The Brown Crayon: A Lesson In Racism, Literally Taught By a Teacher at School

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So I was in first grade. How old is that? Six? Seven? Our classroom activity for the hour was coloring in coloring books: I have no idea what the purpose was, if any sort of teaching was intended or if we were just being kept busy. But we’d been given coloring books with pictures of children doing wholesome activities of everyday life, brushing their teeth and riding bikes and whatnot. And we’d been given standard sets of first-grade crayons, fat crayons in eight colors. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, and black.

So I looked at these crayons, thought about which color to use for the faces and bodies, and settled on brown. Of the eight, that was the color that most looked to me like an actual human skin color. I briefly considered yellow — it was closest to my own skin color, and I’d also heard “yellow” used to describe people of Asian descent, usually when People Of All Races in late-Sixties folk songs were being referred to as white, black, red, yellow, and brown. But I looked at the yellow crayon, with its bright canary color — and nobody I knew, of Asian descent or any other, had skin anything like that. So brown it was.

I didn’t really think about it that carefully. My thought process as I’m describing it here makes it seem a lot more thought-out than it was. It was a quick, almost reflexive decision — more like, “Hm. People. Eight colors. Yellow? (Quick scan of abovementioned reasons.) No. Brown? Sure.” It was a quick decision — and to me, it was an obvious one. To be honest, if we’d had a bigger crayon selection with the color troublingly labelled “flesh,” I probably would have picked that, or another color that looked like me. But we didn’t. We had the eight colors — and of those, brown was the one that looked like people. The school I went to was pretty racially mixed, the neighborhood I lived in and had lived my whole life in was pretty racially mixed, and I really didn’t give it much thought. I wasn’t working to advance the cause of black visibility or anything; I wasn’t an early Social Justice Warrior. I was just a literal-minded six or seven year old, in 1967 or 1968, coloring pictures of people to look like my friends and neighbors.

So we handed in our coloring books, or the teacher collected them, I don’t remember. A little while later, the teacher came over to me, with this concerned look on her face. And she asked, “Greta — why did you make all the people in your coloring book black?”

And when I say concerned, I mean CONCERNED. This was not a casual question. This wasn’t the teacher talking to lots of different students about their coloring books; this wasn’t asked in the casual context of a general discussion of the coloring books, like, “So let’s talk about how you decided how to color your books. Why did you make the flowers purple? Why did you make the house yellow? Why did you make the people brown?” No. This was not that. The teacher very deliberately came over to me, personally — only to me, as far as I could tell — and asked why I’d made all the people in my coloring book black. And she was worried. Kids can tell. I could tell. She wasn’t angry or scolding or anything like that. She was just seriously worried. This was a red flag to her, a sign that Something Was Wrong.

I want to emphasize again: This was a racially-mixed school, in a racially-mixed neighborhood. And it was a fairly liberal school and neighborhood. So this was weird to me. Looking at it now, I’m sure I’d gotten thousands of unconscious racist messages from my family — but consciously, they were good 60’s and 70’s liberals, politically active about lots of things including racism, and with lots of friends of lots of different races. I’m sure I got thousands of unconscious racist messages from my family. But this was the first time I can remember seeing white anxiety about black people so explicitly spelled out.

And it freaked me the fuck out.

I answered my teacher honestly. I explained about the eight colors, and how brown was the one that looked most like people. She accepted the answer — or at least, she dropped the issue. But I could tell she wasn’t satisfied. I could tell she was still concerned.

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Understand, I was a very good kid — “good” in this case meaning “smart, good at school, trusting of teachers and parents and other authority figures, and anxious about pleasing them.” Very, very anxious about pleasing them. So this worried me. Had I done something wrong? Was there something wrong with me? At the same time, I knew something was wrong — not with me, but with her, with this conversation. So this stuck with me. I chewed it over, and chewed it over, and chewed it over. If I’d been Riley in “Inside Out,” this would have been a memory bubble dropping straight into the Core Memory file, a memory swirling with a mix of colors: purple for fear, green for disgust, red for anger, and blue for sadness. But I didn’t have the language to explain it at the time.

I have that language now. Let me spell it out.

I was being taught that there was something weird and scary about not making “white” the default race.

