Thursday, June 07, 2007

Kids, Colours, and Racialization

L -- the kid who fills my days and who will be four in a couple of months -- has always been fascinated by colours. Ever since he learned how to say the words, he has named them, asked about them, talked about them, pointed them out, revelled in them. Even today, "Which colour of 'X' do you like?" is a common conversational gambit from him when faced with some field of objects, from cars to magnetic numbers to puzzle pieces. For awhile when he was younger his favourite bit of television was an episode of Blue's Clues all about the names of colours and how to make them by mixing other colours. This included colours beyond just the old standards, so occasionally strangers would be somewhat disconcerted by a two-and-a-half year-old correctly using, if not always accurately pronouncing, words like "chartreuse" and "ree-million." He also seems to be quite taken with using colours to draw and paint and so on, which is kind of exciting for me, coming as I do from a family in which people's talents tend to lie in words and/or music rather than visual arts.

So far, when it comes to colours as they relate to people, there have been moments where he/we have noted that different people have different colours of skin, and we have talked a little about that in very matter of fact ways. I have also tried to make the point that talking about colour vis-a-vis people is a more complicated sort of thing than for pretty much anything else without really going into detail yet (because I'm not sure how much more than that he would get at this point), but also trying hard in so doing not to turn it into some sort of tension-ridden taboo subject either. (If other parents have other suggestions on discussing such things with pre-school aged (white) children, I'd definitely like to hear them.)

But colours themselves have meaning. As with words, though we can engage and challenge and subvert and appropriate to a certain extent in our own deployment of them, colours have meaning that is socially produced and we cannot avoid that just by wishing it away.

One obvious example of this is the infusion of the colours blue and pink, and to a certain extent other colours, with meaning related to gender. This is something that is especially obvious and grating if you spend any time paying attention to clothing and toys and so on produced for small children. I have always tended to be resistant to naming favourites of any kind, but when growing up one of the few I would unhesitatingly claim was blue as my favourite colour, with absolutely no awareness of that as anything other than an exercise in isolated individual choice, though I obviously know differently now. There has not been evidence of such a tendency in L's talk of colours or in his drawing and painting, but the one area where I have noticed it is in the piece he chooses to be in a particular game we play sometimes -- after he had been going to pre-school for a few months, it went from completely random to blue most of the time. I noted this but chose not to make a big deal out of it. After all, it isn't so much which particular choices our kids make around expressing gender that matter (at least when it comes to symbollic things like colours) as our capacity to carve out a little more space for them to actually make choices, and to help them see how many of their "choices" are being socially constructed and forced. So I just kept on deliberately not showing favour to blue myself in choosing game pieces and in answering his random colour preference questions and in other ways, and didn't think much more about it. For reasons probably unrelated to anything I have done, his choice of game pieces has gradually moved back towards more randomness, though still a modest preference for blue.

Blue, pink, and gender are hardly the only example, however.

One night last week, we were cuddled up in bed. All the stories were read, the lights were out, and I had recited to his satisfaction a list of exciting things he might dream about, so we were just chatting a little bit before he drifted off to sleep. For whatever reason, the conversation turned to him imagining the different colours the sky could be and then him immediately following that with, "Nooooo...the sky can't be that colour." Sometimes I would agree, sometimes not (as in, "Well, it can be red at sunset, sometimes"). Then he would go on to the next colour.

Then he said, "And maybe the sky could be black." He paused, and I was all ready to point out that the sky was, in fact, black about half the time. Except he continued with, "But I don't want the sky to be black."

At first I thought this might be some sort of fear of the dark thing. That has never been an issue with him, but you never know when something like that might come up. So I asked him why.

L: "Because black isn't a nice colour."

Me: "Uhhh...why do you say that?"

L: "My friend E. at pre-school said black was a bad colour."

So we went on to have a bit of a discussion about that. I asked a few questions first. He had no idea why E. thought that. I would bet E. probably has no idea why he thinks that, either, given that they are three or four or whatever. It ended with me quite firmly stating that I understood that some people thought that, but that I disagreed quite strongly with E. and felt that black was no more "bad" or "not nice" than any other colour. L seemed to be giving this some thought when we moved on to some other topic, and pretty soon it was time for eyes to close and sleep to come.

So why does this matter?

Well, I can already imagine the mocking from white folks on the right and from many liberals that concern about this is just "political correctness" gone wild. I am certain that whatever interaction was happening between L. and E. about colours had nothing to do with people, and context definitely matters when it comes to the meanings with which colours are socially imbued -- one of the sillier ways in which white people of various political persuasions sometimes try to marginalize talk of race and racism is by removing talk of colour from the realm in which it has social meaning and then implying that talk about racism is exactly the same, and is therefore meaningless or even harmful. "Well, I wouldn't even care if he was purple or green" or "So do you think it is prejudiced if I choose to sit in that white chair instead of that black chair?" and other silliness like that.

