I believe that I am part of the problem.
In 2007, I interned with an NGO in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, teaching English at a local elementary school. Every day when I walked into my classroom, I was greeted by my 25 eager pupils. Whenever they learned something new, like a greeting or numbers, their deep brown eyes and rich tan faces lit up, revealing gap-toothed smiles that make me laugh even as I write this.
For many of them, English is their third language, although you wouldn’t know it from listening to them—none would subject themselves to the humiliation of speaking Mixteco outside of their homes. They know racism against Mexico’s indigenous population has a long, violent history, which has resulted in a cultural inferiority complex amongst the diverse people groups of Oaxaca. For example, if I asked a student to teach me Mixteco, he or she would laugh nervously and ask, “Why would you want to learn that?”
I bonded with Joselín on the first day. Although she was shy, she loved to sit next to me while coloring, chatting the whole time. One day, I noticed she made all the people in her pictures white. So did all of her classmates. Before I could ask about it, she offered an explanation, saying, “When I color, I make all my people white, because white skin is beautiful, and brown skin is ugly.” When this precious six-year-old girl told me she thought her skin was ugly, I had to fight back tears.
Why did this child believe she is ugly? That she is somehow inferior because of her skin color?
Then I saw the answer. The advertisements she saw, the television she watched, the history she learned about in school—all of it bombarded her with lies—lies that say her skin’s golden brown hue is repulsive. Even my relationship with her was problematic. I was a white teacher, teaching my native tongue when she was embarrassed to speak her language outside of her home. No matter how hard I tried to act or speak like a local, I would always be white—I would always be a reminder of the lies she had been told.
I radically redefined my idea of racial inequality that summer, and that came from the discovery that I am part of the problem. But I am working to be part of the solution. I changed my teaching style that day. When I colored, my people were many different colors—including blue and green. And I asked my students to teach me too: like how to play a game or sing a song. Eventually, I saw a change: they were much less worried about disappointing me, and all of them, even Joselín, started coloring figures with brown skin. I know that coloring cannot undo centuries of racism, but I pray that my students left class a little more comfortable in their skin, just as I left determined to find my place in the process of racial reconciliation.