This was not a subtle, unconscious thing; this was not a glance, a gesture, a decision to cross the street or clutch the purse tighter. I was being overtly taught — by a teacher, in my school, during class time, in the context of a class assignment — that there was something weird and scary about not making “white” the default.

I was being taught, by a teacher, in school, that there was something weird and scary about seeing pictures of people brushing their teeth, riding bikes, engaging in wholesome activities of everyday life, and not automatically seeing them as white, and doing whatever I could do with my limited eight-color crayon box to make them white. I was being taught, by a teacher, in school, that there was something weird and scary about seeing pictures of people, engaging in wholesome activities of everyday life, and seeing them as black.

I was being taught, by a teacher, in school, that there was something weird and scary about seeing my black and brown classmates, teachers, neighbors, friends, as people.

I’m sure other people have much uglier stories of being taught much nastier forms of racism in school, much more blatantly, by much more bigoted teachers. (Exhibit A: the black teenager who was recently assaulted and arrested by a cop in her classroom for breaking school rules.) Actually, that’s a big part of the point.

Given everything I know about my grade school, I doubt highly that my teacher thought of herself as racist. To this day, I don’t know what she was worried about — or rather, what she told herself she was worried about. I don’t know if there’s some troubling thing teachers are taught to look for if kids draw pictures of kids who don’t look like them, or if in her mind it was just garden-variety conformity policing, This Is Weird And Different So I’d Better Check It Out. I doubt highly that she thought of herself as racist. But I know what I heard in her voice, what I saw in her face. What I heard in her voice, what I saw in her face, was, “This white child filled her coloring book with pictures of black people. When this white child thinks of people, she thinks of black people. Crap. Something must be wrong.”

I know this lesson hasn’t gone away. I know that the thousands of lessons like it haven’t gone away; I know that all the work I’ve put into unlearning these lessons are only a partial success, that this will be an ongoing adult education project for the rest of my life. I know that it took years of education, years of seeing it pointed out again and again, to notice when movies and TV shows have all-white casts, to notice when the only black characters are servants, criminals, athletes, and entertainers. I know that it took years of education to understand that black people being harassed and beaten and killed by police are not isolated incidents; that for black people in the U.S., brutally racist police forces are an ordinary experience of everyday life. I know that I still have the reflex, learned at a very young age, to clutch my purse when I pass a youngish black person on the street; I know that I have to consciously make myself not do this. When I think about that teacher’s lesson, and the thousands of lessons like it, I still have the swirly ball of emotion — but with less fear than I had at six or seven, and with more disgust, more sadness, more anger.

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I’m also grateful for the other lessons. I’m grateful that I had the degree of consciousness that I did have, even at age six or seven, to notice in this conversation that something was wrong. I’m grateful to everyone in my young life, to everyone in my school and my neighborhood and my family, even to my fucked-up parents, who all taught me, by word and deed, not even that black lives matter, but that black people exist, and are people. I’m grateful to everyone in my young life who taught me to look at a box of eight crayons, and see that the brown crayon looked like people.

But I still have the swirly ball of emotion, the fear and disgust, the anger and sadness, at the fact that still, to this day, this is a lesson that needs to be taught.

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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The Brown Crayon: A Lesson In Racism, Literally Taught By a Teacher at School

15 thoughts on “The Brown Crayon: A Lesson In Racism, Literally Taught By a Teacher at School

  1. 1

    My recent experience encountering the White-as-default phenomenon was in looking through the web storefronts of a bunch of Black-owned businesses noted in one of those “here are a bunch of [marginalized group]-owned businesses to patronize this gift-giving season” lists that make the rounds. The clothing models were overwhelmingly White.

  2. 2

    The times they aren’t a changing. My daughter is in what is probably “kindergarten” in the USA (you got the names all wrong). So one day they were doing a colouring exercise. They had an autumn themed picture with a boy flying a kite and they first talked about the natural colours of various things before colouring them: what colours can the leaves be, the grass, the sky…
    And then they were finished. Until my daughter asked “but what about the boy? We haven’T talked about the boy? Maybe he is brown!”
    My kids also have to constantly correct teachers that a certain colour is called apricot and not “skin colour”.

