Last week, while drawing a picture of our family, Olivia held up the marker she was using to draw me and said, “Everyone at school calls this ‘skin color,’ but it isn’t. This color is ‘peach.’” 

I’ve heard it said that children don’t notice skin color, but that has never been the experience in our family. In a very matter-of-fact way, Olivia began commenting on variations in skin color at about age three. Mateo, too. Maybe it’s because they’re such visual people and my husband and I look different from them; or maybe it’s because my husband is a dermatologist who studies, treats, and writes about the skin; or maybe it’s because our family looks different from most of the families around us. It could be due to any of those reasons, but here’s my theory: The reason my kids discuss skin color is because when the subject comes up, we don’t avoid it. For whatever reason, in our family, a conversation might sound like this: 

Olivia: “Which girl are you talking about? Does she have peach skin?”

 Mateo: “No, the other one. She’s brown like us.”

Or, Olivia: “Mom has peach skin with round spots.”

Me: “Those are freckles. ”

Mateo: “Olivia’s skin is tanner than mine. Dad’s skin has more yellow.”

 My children often identify people by skin color, with no judgment attached. They report color the same as any detail: green eyes, long hair, good at bike riding, likes to hula-hoop. Olivia and Mateo know we’re all the same on the inside. That’s one fact that doesn’t vary, and the one that counts.

 A wonderful book for young children that deals with the subject of skin color is The Colors of  Us by Karen Katz. (Katz, an adoptive mother to a daughter, Lena, born in Guatemala, is also the author of Over the Moon, another great book.) The Colors of Us tells the story of Lena and her artist mother, who compares the many shades of skin to delicious foods—French toast, creamy peanut butter, chocolate brown, and honey. Reading the book together with children might be a good way to start the skin color conversation.

 Because my children love to color and draw, and because most boxes of crayons and markers don’t contain the colors needed to express their specific skin tones, I had to hunt for the right artists’ tools. I found them—where else?–at Heritage Camp: Boxes of “multicultural” markers and crayons, made by Crayola. “Tawny, mahogany, terra cotta, bronze”—an entire range of colors for kids to represent themselves as they really are.

I wish more schools would include muliticultural markers and crayons on their annual “Supplies” lists. The world isn’t black and white, and “skin color” doesn’t only mean peach.


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10 Responses to “Peach”

  1. Gina says:

    Jessica! Thank you, once again, for your open hearted attitude on topic often considered politically INcorrect.

    Your children are fortunate to have been adopted into such a frank down-to-earth family!

    Skin color in my family, likewise, is matter-of-fact. We are also vari-hued. Each summer, the childhood goal of one son (middle tone) was to tan as dark as his older sister (dark olive). He never succeeded, because she continued to tan as-if African. The next son remained white white, regardless of sun exposure.

    When I’m delivering babies to families of various ethnicities, the family members always express curiosity to see “what color will the baby be?” After birth, I explain how the baby’s skin tone will change further, often matching the shade of the newborn’s pinna of the ear. Most brown families have various shades. They know that the inside of a person is what matters, as you wrote in your essay.

    Forgive me for stating this, but it seems that often “whites” from an American homogeneous caucasian background are resistant to discuss skin color. Why do you think that is? Perhaps there is a fear of being labeled ‘racist’?

    I found, as you state with your children, non-whites are acutely aware of skin color, as ‘we’ don’t match what surrounds us in middle class or upper middle class society or television and movies. This is slightly less true than in past decades.

    Another African American girlfriend used brown water color markers to darken faces of some white characters in her children’s books. She didn’t want her children to feel there was something wrong with them, since they didn’t match the animated drawings in their popular books.

    Over ten years ago, when my daughter graduated college, I gave her an olive skinned Barbie doll (her first). She openly wept, as she removed the doll’s clothes to verify there was no tan line – the doll was mid-brown all over, just like her! My daughter had been raised playing with white or black dolls. As an adult, there was finally a brown Barbie on the market that was not dressed for flamenco!

    One African American friends tell me how their parents drilled into her how she must always dress very well, to overcome societal assumptions based upon her skin color. She was taught that it’s acceptable for whites to dress in jeans and tee shirts in a middle class world, but the darker one is, the better one must dress to overcome common middle class color-based assumptions.

