A Lesson in Art -- and Racial Identity

BlogHer Original Post

I volunteer as an Art Docent at my kids' school, which means that once a month I go into the classroom to teach the kids about a famous artist and let them try their hand at the techniques that artist used.

For my latest project, I taught Little Brother’s first grade class how to draw self-portraits. The lesson was supposed to be about proportions. Each child would get a large sheet of white paper, on which they would draw an oval and sketch in pencil lines which would help them place their eyes, nose and mouth.

Image Credit: jonathanjonl, via Flickr

The supply list called for white paper for the faces and brightly colored paper for the backgrounds. At the last minute, I grabbed a stack of brown paper, too. The school is nearly half Latino, with some African-American, Asian, and Indian kids, as well as Hapa children, like my own. I created my sample -- my own self-portrait -- on a brown sheet of paper, even though it was slightly darker than my own complexion.

What followed was an eye-opening learning experience.

I circulated around the room with my stack of white and brown paper, telling the kids that they could have the shade they thought most resembled their skin.

Several of the Latino kids waffled back and forth, then settled on the white paper.

The lightest child in the class, a white-blond Caucasian boy, reached out for the brown paper.

So did a red-haired girl.

Little Brother (the paler of my kids) chose brown.

I walked over to a table where two African American girls sat. I handed one of them a brown paper. The lighter-skinned (mixed-race) Black girl grabbed a white paper.

What was going on here?

Maybe my attempt at nurturing a healthy self-esteem was backfiring into some kind of social experiment gone awry. I could surmise all kinds of arm chair sociologist conclusions:

Was it a reflection of the American obsession with tan skin that the palest White kids chose the brown paper?

Did the fairer skinned Black girl perceive herself as "light" in comparison to her peers?

The results eerily reminded me of the famous “doll experiments” conducted by African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in which Black children preferred to play with White dolls, rather than Black, and when asked to color in their faces, often chose shades lighter than their actual complexions. Those experiments took place in the 1940s. In 2006, a high school student named Kiri Davis replicated those doll experiments in her documentary film A Girl Like Me, and found similar results as during the 1940s. Apparently , those ideas are still alive in 2011.

My head was still spinning as we walked home that afternoon. I asked Little Brother what he thought of the art project.

"My picture didn't look that good. Yours looked really nice. Except your skin isn't that dark."

Race and Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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