Monday, October 12, 2015

I Am Yellow (Curious)

Last Friday, in my beginning ESL class, we worked on a guided paragraph in which students had to describe a good friend. One word that perplexed my students was "complexion." I told them that meant skin color. Some people have a light complexion and some have a dark complexion, I told them. Then there are all sorts of shades in between.

One of my Asian students declared, "I am yellow." I wonder where that comes from. I held out my arm next to hers and I couldn't really see much difference, except that I had freckles and she didn't. I remember a lot of WWII propaganda showing the Japanese as yellow monsters, but I don't remember actually seeing anyone from Asia who looked remotely like that.

I told her, "If you were yellow I would call 911. We'd need an ambulance to take you to the hospital. I think it's called jaundice when people are yellow." But she certainly wasn't the first one to call herself yellow. It's a common belief. There was a Randy Newman song called, "Yellow Man." I don't remember what it's about, but if I've heard it, and others of my Asian students think of themselves as yellow, it's a pretty widespread belief.

I'm certified to teach Spanish, and one semester a supervisor asked me to do it. A kid asked me, "Why are you white?" I said, "Well, my mother was white and my father was white, so I'm white too." The kid said, "No, I mean, why are you white and teaching Spanish?" I said, "Well, my boss asked me to, and I said OK." He then announced that white people didn't speak Spanish. I told him he looked pretty white to me, and he spoke Spanish, and he took umbrage.

"I'm Spanish. I'm not white," he announced.

A female student corrected him. "You're not Spanish. You're Dominican. You have to be from Spain to be Spanish."

"You know what I mean," he said.

But the girl was not swayed. "I'm Colombian, and you're Dominican. And we're both white."

Our labels are very important to us. Actually no one's really white either, except Casper the Friendly Ghost. And who wants to look like that? But we accept these labels without much thinking about them. Then we fight over which labels are acceptable.

I've been called white all my life, and I guess this girl has been called yellow all hers. We accept these labels, no matter how inaccurate they are, and we never even look at ourselves to check whether or not they're accurate, or important, or worthy of deeper consideration. Will Common Core teach us to question things so we can fix that?

I'm not holding my breath.
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