    Interesting to observe my European cousins, both southern and northern Europeans, openly discuss skin color as frankly as discussing hair or eyes. Again, our family is rainbow. Skin tone is a practical consideration for clothing and gift purchases, sun screen (or not), even activity planning for those more susceptible to sunburn. As you describe, it’s not a racist consideration, just practical. By the way, as a child, I desperately wanted freckles!

    Have you found the darker “skin tone” bandaids? They match your children. In my 50′s I used the first band aid that matched me!

    Some cosmetic companies now offer more variety in the bronze, terra cotta range. Business marketing is very practical, as our multi-racial society gains purchasing power, the shades of mid-dark brown will dominate (genetics). Crayola’s acknowledgement of the growing mixed population is another valuable step – thank you for pointing that out!

    Thank YOU, dear Jessica, for addressing this topic in an otherwise pale-peach dominated Marin! Your humble courage ever inspires!

    Warmly, Gina :)

  2. christine says:

    I now officially consider my arms coffee latte (don’t tell Tim) and my belly vanilla soy milk. And I’m thirsty.

  3. Jessica says:

    Christine: Mum’s the word. (and yes, Tim would wear 60 SPF during a blizzard in February; he walks the talk!) Coffee latte and vanilla soy milk. I’ll drink to that. :-)

  4. Jessica says:

    Gina: Thanks so much for your comments and insight. I’ve noticed in Guatemala, people also are very open in color comments. My time spent there taught me a lot. Not sure why it’s different here among Caucasians; as you say, fear of being labeled a racist could be a factor. But stating the obvious is not an indication of prejudice–it can be, of course, but it isn’t necessarily.

    I love the story about your daughter. Especially the detail “a brown Barbie… not dressed for flamenco.” Yay for her! And the story about your African-American friend who was told by her parents to dress very well–I’ve heard similar. That’s another whole subject–the ability to walk into a hotel lobby, for example, and not be questioned. As my children grow older, will be interesting to see the reality for them.

    We have not found the brown band-aids, but will now look for them. Thanks for the tip.

    As always, I appreciate your reading my blog. PS: for anyone who admires Gina’s writing as much as I do, click on her name and check out her blog. Her story is fascinating.

  5. Gina says:

    Your essay, as always, has me thinking.
    I might write about this on my blog tomorrow, with a link to your essay.

    Perhaps the reticence to openly discuss color among middle class American whites is related to the US history of slavery? Maybe people try to be “color blind.” Different but equal is OK by me. European slavery is so long ago, and was not based upon color. Maybe that is why skin color issue is not as difficult for them to discuss.

    Another interesting social phenomenon is that my olive skinned friends and I, when shopping, are often asked by (white) customers where something might be located. If I happen to know, I’ll direct them. If not, I politely suggest they ask an employee. Then the inquiring customer blushes and apologizes. Apparently they’d assumed that my olive skin equates me with a sales employee; an olive skinned person would not shopping in their neighborhood.

    I only recently realized that my “whiter” friends don’t commonly experience that situation. It’s happens to me several times each week… since I became old enough to work, about 35 years ago.

    Keep up the good work, Jessica! An honor to ‘know’ you!

    g :)

  6. Dilyara says:

    Love the topic and the discussion and the fact that when our son was 6 he insisted that his skin is peach colored :)

  7. Jessica says:

    Gina, your writing gets me thinking a lot, so I’m glad I can return the favor. Sorry about your shoppping experiences; worth writing about to further explore? Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and insights.

    Dilyara: Does seem more accurate, doesn’t it? (Although I understand the efficacy of not analyzing color down to every Pantone number…) Children are very observant, maybe more than we realize.

  8. Gina says:

    Thanks Jessica, as always. The shopping experiences don’t annoy me. Just interesting. A female physician friend, beautiful well dressed African American woman, takes great offense and let’s others know at the time, when she is approached with the assumption that she is a low-wage earner.

    This morning, thinking of your essay and dilemmas, I find myself thinking how would one ‘prepare’ one’s children for such inevitable experiences. I think to do to discuss the situations as they arise, as you seem to be doing and as I did with my dark brown daughter. Narrow assumptions result from lack of cultural exposure by those who don’t know better, usually not from inherent malice.

    Thanks again for excellent thought fodder!

  9. [...] one darker, one lighter. Our family discusses skin color often; see two previous blog posts, Peach and [...]

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