Sticky bins filled with colored pencils, crayons, and markers are placed in the center of tiny tables. It’s the prelude to one of the first art projects of any elementary school career — the self-portrait. The teacher will detail the instructions to the kids, and might even include a few words of wisdom: Everyone is an artist, and everyone should be proud of who they are. It’s supposed to be an exercise in self-esteem, which even at a young age, children have already conceived — according to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, self-esteem has already formed in one direction or the other by age five. Because art acts as an outlet a kid might not have elsewhere, taking note of how they draw and what they feel about it is important. ’
The kids are meant to select the colors of their choice to create the best reflection of themselves that their baby brains can muster. It’s an odd exercise for children of color, who have likely already begun internalizing the idea that they look different in a way that is rarely celebrated. Their parents, teachers, and friends may praise them, but the surrounding world is heavily filled with images where beauty is communicated as a mostly white ideal. How should they illustrate how they feel on the inside? It’s an often undetectable, but present conflict for young kids of color: draw yourself with ethnic features, and admit belonging to a group of “others,” or draw yourself as with Caucasian features, in order to more closely align with a so-called image of beauty.
Until 1962, Crayola’s “peach” crayon was actually named “flesh.” The color is still synonymous with human skin, even the minds of darker-skinned kids. (There were other slip ups like this in Crayola’s offerings; until 1999, “chestnut” was called “Indian red.”) When children of color draw themselves white, it might reveal something about how they are interpreting the world they’ve been shown, and subsequently their desire to fit into it. (Notoriously, Rachel Dolezal colored herself using the brown crayon, and drew herself with “black curly hair” at age 5.)
I went to a racially diverse elementary school in New York with high teaching standards. It was also vastly wealthy, creating an environment of invisible division. Even with its best intentions, students and teachers alike couldn’t help but stumble through attempts at fairness and inclusion. Even early on, kids of color figured it out: school was not built with them in mind. The curriculum brushed over parts of non-white history. Children of color were disproportionately disciplined. Parents would grow distant when they learned what side of town their child’s friend lived in. In art classes, I remember a few dark-skinned classmates who drew themselves with modifications. They never colored their skin incorrectly; they usually kept that accurate. But I saw a decent amount of drawings that had flowing blonde hair, or blue or green eyes. I’ve always wondered about this phenomena, and what it says about how we inform racial viewpoints from the earliest ages, in the most unassuming of places.
The Outline reached out to three people with expertise in the ways childhood art and race collide. They are working towards a world that encourages children of color to represent themselves with accuracy and pride.
In the classroom
Claudia Brunhuber has been teaching art for 15 years at Vanderbilt Elementary, in a suburb of Long Island, New York.
Each year starting at kindergarten, we use a different material or medium, different design in the backgrounds, or different idea for the self-portrait. First grade, we create patterns. Second grade we do a watercolor. Third grade, we actually put our portrait in an iPhone, or a smartphone. We make a selfie out of it. Fourth grade, we make what’s called a trading card, so we show ourselves in motion. And in fifth grade we use oil pastels.
It definitely improves. I love keeping them year after year because of that reason. You see your little stick figure in kindergarten morph into this beautiful self-portrait that resembles you in fifth grade.
I used to do construction paper for third grade, and it actually became a harder skill. More kids of darker skin color, they got confused on what their actual color was. And I see that more with kids of color. Are they really the black paper, or the dark brown or the lighter brown?
You’re called white or black, and white is peach. Your skin color doesn’t match the wording, so I think at the elementary level they’re like, “Well, where’s my black paper? Where’s my white paper? I’m not that skin color.” I see it for all skin tones, that confusion.
Not everyone’s able to express themselves through math equations or a science experiment. And I think that art is so subjective and really nothing’s wrong with that and I feel like maybe if the child does feel a little uncomfortable in their own skin or their own self-esteem whether it’s a student of color or not, they really are able to express themselves.
When they’re working at tables, they’re like, “oh, mine’s not as good as that one, mine’s not as good as that one.” But why? I always encourage my kids to try it. It doesn’t have to look like mine. It doesn’t have to look like the kid next to you. There’s 20 kids. There should be 20 different pictures. Everyone’s going to look a little different, and be comfortable in that.
