-side up, she was satisfied with the colour she had created.
For both of us, we noticed a slight difference in skin tone between our palms and the tops of our hands.
The process of combining and blending colours was completely satisfying to Riley. Having achieved her goal, the actual colour swatch she had created was no longer important to her.
But Riley’s desire to represent her identity on paper made me wonder if other children in the class might also value looking closely at their hands and skin. Hands express so much of who we are and how we engage in the world. Could the children explore their own and others’ identities by studying and comparing hands?
Perhaps they might like to represent their hands by tracing around them, using magnifiers to see and draw the unique lines, finger swirls, and shades of colour in their hands. What would the children notice about similarities and differences in their hands?
Riley didn’t have multicultural drawing tools to use. She had recreated her skin tone through careful observation and analytical thinking. Did the absence of multicultural drawing tools prompt Riley to think more deeply about how to achieve her goal? What are the tools, materials, and context could we offer these children to invite them into a meaningful exploration of hands?
It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered a beautiful children’s book called Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’. I read it with a group of kindergarten children (in short segments) over several days and retold it over time with picture props that helped the children become the storytellers. The book offered us the chance to explore identity and belonging through the colour of our skin.
The book also launched us into explorations of light and dark, reflection and shadows. It took us into conversations about the need for differences.
The colour of identity and belonging in early learning programs is manifold. But though its colour isn’t singular, its glow is unmistakable when adults discover and create opportunities to talk about, and celebrate, the shades of diversity that make each child beautifully unique.