OPINION — We were standing just within the outside wall of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, three heat-sticky boys and I, waiting for my husband to rent proper clothes to gain access to the sacred space.
We’d already stopped twice on the short walk from the river dock to the palace. First, we had cooled off in the outdoor market as the boys chose sodas from an ice bucket filled with a virtual rainbow’s array of Fantas; and second, we had stopped for ice cream at the almost-but-not-quite-7-Eleven convenience store.
Cold treats were our only refuge against the heat assaulting us. And now my husband was trading in his shorts for some traditional Thai pants, heavy and embroidered with hot colors.
The boys played while we waited, drawing attention from a smattering of people around us. A man emerged from a spot against a nearby wall. I had not noticed the man or the wall before.
The man walked purposefully toward my middle son, stopping short in front of him and raising a hand toward his face. For a moment, I wondered if the man might slap my boy but as his hand hesitated, pausing gently in the air, I realized that it looked more likely positioned to pet than to hit him.
As the man approached, I’d instinctively moved closer to my son. As I entered the man’s line of sight, his eyes flickered away from my boy to me. It was at that moment that his hand paused and self-awareness flooded his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” the man said in slightly broken, heavily-accented English, “but his eyes, his skin, they are beautiful.”
My boy’s light caramel skin and Bradley-Cooper-blue eyes were not only beautiful, it seems, but enviable to the man.
If only his skin and eyes were like my boy’s, he said, his life would be different. His own skin is too dark, his eyes too dull, he said, people either laugh at him or he is invisible standing against the palace wall.
The man returned to his place along the wall and my son turned to me, eyes questioning, and then he asked:
Why was that man sad about the way his skin looks, mom? What’s so good about mine?
I tried explaining. I tried telling him that the color of one’s skin doesn’t really matter. I tried telling him that I didn’t even really notice the difference between his skin and the man’s. But nothing I said made sense, not to him and not to me.
A few weeks ago, a friend was volunteering in a Salt Lake City kindergarten where her daughter and my son are students. She accidentally called one girl the wrong name. Apologizing to the student, my friend said she sometimes confuses this girl with another girl in the class who also has brown hair and brown eyes.
“But my skin is way darker than hers,” the girl said objecting.
Embarrassed by the girl calling attention to skin color, my friend’s eyes darted away. The child was not deterred.
“Look!” the girl said pointing at her arm. “Do you see my skin? It’s dark. That other girl’s skin is not this dark. How does it even look the same to you?”
The challenge made my friend uncomfortable. I’d felt similarly uncomfortable in Bangkok when the subject of skin color confronted me. But why?
As my friend and I puzzled through the question, I wondered if the answer didn’t partly lie in the color of our own skin and partly in misguided intentions. Perhaps as two white women, we haven’t felt disadvantaged by our skin color. And perhaps being raised with this “privilege,” we mistakenly believe that if we see no difference in the skin colors of others and our own, then there is equality.
But the kindergartner didn’t see it that way.
When my friend didn’t register her skin color, she neglected an obvious part of who this girl is.
And, in the case of the man in Bangkok, when I tried to tell my son there was no difference or that the difference didn’t matter, I didn’t allow the man’s plight to matter either. In trying to help my son see beyond the color of the man’s skin, I, myself, had only succeeded in not seeing the man at all.
It was a mistake I hope not to make again, even if it means I see the color of everyone’s skin.
It may not be the solution, but at least it’s a start.
Kat Dayton is a developing columnist with St. George News. Any opinions stated are her own and may not be representative of St. George News.
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