Developing a Positive Identity: Skin Color

Cultivating Genius Book Study

While reading Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework For Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, past classroom experiences involving the topic of skin color came to mind. Next are two specific incidents that stayed with me over time. 

Vignette #1

I recall looking on as one of my young students carefully drew a picture of her family. She was a white student who lived with her white parents, white aunt, black uncle, and biracial cousins. She chose different skin colors to represent each member of her family. Suddenly, she looked up at me and asked, “What’s your favorite color?” Without much thought, I quickly responded, “I love blue!” She shook her head and said, “No, what is your favorite skin color?” I was so taken off guard that I didn’t know what to say. Finally, I told my student that I love all skin colors, of course. 

Vignette #2

Following art class, a little girl with beautiful, deep ebony-colored skin came running over to me to share her self-portrait. She frequently talked about her dream of becoming a ballerina, so it seemed appropriate that she drew herself in a dance pose wearing a pink tutu and ballet shoes. I also noticed that she drew herself with long blond hair and peach colored skin. When I asked why she didn’t choose colors that matched her skin and hair color she solemnly told me that she wouldn’t look beautiful with those colors. She then pointed out that she was a ballerina as if it was obvious that she needed blond hair and peach skin to be a ballerina. Again, I was speechless for a moment before I said, “Of course you would look beautiful!”

I knew back then, as I know now, that my words were insufficient in changing perceptions about black skin not being beautiful, ballerinas only being white, and teachers having favorite skin colors. Muhammad’s book was exactly what I needed to grow in my knowledge about creating an inclusive environment that cultivates positive identities and creates a community that celebrates different skin colors.  

Muhammad explains that “Historically Responsive Literacy draws upon and responds to the histories, identities, and literacy and language practices of students for teaching and learning” (p. 49). The HRL model includes four essential pursuits of literacy. These pursuits work together to support students with attaining both personal and academic success.

  1. Literacy as Identity Meaning Making

  2. Literacy as Skills

  3. Literacy as Intellect

  4. Literacy as Criticality

I want to focus on my personal area of growth - literacy as identity meaning making. Through authentic and culturally relevant literacy experiences our students can learn about themselves and others.    

Muhammad highlights how little progress we’ve made in our society in cultivating the positive identity of people with a darker skin color. She includes an advertisement on a postcard from the early 1900s that claimed its soap could turn “black to white”, as well as a soap ad from 2017 that depicted a similar message through pictures.

Unfortunately, a quick web search allowed me to see that these types of ads are far too prevalent in current times. Among these, I found an ad for deodorant with the slogan, “white is purity” and another with a little black boy wearing a sweatshirt that read, “coolest monkey in the jungle”.  

Critics of these offensive ads explain that the best way to avoid racist advertising is to make sure that advertising teams are created with diverse members. I think this speaks again to the importance of having diverse teams that can see things from different perspectives.

We can relate this thinking about advertisements to the creation of our curriculum, tests, and mandates. It is our responsibility as educators to know who is creating the materials and mandates for our schools. If the teams creating these pieces in education are mostly white, male, non-educators, will they be able to see the biases in their creations? 

Muhammad writes that cultural identity “is composed of notions of who we are, who others say we are (in both positive and negative ways), and who we desire to be” (p. 67).

I wondered:

  • Am I doing my part in the classroom to guide students to embracing their cultural identity? 

  • Am I helping children to know and love themselves and others no matter their cultural differences?

Muhammad encourages educators to think about their own ideologies and social conditioning that have shaped their knowledge and perspectives of black and brown people. 

This made me think about why I shy away from talking about skin color. I vividly recall running errands with my mom, as a young child, and being shushed when I pointed out people with different skin colors. I remember asking my mom why my babysitter’s skin was black and again being shushed. After several instances of this happening, skin color became a taboo topic for me. 

In everyday life, as well as in the classroom, discussions about skin color should happen and are needed to promote positive cultural identities in our students. We must help our students see that the rainbow of skin colors in our world is something to be celebrated! Our skin color is a part of who we are as unique individuals and a part of our history.

My personal goals are to move past black history month and to not over focus on hardships in black history. Every day, I want my students to be surrounded by positive black figures (and other races) depicted through various types of media. I want to invite black family members and community members into the classroom as guest speakers and readers providing memorable positive experiences for all of my students. I want to know my students deeply so that I can help them to see their future-selves attaining their goals. As an educator, I want to cherish the opportunity I have to help my students know themselves and live joyfully in the world.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

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