In this instance, I would argue that this is not a situation in which the colour is divorced from significant social meaning. I would argue, rather, that this was one example of the small, everyday ways in which racialization, or at least the preconditions for racialization, are propagated in the culture. "Racialization" is a word for the process by which biological markers like skin colour, hair texture, and eye shape are given powerful social meaning through the social construct of "race", which then of course functions as a significant marker for the allocation of various experiences of privilege and oppression.

Whiteness has become normalized; it follows that non-Whiteness has become 'abnormalized.' It is easy to notice the abnormal because of their skin colour. Thus Black drivers are immediately perceived in terms of a particular body and colour image associated almost subliminally with a criminal disposition. Skin colour is the basic marker...[Carol Tator and Frances Henry. Racial Profiling in Canada, p. 27.]

I could be wrong, but I seem to remember reading that negative associations with the colour black existed in European Christian thought even before the processes of enslavement and colonization which gave rise to the modern social relations of white supremacy and associated ideologies of racism, beginning about five centuries ago. Whether or not it was drawing in some pre-existing system of imagery in the European cultural imagination or whether it was starting from scratch at that point, however, certainly now, five centuries later, the colour black has been saturated with a lot of negative meanings that, as these two pre-schoolers demonstrated, exist in discourse independent of the specific relations and ideologies of racism in the present. This free floating association of the colour black with various negatives is ostensibly completely unconnected to people, but that is not how such ideas work in practice at the level of the individual or at the level of the culture as a whole. Just as with blue and pink, we internalize certain socially produced gut reactions to black that are present any time we react to that colour, and it is hard to imagine how general "black is bad" imagery in the culture could be unrelated to the specific, racist ideologies surrounding Blackness in the white imagination -- dirtiness, immorality, danger, and so on. The ideas associated with the colour are both caused by and facilitate the process of racialization imposed on African-descended people. Deeply held gut reactions to black as a colour in the abstract being "not nice" and "bad" are one component of this racialization process.

As to how to respond as a parent, I can't imagine doing much more in that moment than what I did. I think a lot of parents with a lot of different politics are seriously deluded and think we can exert a lot more power than we really can to insulate and protect our kids from the harsh nastiness of the world and the oppressive ideas that are pushed on us. As with any sort of socially constructed meaning that we dislike, disagree with, or vehemently oppose, we can only engage, not determine. Our best bet is to make things visible as best we can and critique them and to be deliberately on and honest about our own political journeys.

But it is still interesting and depressing to have caught this glimpse of a particular idea, politically neutral on the surface but implicated in helping to make certain nasty social processes seem natural, propagating in this way.


Anonymous said...

I think I would have reacted in a similar way, and I think you're totally justified in being concerned with socially learned negative feelings toward black-colored things.

Scott said...

Thanks, anonymous!

SR said...

L. has occasionally asked me about the colour of people's skin before (usually people on TV), as in "why does LeVar Burton have brown skin?", to which I have replied "some people have light brown skin, and some people have pink skin, and some people have dark brown skin, just like some people have brown eyes and some have blue, and some people have brown hair, and some have red or blond, or black." I hope it will set the groundwork for when he comes home and says "X says people with brown skin are bad..." -- and I can remind him that LeVar Burton has brown skin. :) Would you have handled it differently?

Actually, I have heard L. talk about "girls' colours" and "boys' colours" before (although they were not 'pink' and 'blue'), but I countered pretty firmly that there were no colours for boys and colours for girls, that all the colours belonged to everybody. I asked him as well where he got that idea, and he also told me it was from E. I'm starting to think that E. is an even more worrisome influence than C. or D.!! But as you say, it seems like the best route forward is not to try to shelter him from it, but to help equip him think through it and counter it. I'm heartened by the fact that he still likes wearing his pink socks.

But still. Sigh.

Scott said...

I probably would have said something like that in that moment...actually, Reading Rainbow was one of the contexts in which he raised it with me, too. I think a more active orientation towards setting groundwork is appropriate too, and when obviously depends on what he is able to understand, but especially if we are talking a couple of years down the road, the first time he thinks about that should not be when he hears it on the playground.

SR said...

I think a more active orientation towards setting groundwork is appropriate too, though...the first time he thinks about that should not be when he hears it on the playground.

I agree, and I thought about that at the time. I considered trying to broach it now, but then I thought that he's probably too young; if I tried to convey a message like "anyone who says that people with brown skin are inferior" it would probably confuse and/or possibly even backfire at his age. But on the other hand, I suspect that his first playground exposure will precede his becoming intellectually mature enough to have that conversation. I mean, I know it will help to ensure that he has had exposure to models of people who do not fit the stereotypes society has for them (not just racism, but sexism, homophobia, etc etc etc), but at this point is it sufficient? Should we be doing more? I dunno.