In the textbooks
Dr. Dena Philips Swanson is an associate professor of counseling and human development. She has taught at the University of Rochester for over a decade. Her interest in race and children first developed in her home of Atlanta, when she heard about studies that showed evidence that black children may have lower self-esteem, and realized they were “distinct individuals from other groups by age 5.”
You’re going to have one of the white children in that school call that child black, and that child is going to go home or ask the teacher, ask somebody: “What does that mean? I’m not black.” Because there’s no context for defining black. They look at the Crayola box and go, “Well that’s not the color I am,” and so they don’t see it as a concept. Most parents will have a conversation then, with their child, about what that means and the differences, and still acknowledge that this is how the world might see this group, but here’s who you are.
The difference is the extent to which children actually take that in. So it’s similar in that all children will face it at some point, but the extent to which children internalize it when they’re younger is going to vary, even when they’re in a racially mixed setting. They’re more likely to have to address it in a racially mixed setting than they are in a setting that is predominantly black.
[Black children] consistently reported whites as being prettier, as being nicer, and blacks as being ugly or mean. And so there was a dichotomy between what children saw as what’s good for black people, what was good for whites, and yet it did not reflect how they saw themselves. They didn’t link it to themselves. They weren’t saying “I’m bad,” or “I’m mean,” or “I’m ugly,” but they’re saying “Oh yeah, the rest of the world sees black this way. But that’s not who I am.”
When a black child draws him or herself as a white child, with features that are white, what they’re saying is, “I want to be seen as pretty, and this is what pretty means to me.” That’s in essence what they’re saying. They’ll be saying, “I am pretty, so you must see me this way.” Or they are saying “This is the way I would like to be seen, because this is what pretty is, and this is what it means to be cute.”
As they get older they begin to associate those messages they get about what it means to be black, or what it means to be dark skinned. They began to incorporate those messages into really trying to understand what’s next, or who they were, and that’s when we began to see certain experiences of stress being manifested in children, in particular in youth. They were trying to make sense of how they fit in the world around them, given some of the things they were seeing, as well as some of the things they were personally experiencing that were either discriminating them or minimizing who they are because they are black children.
What I have found is that having adults in a child’s life that help to counter those narratives is particularly and incredibly important for reshaping what they’re seeing in the media, whether that’s on TV or social media. Sometimes even in the school context, having adults to help them interpret and reframe those messages is really important for helping them learn to see themselves in a positive way.
There’s a lot of work and research that’s been done around this area, and what we find is that students who have, in an educational setting in particular, teachers encourage and validate children’s history, and children’s race, will enhance their self-esteem. But it has to be explicit. Our curriculum in school does not validate black children’s sense of self-worth. It doesn’t happen explicitly, and then our youth are left to make inferences on their own in terms of what it means to be black, based on other experiences and exposure they may have. The school has the opportunity to do it, but that’s not often what happens.
In the future of coloring
Dani Dixon is the founder of Tumble Creek Press, an independent publisher of books, comics, and manga. She currently has two coloring books that include people of color, and she has a third coming out this summer.
I started with comic books, a middle grade scifi series called “13”. My first foray into coloring books was for that series, and I was really just experimenting. I was a bit ahead of the curve with the whole coloring book trend. Now I have coloring books for a few of my series. As a creator, it’s a way to widen the universe in a slightly different format.”
Coloring books as a whole, suffer the same ills as the larger kid lit medium. There are more inanimate objects, animals and anthropomorphised things represented than kids of color. I can’t say whether it’s better or worse than fiction, but coloring books are how kids express themselves within a framework, and when there are no children of color to speak of that severely limits a kid’s ability to express their own imagination.
I think it’s fine for kids to draw themselves differently — with blond hair or purple hair — but if they default to the images they’ve been fed, and think how they look or how their hair grows is wrong, then yeah, that’s problematic. In my Jupiter Elementary activity book I ask the reader to draw a picture of themselves. However, at that point in the book, they’ve already been shown five kids, with very different personalities, and very different ethnic identities. I don’t know how often a self-portrait prompt is framed that way.
Because even if they can observe differences in their real lives, their experience is that what they look like doesn’t belong in a book, on a page, hung on a wall. It starts early and it’s recurring. What are the books they read and were read to them? What stories are told to the whole class - and therefore given higher credibility? What books are available in the school library?
It’s been said a million times, but “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” I don’t think that’s always true. History is woven with trailblazers, but those are exceptions. For the vast majority of kids, they need to see themselves in an array of situations, positively, and with regularity.