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.
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.
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.
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.