Saturday, March 21, 2009

A colorful life

Just happened on to this post .

And it just occurred to me that how we perceive "color", really is a function of where we live, our family , our ages when color becomes an issue, and who else is involved in our handling of the "colorful" situation.....

This issue is not about race. It is about how our thinking processes are so sensitized to "color" per se, that sometimes we forget that we are dealing with someone for whom color is a fun thing, something in a garden, and a thing of beauty.

Children associate color with fun. Till , we adults , and maybe their growing-up, teaches them , about how the world thinks about it amidst humans and perceptions of power.

It sometimes makes me wonder,though, how , in this land with such vibrant colors , we insist on the two extremes.

My daughter has a wheatish complexion, and my son, older to her , is generally classified in India, as "fair". Till she started primary school, color was never an issue. She was supremely confident about her unshakable position as the family "star", thanks to being the youngest, a fairly competitive swimmer, and every one's favourite.

She once came back seething with anger from school. Cribbing about some girl or boy in her class, who ribbed her about being "black", unlike her brother, who was "white" , they said. She used to earlier deal with nasty comments saying "Come to the pool, I'll show ya.." and possible humiliation by a slip of a girl kept folks away.

Till we told her that one didn't go around threatening and challenging like this. And I kept thinking about how to explain things to her. She was at an age when her color was not a burning sociological issue to her. She just wanted to get back at her troublesome classmates.

And so I told her that NO color was bad. There were very fair types who had very black minds, and very dark types who were white as snow in their minds. You needed to know a person's behaviour well, to know whether he was good or bad.

She kind of looked at me skeptically. I was talking to her like their teacher sometimes did, and it was like some people spoke on TV and everyone applauded.

She nodded.

Then I had an idea.

"Look, if anyone calls you black/dark, just go ahead and call him yellow, orange , green or blue. You can even call him pink and purple, and brown. "

Her face creased into a smile. This was doable.

Growing up when I did, aware of the problems of race, apartheid, social distinctions et al, I was trying to be ultra sensitive about color and explain things an adult's way.

That world surely existed. But she had not yet plunged into that world. Her world was all about taking on the teasing. She would do the same if anyone dared comment on her brother, who was supremely unaware of all this stuff going on in my daughter's primary class.

The next time this happened in class, the whole thing degenerated into a game of calling each other by various colors. Instead of it becoming an ultra sensitive issue, it got trivialized to such an extent, that it even developed into a game played in the recess, where the girls enjoyed my daughter's take on the whole thing and it became a girls vs boys thing.

Today, 15 years later, she is a young woman, comfortable in her own skin. She is still wheatish, her brother is still "white" :-) . She has seen the ways of the world. She reads, She watches current events unfold. She accompanied me to the US a few years ago, and I caught up with my grad school roommates from 38 years ago, with whom I still keep contact. We stayed with some of my roommates, and she got along better than like a house-on-fire, with them. One of them was African American, and one of them , well, a European American. She had a whale of a time in both places, and enjoyed meeting their families. She is treated by both as a favourite niece and indulged in.

She has learned what color means, in a gradual way, commensurate with her development from childhood to adulthood. She knows how the world treats color. She has seen the ways of the world. And she can deal with them.

And to paraphrase something Albert Schweitzer said, she knows, that
her true worth , today, is not to be found in herself, but in the colors and texture that she can bring alive in others around her......

But back then in primary school, maybe she should have seen this :

While walking in a toy store ,The day before today,
I overheard a Crayon Box, With many things to say.

"I don't like red!" said Yellow, And Green said, "Nor do I!
And no one here likes Orange, But no one knows quite why."

"We are a box of crayons that really doesn't get along,"
Said Blue to all the others, "Something here is wrong!

Well, i bought that box of crayons And took it home with me
And laid out all the crayons So the crayons could all see

They watched me as I colored With Red and Blue and Green
And Black and White and Orange And every color in between

They watched as Green became the grass And Blue became the sky.
The Yellow sun was shining bright On White clouds drifting by.

Colors changing as they touched, Becoming something new.
They watched me as I colored, They watched till I was through.

And when I'd finally finished, I began to walk away.
And as I did the Crayon box Had something more to say...

