Bear and I used to read The Colors of Us by Karen Katz together. She’d ask to hear it almost every day.
“My name is Lena, and I am seven.
I am the color of cinnamon.
Mom says she could eat me up.”
Lena wanted to paint a picture of herself, but her mom pointed out that brown isn’t merely brown. Bear would ooh and aah as she turned the pages, absorbing the medley of shades in Lena’s neighborhood.
The children’s picture book took a simple approach, describing each character’s skin tone as something the main character understood…french toast, honey, butterscotch, peanut butter, chocolate cupcakes, nutmeg. Bear would point excitedly at a page and name someone she knew who looked like that. She never tired of naming which skin tone was hers, and it was her favorite game to match people we knew to characters in the book.
The book’s message is clear: brown is not simply brown. Brown is a palette. Brown is beautiful in a hundred ways.
(I’ve since learned that many people of color find comparing their skin tones to food offensive. You can read more on that perspective here. For the sake of this post, I’m reflecting on Bear’s responsiveness to the book.)
We read The Colors of Us over and over again between Bear’s preschool and early elementary years. It was a great way to explore the fact that the world is made up of all kinds of people, and each is beautiful in their own way. It also helped Bear make sense of racial language – she didn’t understand why someone would call her black when she clearly wasn’t, but she wasn’t white either. Introducing brown as a beautiful skin color, one with more shades than the rainbow, was something she welcomed with open arms.
But as the years have gone by, I’ve noticed that even my own kids don’t embrace this concept all the time.
I find my children beautiful (inside and out, but that’s a different post). The photo of our little guys on the left is pretty typical for winter tones. In summertime T-man’s soft skin intensifies to a deep brown and Bear’s becomes a warm bronze as they spend their days in the sun. All four shades (and the ones in between) are lovely; I tell them so every day.
But much like the white folks who hit salons to get a tan, there are days when my kids question the beauty of brown. Their doubt is a mystery to me. I see the richness of their color, the glow shimmering just beneath the surface of their skin. The way it warms to the sunlight and envelops them in strength.
I bask in their beauty.
I also recognize I have the luxury of this delight. That admiring someone’s brown skin and living in it are two very different things.
Hopefully they’ll develop a love for themselves strong enough to overpower any voices that dare to suggest brown is less than beautiful.