I run social skills groups for children from Grade R to Grade 3. Without fail in every single group, my coffee/ brown/ chocolate or as one of them has identified himself ‘toffee with a splash of cream’ children ask to borrow the ‘skin’ colour crayon when colouring in pictures of themselves. Not the peach crayon – which is what I apparently am- the ‘skin’ colour. It irks me every single time. It makes me want to hold the crayon next to my arm and say it doesn’t match me – it’s not the colour of my skin (I still look like summer according to some of the college students I teach which means I am tan).
Yet every single child knows that this is ‘skin’.
It frustrates me that this is the case and yet we question why race still matters in terms of how we as ‘old/ big/ adult/ leaders’ engage the world?
I love that one of these kids asked me to guess which baby photo was his – he was the lone person of his race in this group. They divide their friends into the annoying vs nice people. When I listen and watch these children engage with each other based on their individuality, be kind to each other based on their quirks, I celebrate their growing social skills, but I also inwardly celebrate that they see each other as people.
Then I look at my social media feed which is populated with US vs THEM or labels like animals, and narratives saying ‘get over it already’, posted by thcee same people who are asking why can’t we be nice to each other and simply see each other.
Maybe these kids who are still going to be confronted with the meaning of ‘skin’ colour beyond a mismatch of crayons could teach us a thing or two. They are learning to listen to each other. They are learning that sometimes when someone says ‘I am angry’, it’s because I am hurting. They are learning that when we repeatedly ignore someone it can make them ‘mad’ and want to shout and scream so that they are seen – and while this isn’t the most effective way of problem solving, sometimes it’s the only way to feel heard.
My 9 year olds can verbalise this, in safe spaces. In safe spaces, they can own when they get this wrong – when maybe we didn’t listen well enough to the other and so didn’t help find a solution.
Recently in my social media feed the recurring theme in the commentary on current race issues – like being a black working class student at Rhodes or about the Rhodes statue and what do we do with him became about US and THEM and sadly, for me, often a refusal from my ‘skin (peach)’ colour peers to hear the other – I am not saying that the actions, attitudes or behaviours are all to be encouraged, but when we engage on social media platforms and aren’t willing to listen, then all we do is make it seem like ‘skin colour’ is the only way to go.
I can’t only be willing to show compassion to someone because they are ‘nice’ to me, or because they have been willing to see me, if I am not willing to see them first. Sometimes they need to shout loudly at me before they realise I am still standing and willing to listen. Sometimes I need to be comfortable being uncomfortable with someone else’s pain so that we can find another way – especially if their discomfort affords me comfort or vice versa?
I have struggled the past few days with understanding how we ‘skin’ people hold Mandela and Tutu up in regard, and yet disregard the voices of people whose freedom to express their voices Mandela is seen to represent? I struggle with the fact that we repost and honour them and yet dismiss the ‘ordinary’ person of colour when they express their story or pain in a way that we can’t connect to and so don’t validate.
If we truly want to honour the ‘let’s move on’ South Africa maybe we need to stand next to, walk alongside and listen to people whose stories and experiences are different to ours. Not because listening on its own can fix them. But because being seen and being heard and being acknowledged does something inside all of us.
It helps us find each other. Maybe then ‘skin’ colour can become peach and the ‘coffee’ ‘brown’ and ‘toffee with a splash of cream’ will truly all be equal to the peach in terms of value and legitimacy and experience. Despite the different pictures they paint and stories that they colour.