"I do like Red!" said the Yellow And Green said, "So do I!
And Blue you are terrific! So high up in the sky."

We are a Box of Crayon Each of us unique,
But when we get together The picture is complete.


  1. Another wonderful post.

    How true is your statement, "There were very fair types who had very black minds, and very dark types who were white as snow in their minds." That is what we need to teach children - what colour is someone inside not outside.

    Your daughter is bound to be a wonderful girl given the colourful mother that she has. She is lucky she has such a wise teacher.

    Children can be cruel can't they but I guess it becomes good training to help us bounce back from life' adversaties later on through life.

    I love the beautiful vibrant colours I see in images of India. I still hope to go there one day with my daughter. She was only talking about it this week. Her flat mate comes from Mumbai originally and has been in Austraia for two years now.

  2. Why we bother so much for color in india? because the whites ruled us? The British, Moghuls were all whites. The fair and Lovely cream is sold maximum in our country.

  3. You were wise to teach your daughter about how to handle teasing. The taunts could have hurt her but instead you made the color of one's skin a thing of no consequence; and that's what it should be.

    If only everyone could see that skin color is just the amount of pigment in the skin and has nothing to do with character or who the person is.

  4. Thank you Suranga, for this truly wonderful post. I have a pair of ebony-ivory daughters and have often thought of posting about it, only my furious and complicated response gets in the way. Thank you so much for your calm take on the colour-issue.

  5. That's a lesson I'll remember to teach my own kids when they need it. Thank you for writing about this. We all face it at some point and what we need are ways to deal with it.

  6. Hi again Suranga, What a wise and great post, I love the 'Crayon Box' and will - if you don't mind 'borrow' it for my collection of wise and wonderful sayings containing 'Pearls of Wisdom' on my sidebar. It should have a place and 'writ large' on all the school entryways and recreation halls in schools everywhere...
    Cheers to you on this Mothering Sunday from Scotland - Kate x.

  7. What a beautiful way to teach about "coloured skin" and to dilute the cruelty of a child's remark.....
    The Crayon box again was wonderful!

  8. I love the Crayon Box too.

    It's funny how children just love teasing and bullying each other. If it's not about skin colour, it will be about hair colour, or religion, or social class, or diet, or clothes or anything really... Maybe this is what school is all about, learning about difference.

  9. Lilly Thank you. Our society is so diverse that children in school here get early training in different religions, customs and languages. Some fights, some understandings, some misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, they play together...

    Lilly, Quantas or Singapore Air, I forget who, has been advertizing here about some kind of Mumbai,Perth,Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and back fare, for something that today is the equivalent of 780$ (US). Dont know how much that is in AUS $. But Maybe u should check these things out at your end.....

    Pradip Biswas I think our obsession with "fair/white is superior", pre-dates the Mughals and the British. The British and Mughals were just catalysts. I have seen families where dark people are derisively mentioned. Children learn from the parents. 30 years ago, as a grad student in the US, my roommate was an African American girl, and I was agahst at some of the reactions I got from my fellow countrymen there.

    And the less said about Hindustan lever and fair and lovely, the better. They are neither fair, nor lovely.

    Darlene You know, sometimes I think we follow too many theories. What you actually need to apply is some good common sense. Always works.

    Sucharita You are most welcome , Sucharita. I used to have a furious and complicated response too. But that would get sidetracked into some kind of racial thing, without being of any help. Small children know no theories. They just follow their simple, uncomplicated, innocent minds. And thats how our solutions must be.

    Sujatha Sometimes we learn from the children. ....

    Kate Thank you, and please do use the Crayon Box in your sidebar..... I was just wondering, is Mothering Sunday, Scotlands version of Mothers Day ?

    SGD I too thought the Crayon Box was wonderful, when I found it. Children make all kinds of remarks , mostly without thinking, and then forget. Sometimes it helps if we ignore the theory behind the comment, and divert the childs attention....

    Helene H Merci Beaucoup. And should we say, Vive la difference, Vive la Crayon Box !

  10. Mr. Patwardhan related a reading from Osho, the other day to me. And he said something to the effect of the " the mango tree doesnt tell the rose plant, 'i am more beautiful than you'!!

