How do I know I’m not white? My six year old grandchild told me!
This morning I was hanging up the washing. It’s a task that has fallen to me as I have a 35 cm (14 inch) height advantage over my wife. Anyway, young T was with me and we were taking turns naming the colour of items as I hung them up. On hanging up a particular towel, I called out “Brown”.
“Don’t be silly, Jii-chan. It’s skin colour!”
(Jii-chan means grandfather in Japanese, and distinguishes me from their paternal grandfather, who they call Opa). The towel was a light brown, almost beige colour, and it never occurred to me to think of it in any other terms.
So I corrected myself and said “Well, it’s really a light brown colour, don’t you think?”, to which he again asserted that it was skin colour and not brown – not even light brown.
In light of a recent post by Clare (Why I’m talking to white people about race), I was struck by the fact that instead of describing people in terms of colour, young T was describing colour in terms of people.
“But not everybody’s skin is the same colour”, I reminded him.
“I know that! You’re a silly Jii-chan.”
“So, if you told someone that you dried yourself with a skin coloured towel, what colour would they think it was?”
A moment in thought, then a lightbulb went off. “Oh yeah! I’d have to say whose skin colour it was like!”
“When I visited America, everyone said I was white.”
“That’s silly, Jii-chan. Nobody’s white. Nobody’s the same colour as that towel”, said young T pointing to a white towel I’d just hung up. I have to agree.
In Aotearoa New Zealand it’s rare to refer to people in terms of colour. It’s more typical to refer to their ancestral cultural group or place of origin. Instead of hearing people described as white, black, brown, red or yellow, you’re more likely to hear them described as European, Pākehā, Polynesian, Māori, Native American, African, Chinese, Indian etc. So I’m not surprised he had no idea, that I’d be identified as being white in many other parts of the world.
That doesn’t mean that young T isn’t aware of cultural differences. Even at six, he’s aware that protocols differ depending where one is, and what might be acceptable within one group might not be acceptable within another. I want him to be familiar and comfortable in the cultures of his grandparents: Pākehā, Japanese and Māori, but I hope he never learns to associate those cultures and the differences between them with race. In fact I hope he never learns the concept of race. Culture and ethnicity, yes. But race, no.
On the other hand, when he’s ready, I want him to understand that history has not always been kind to some communities, and some ethnic groups have been disadvantaged by the actions of other groups, including our own. We, as members of humanity, have a responsibility not to allow the status quo to continue, but to take an active role in striving for a more equitable world.