Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Fifth Graders and I Talked About Race.

In my fifth grade science class, we all sit close together around a few small rectangular tables.  Today, Lilly sat right across from me.  She and I had just finished a conversation when she said, "Teacher.  Your eyes are very pretty and big."  I accepted the compliment and was about to move on when Jun leaned over for a better look at my face.  "Yes, Teacher.  Very big eyes," he said in a poorly formed sentence, the kind he uses when he's relaxed and excited.  (He knows better.  I should have corrected him.)

They were all staring at me, and I felt egged on to make a further comment, to explain why my eyes are so large.
"Well, yes.  I guess it's because I'm... white."
I felt so awkward saying it.  I wanted to change the end of my sentence, but I knew that there was no getting out of it.  In contrast with my students' Asian eyes, my eyes do look larger, and I know that it's because I'm not Asian.
I looked up at them to gauge their reaction.  All I saw were blank stares.  I realized they probably had no idea about what I meant by "white."  I proceeded cautiously for the sake of explanation and language acquisition (seriously).

"White.  It's what we call... people whose ancestors are from Europe.  Because the skin is so light.  Like, we have Asian people from Asia, and black people, well they're not always black-black, but their skin is darker... their ancestors are usually from Africa.  And people with brown skin, maybe they came from South America..."

"Teacher, I want white skin."

It was Lilly again.  I was caught off guard.  I've known that many Asian cultures (Korea included) highly value fair skin, but I was not expecting my beautiful 10-year-old student to want to change her appearance like this.

"Lilly.  Why?"

"Because I like white.  Ha, I mean, Teacher, I like white skin."

Being the Save The Humans activist that I am, I plunged right ahead.  I told her how people in America value tanned skin to illustrate how beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I told her how people will go to great lengths to achieve what they think is beautiful, when sometimes all they'll end up with is cancer.  I even told them how I, one of the fairest in the class, want to be more tan to show them how deeply the affects of the ideas of what is beautiful can run and how the idea are often poorly balanced with reality.  ("But Teacher!  Your skin is so white!")  I finished with telling them how America has people of many different skin colors and how it makes the nation more beautiful to have such a rainbow of colors.

Jun popped in again.  "Teacher, rainbow?  With blue, purple and green?"

"Okay, turn in your books to page 54, class!"

This is Lilly, one of the most intelligent, kind-hearted, and inquisitive young ladies I know.  Besides continuing to grow into the lovely and capable young woman she is, I hope she never changes.