Thursday, November 01, 2007

Shall Never the Twain Meet?

On Saturday I had a delightful time at the dedication of the newly renovated media center at Westover Hills Elementary School. It was a great party. In addition to this maven and his maveness, the Superintendent of Schools, School Board members, community partners of the school, faculty, and about 200 children and their parents were in attendance. With music, arts and crafts activities, a dance contest, pizza and lemonade everybody really enjoyed themselves.

I found myself looking at the children at one of the tables. They were beautiful. Their eyes were alive with joy, their mouths were smiling or laughing, their faces were filled with the wonder of learning. As I watched them, my mind connected with the picture I saw on the front of Section B of the TD last week. It was a picture of a group of students at Tuckahoe Elementary School watching a Richmond Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan. The children in the picture were also beautiful. Their eyes too were alive with joy, their mouths were also smiling or laughing, their faces too were filled with the wonder of learning.

Two groups of elementary school children. Each having a great time. All of them alive with the joy and wonder of learning. Sitting in elementary schools located no more than five miles apart. Two identical groups of children . . . except that all the students in the Tuckahoe photograph had light skin, while almost all the children I saw at Westover Hills had dark skin.

The children in these two groups are not aware that the others exist. And, in all likelihood these light-skinned and dark-skinned children will not interact for at least the next ten to fifteen years, if ever. They will not have the opportunity to meet each other, to get to know each other, to play with each other, to learn with each other, to appreciate each other, and, perhaps, to love each other.

Will all of these light-skinned children at Tuckahoe and these dark-skinned children at Westover Hills eventually adopt the attitude held by their great-grandparents, grandparents and parents that the color of a person’s skin is a key factor in judging them? Will their ignorance of the other lead to these children acquiring, over time, a pigmentation prejudice?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think children are color blind. I think they notice that some people have light skin and that others have dark skin. However, if they’re young enough, complexion just doesn’t matter. Two examples—

1- I do some tutoring at Westover Hills School. My skin is light. Most of the kids have dark skin. Do they notice the difference? I assume so. But they also notice that I am older than them, taller than them, a bit pudgy around the waist, and because I am older that I have acquired greater knowledge than they have. Do they have any notion that because of our skin colors I am better than they or they are better than me? I think not, especially my second graders.

2- My four-year old granddaughter often asks me to take her to the Westover Hills playground to play with the school children. She is the only light-skinned child there. Neither she nor the other kids seem to care. I know she recognizes complexion differences. Once in Target she asked that I buy her a “brown baby” for her doll collection. When she plays with her doll house, she has both African American and Caucasian dolls. She plays with them interchangeably, often having white dolls with black offspring and vice versa. Skin color just seems irrelevant to her.

So how do we prevent these children from catching the complexion bias that most of us adults suffer from? I suggest that we institute community building in all of our public schools. We need to schedule opportunities for our urban and suburban children to get together. Maybe, instead of a field trip to some colonial ruin, we should schedule a field trip to each other’s schools. Maybe, we can arrange for them to interact through video-conferencing. I am sure that you have an idea that might work.

If we do this, maybe we will have reached one of the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe we will achieve a society in which we are all judged by the strength of our characters, not by the color of our skins.

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