Lizzy, Race has a recipe in the Art Room

Last Friday morning we had one of our last meetings as a faculty before the students arrived, but one of our first meetings on this topic, Race. It struck a chord in me, because I noticed over the years in working with my students, Race is noticed less with a judgement to follow. Students are interacting and moving about freely without the slightest hesitation of doing so with regard to who they are sharing with or sitting beside. I dedicate this post to a lady named Lizzy, whom my mother and grandmother were comforted by in her presence. I was too little to remember any conversation with her, but I knew she made the room peaceful and warm.

At school, we began our meeting in thinking about hair. Does the color, texture and/or style define who we are or where we feel we belong? A variety of responses surfaced. The color being true or dyed was applied to feel young or hide age. The pros and cons of managing straight or curly were considered and it was a pleasant surprise to learn in some countries, the light brown/dirty blond hair was sometimes thought of as blond and a certain language was expected to follow, yet it was spoken of their own.

It was a challenge to consider “How can I exercise this conversation with the students of today without feeling I am going backwards by pointing out differences?”. In my own elementary school experience, there was very similar skin tone up until middle school in 1982. I remember meeting my first friend, a very tall black girl who has a great laugh, beautiful smile and we share a sense of humor. We walked home to my house from school and ordered pizza before mom came home from work. When she did come home, she sat with us and cooled off downstairs.
When I moved to DC and received my first class list of students, I could barely pronounce the various names of students registered from the Embassies located in our school neighborhood. The word ‘Melting Pot’ just appeared in my mind, remember that and Sesame Street?  I remember thinking how great it will feel to be in a diverse community.

I’d like now to go back to that challenging thought. My initial reaction was “We’ve been through this, talked about it, lived through it, why should we continue to bring it up?”  If we sense the children of today see difference, but they see difference without judgment‘ and I remind them “by the way, did you know that at one time, difference came with a judgment?” , it just flattened me. This initial response, after speaking up, was not just my own and that brought me comfort. But what I did not want to miss or challenge in our journey of common good, was the message of the meeting in being: ‘we still need to create a classroom environment that is open and sensitive to all’.
As mentioned, the observation of growth in my students is ‘seeing race as simply a difference, not seeing the difference attached with a judgement’. With that said, I do recall on using language in the Art room in making self-portraits that was helpful as we discussed hair, skin tone, and eye color. Yes, in my first years, there was a handful of students who were sensitive to holding our their arm to notice skin tones.  So on that cue, I quickly talked about each skin tone has a recipe of Red, Yellow and Blue and we will blend in tints or shades to create the olive, peach, sun tan, cream, and brown. In years past I could feel the air lift as the word ‘recipe’ was used. Students were guided to find just the right recipe for their skin tone. Sketching straight and curly hair became a vocabulary of lines, shape and form. Our closing thought was seeing ourselves as ‘Living Sculptures’.  How we are so beautiful in our make up of line, color and shape.

A picture book to share with you is Metropolitan Cow. The upper crust cow family in their fancy high rise are miffed at the new pig family who seems quite messy as they move in the building.  The children of both become an adventurous pair and in their need to respect authority also learn communication despite difference takes them to common ground.  In response to this picture book as we focused on Character Education one year, the 5th grade produced split self-portraits. They sketched half of a self-portrait and paired it with an animal, community leader or culture of curiosity. The lesson exercised their skills of observation and self-expression as they shared “Who I am, who I could be, who I see is part of me.”

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One Comment on “Lizzy, Race has a recipe in the Art Room”

  1. Paige,
    Thank you for this lovely read! I thought it was brilliant the way you took your art background and immediately paired lines with hair texture and coloring mixing with skin tones!


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