  3. 3

    To this day, I don’t know what she was worried about — or rather, what she told herself she was worried about. I don’t know if there’s some troubling thing teachers are taught to look for if kids draw pictures of kids who don’t look like them, or if in her mind it was just garden-variety conformity policing, This Is Weird And Different So I’d Better Check It Out.

    I believe it’s the latter, the This Is Weird And Different So I’d Better Check It Out option. A teacher following through on that is how I learned I was colorblind – actual something-off-with-your-eyes colorblindness, not that I-don’t-see-race nonsense.
    It was the first time I had crayons that weren’t labelled with their colors, and the teacher asked us to color a picture of a castle. Everything else, I had been able to muddle my way through – grass is green, so use the ‘green’ crayon; tree trunks are brown, so use the ‘brown’ crayon. This time, I took my best guess as to what was what.

    Later, my teacher approached me, much the way yours approached you, and asked me why I had colored the castle’s moat purple. She was concerned that I had some flavor of colorblindness, and what that would mean for me.

    I understand why you would have preferred that your teacher talked about color choices with the entire class. If my teacher had done that, well, I would have gone from the fat awkward kid that everybody makes fun of, to the fat awkward kid who doesn’t know colors that everybody makes fun of. I don’t know if there even is a right way to approach this topic that would leave everybody happy.

    I don’t know exactly I’m going with this. I’m not trying to dispute that this is a prime example of ‘White is the default, anything else is cause for alarm’ racism – this is a great example of that being taught (hopefully) unintentionally from an early age. I’m not trying to say that, because there’s another possible explanation, it MUST be the non-racist one – even if your teacher wasn’t racist, the test was. I’m not trying to say that you were wrong in reading what you did from your teacher’s nonverbal cues. If anything, it’s that your story resonated with mine. and that I wanted to share my experience.

  4. 4

    Parse @ #3: I see what you’re saying. But when it comes to interpreting my experience, I think it’s a stretch. And if my teacher was concerned about color-blindness, this was an unbelievably shitty and racist way to check for it. Think about these questions: “Why did you make the moat purple? Why did you make the sun green? Why did you make the apple blue? Why did you make the people brown?” One of these things is not like the other.

    And to clarify: I wasn’t saying that she should have made the kids’ various color decisions into a group discussion. I was pointing out that her question didn’t come in the context of a general discussion about color — it was very much directed at me, and my choice to color the people brown.

  5. 5

    Wow. I think it’s incredible the impact that such a thing can have on your life. As a child, it seemed to me that adults never even noticed that they had this impact on children. They have it on other adults too, it just seems like an incredible whammy for a child to try to grasp and understand. And it is sad to me that we do have this impact on other people but very seldom use it for good purpose.

    I too had some real run-ins with adults on my choices of color when asked to color some picture or other, or to draw some picture or other. By the time I was 5 I had concluded that adults were highly unpredictable and subject to being upset about the weirdest things. Which was actually pretty accurate, as I discovered as I got older.

  6. 8

    Parse

    I believe it’s the latter, the This Is Weird And Different So I’d Better Check It Out option.

    Do you believe the teacher would have thought “THis Is Weird and I’d Better Check It Out” if the kid in question had been black and had carefully blended yellow and red to achieve some caucasian skin tone?

    +++
    I’m not a native speaker, so part of my college training was “oral expression”. This would usually mean that the teacher would give us a picture, have us describe it in as much detail as possible and speculate on it. While folks would regularly say “there’s a group of black men” “there’s an Asian woman” etc. I was the only one who ever said “there’s a white man”. Very raised eyebrows. We were supposed to describe the colour of the sky, of cars, of hair, but we were obviously only supposed to mention skin colour when it was not white.

  7. 9

    @Parse–

    Problem is, people having the skin color of brown isn’t actually weird, different, or something that needs checked out in case it is a problem, so why would the teacher respond as if it was?

    Castles aren’t purple in everyday life, and neither are suns blue, but people are brown all the damn time. It’s not an unusual or extraordinary occurrence, it is something the teacher saw every single day in her very own classroom.