    Colour gives each of us a certain individualistic tone ! And that should be celebrated. I have been a victim myself, suffering many years, enduring jibes on my colour. It took me a long while to step out and just be comfortable with who i am !

    And its been one heck of journey. I am so glad that your daughter wears her colour ! On her sleeve !!

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. that is such a beautiful take on color...

    my sis has twins -a girl and a boy...the boy is fair and the girl not so...while the girl is a hit in the US, back in india, its the boy who gets all teh 'so cute' talk...

    i think i'll send this to my sis...for a prob she may soon face...

    and the crayon poem was so apt!

  12. What a beautiful way to teach about "coloured skin".......

  13. Kavi Thank you for the comments. And I wish all those super educated types that one sees realize that the mango trees and rose bushes are telling them something. In a world so vibrant with color as in India, isnt it sad that they think in terms of black and white, which are actually, states of mind, and not colors .....

    Suma I had the same experience in Germany (when my daughter did Kindergaarten there). She was a complete hit, even with the school photographer ! I guess its human nature to hanker after what isnt there. But I know families where this dark fair thing is emphasized to disgusting extents....

    Femin Susan Thank you....

  14. Hi again Suranga, Yes Mothering Sunday is the same as Mother's Day - It's been known here in Scotland by both names as far back as I can remember,funnily enough my Grandmother called it Mothering Sunday (in the days before we had Mother's Day cards and all that! and that's a looong time ago).
    p.s. Thanks for the OK on the Crayon Box - Love Kate x.

  15. The crayon poem was great. It should be given to all the elementary school teachers. So that they can handle any kala/ gora issue that may arise in their class.

    me pan ameriketun pahilyanda bharatat gele astana baryach janani comment keli ki " amhala watla tu ata ameriket rahtiyes tar jara gori houn yesil. Tithle loka kasle gulabi gore astat na>

    Manaat mhanaychi vel aali ki may be alaskaat vagere rahat aste tar kadachit thodi zhale pan aste pan texas madhe rahun hee swapna pahnyat kai artha aahe.

    Once Oprah had said on her show that white people may not know this or understand this but we do have different shades in black from light to dark and the lighter black is still considered prettier and better.

  16. what a cute poem!
    Yeah, I'm so cheesed off that there are still SO many fairness cream ads on TV in India; as well as the same old matrimonial columns about wanting a fair bride!
    I wonder when our obsession with making our brown skin white will cease?!

  17. Thoughtful post again! Color plays such an important role without even us, realizing it...and kids, they're mean and honest:), sometimes windows to an otherwise hidden ideology. Kudos for narrating your approach.

  18. Beautiful beautiful poem. This poem should be made like a national anthem in schools. If all kids grow up thinking like this, it would solve all our communal problems. BTW i searched for this poem and found that it is written by Shane DeRolf.

  19. Ok, I am sure I left a comment before, but it has not shown up I see.

    I am so glad that you wrote about this. I sometimes think I try too hard with E, that I'm trying in some ways to undo some of the damage of my *own* childhood by being so vehement in opening all the opportunities out there for her, that were perhaps denied to me.

    Then I come across a post like yours and I realize all I want her to really do is be comfortable in her own skin. That was so well put Suranga Tai.


  20. Every child should read this poem in school. Children can be so cruel sometimes. Parents should also make sure their children get to see this. I am copying it to keep for my grandson. Great post.

  21. What a lovely poem, thanks from the bottom of my heart, am giving it to my daughter now and my son also.

    You know, that way of handling the 'black' remark was too came down to the child's level instead of intellectual explanations that are irrelevant to a child. Super!

    I did something similar for my son when he worried others would tease him about his spectacles. I told him if anyone said "Why are you wearing specs?", he could ask them "Why re you wearing that orange shirt, or black pant or brown belt?" He immediately got it! And relaxed considerably. He understood that specs was just something one wore like clothes, and no one had a right to tease him!

    Thanks again!

  22. Am reading this out to my kids today. Fair and dark and colours in between run riot in our home. And this is a great way to get to them before too much 'socialization' happens! :D

  23. Sangi Welcome to this blog ! and Thank you !