  8. 10

    I suspect the teacher was either startled by the unexpected challenge to white as default and reflexively attempted to reassert that norm, or she was concerned that a first grader actually notices skin color, ala “colorblindness” that is so very popular amongst many white folks who consider themselves progressive on issues of race (whether they are or not). I was taught that I was not supposed to notice if people were Latino, black, Asian, Native, and if I did notice I certainly was not supposed to mention it in any capacity, because noticing ways that people look different from each other is racist.

    It’s the same erasure as white-as-default, with a slightly different justification.

  9. 11

    First off, my apologies to everybody. I didn’t want to sidetrack the conversation away from ‘Look how we’re teaching racism,’ and the fact that it did get sidetracked is my fault. What I was trying to say was the same thing as Greta Christina, Giliell, and Onamission5 have all said – that the reason this I thought this was seen as Weird And Different by the teacher was due to white-as-default racism.

    Also, I had misread what you were saying about the teacher’s questioning. I see now what you were trying to say.

  10. 12

    Schools get “concerned” about some strange things. While stupid, and I mean terribly stupid (I would have gone with brown too, probably, at least until I worked out how you could “shade” things..), at least you didn’t get dragged into a psych eval. See, we had this house – it had borders around the flower beds. It had trim around the windows. It had more borders around the trees out front. The dummies that handed out crayons used some sort of goofy system based on first name, to hand them out (no one box per child, nor attempt to have us share them, or anything sensible, just, each one got a crayon), and by the time the box got to me, black as the only option.

    So, here I am trying my best to draw a house, using black crayon, which is quite literal in how it looks, complete with boxed flower beds, boxed trees, boxes around the windows… Mind you, this was in the process of trying to work out why I wasn’t doing some assignments in class, so.. there where terribly, terribly, concerned. lol

    Oh, and, the reason for not doing the work they wanted – I already learned the stuff, but they handed the same sheets out, over and over, until the slowest kid got it, and I got fed up and bored, doing the same math problems over and over. 😉

    But, yeah.. Seems to me, in most cases, if someone did end up with more than one color crayon – it was either brown, or yellow, that got picked for “people”. Wonder what would have happened if you have used green, or purple, or something… They might have been “concerned” you where strangling people, or poisoning them? Really freaking strange thing for a teacher to freak about.

  11. 13

    Greta, that is a remarkable thing to have happen and to have that sort of impact on you. I floated through the first 30 years of life, growing up in a very white, rural area, not really aware of the default white bias, sort of in that “liberals aren’t racist” mindset. I have only over the last few years enlightened myself to my own default biases (the “consciously make myself not do this” rings true for me) and to those in the culture at large. I remember things from my childhood that were overtly racist and understanding why it was wrong. Mostly just racist jokes that didn’t make sense unless you assumed non-whites were inferior/bad. One of the most vivid memories I have was a high school history teacher (who was a self proclaimed “liberal democrat”) explaining to the class that miscegenation was wrong because of birth defects, and this was in the mid-90s.

  12. 14

    Thank you for this. Same thing happened to me, at about the same age as you, but a decade earlier. It was in Sunday School, and the figure I was coloring was Jesus. I remember the identical thought process about crayon color, and at that age I was pretty vague on who Jesus was. The teacher, I recall, laughed, and the other students laughed. I don’t know — inexperienced six-year-old mind — if the laughter was derisive or simply amused. Either way I was both shamed and confused, and I managed to stammer out “But there are brown people.”

    I credit the experience as an early dose of skepticism about what church people knew about reality. I was reminded of the incident when a certain Fox anchor declared that Jesus and Santa were both white guys, they just were.

  13. 15

    @Joshua68 – A relation who teaches religious studies once told me that he has trouble making his pupils understand that Jesus wasn’t white. He teaches high school. I’m not surprised. Aged about 17 we looked at depictions of Jesus and I had trouble persuading one girl in my class that the white, blue-eyed Jesus she insisted was correct was improbable at best.

    I recall having to decide which felt-tip pens to use in a picture of myself. The teacher we had when I started school was really mean so such decisions were anxiety inducing. I opted for the yellow and she angrily told me that I didn’t have yellow skin. I looked at what others had done and concluded that the I was supposed to have chosen the pink. The yellow was probably closer to my skin tone than bright pink but she acted like it was a terrible choice.

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