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Colored By History
by Sarah Cooper-Glenn
Apr 10, 2012 | 578 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“Miss, I can see your veins!” the little girl said wide-eyed as she pulled my lilly-white arm towards her. I was different. I was, in her words, “weird.” My blue eyes were a constant source of fascination when I first started volunteering with Grenada’s underprivileged children. Two pair of sunglasses were broken in little-fingered attempts to uncover my bright blue eyes.

A similar uproar is happening in America, but ours isn’t as innocent. A black Treyvon Martin was shot in Florida by a white George Zimmerman. In Tulsa, Okla., four shootings rattled a community along racial lines, although race may or may not be an issue. Activists, lawyers and journalists are playing the race card, wondering whether or not Treyvon Martin and others died for being black.

The fact that the question is still pulsing strong in our national consciousness says a lot of about our own societal racial biases. Being removed from American society, I see this discussion in a different light.

For those who are unfamiliar with my island home of Grenada, its population is almost entirely black. The indigenous Caribs were wiped out in the 16th century by testy French soldier/colonists. After years of bitter guerilla war, the Caribs had dwindled down to a stubborn handful of fighters. During their last stand, the women, children and men picked up their spears and made one last valiant attempt to kill as many French as they could, but all for naught. Rather than surrender, 40 lightly-tanned people leapt to their deaths into the churning ocean.

In the centuries that followed, that same ocean brought slave ship after slave ship to the tiny island, packed with Africans. Their future would be one of spice plantation bondage until the 19th century when the white people picked up and left this displaced race in relative peace to live their new identity as Grenadians.

Whites are the minority here, but our skin color is steeped in the same racial prejudices that started with the horror of the slave trade. Many of the Grenadian children I work with believe I am rich. Their parents who work at the grocery stores believe that they have to speak quietly and reverently to me when they bag my food. Some still see customer service as an act of servitude. Not all, but some. Others I have become great friends with and see me as an equal, as I do them.

What does it say about race when I am suddenly the minority? It says that racism on both sides exists whether you are in America or anywhere else in the world. It is evolutionarily engrained in the human race to notice differences in our environment and respond to them. It’s not the skin color that causes racism, it’s the centuries of mental associations we have made with that skin color. Those little children marveling at my veins and freckles is the most natural thing in the world. However, the emotions that they associate with a white person (admiration, envy, friendship, equality) depend on my behavior as a role model.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper decided to tackle the issue in a Sunday night special report, “Kids on Race.” His study mirrored the landmark doll study of the 1940s in which children between the ages of 3 and 7 were asked to select the baby doll (one black and one white) that matched the characteristic mentioned by the researcher. What they found in 1940 was that both black and white children preferred the white doll and associated it with positive characteristics. Cooper’s 2011 study found a self-identifying racial bias among the same age group of children. Black children thought the black baby doll had the best characteristics, while white children gravitated toward the white doll.

So what is it that causes this bias? Not enough exposure to diversity? TV reinforcing existing stereotypes? Bad parenting?

These same Grenadian children who think my skin color is such an oddity were playing together in a field last week. As they played among themselves, one girl started chanting, “Your skin is darker than ours. You a blackie!” She was referring to another child, a child who while also black, has a slightly darker skin color.

No matter where you go or what your skin color, children notice. It will take centuries of teaching them to appreciate and love those differences to eliminate the negative stigmas that come with racism, just as it took centuries to implant them. For now, I will enjoy letting those kids marvel at my white skin while giving them the best I can offer. Because not all white people are bad.

Sarah Cooper-Glenn is a journalist from Sparks. She currently lives in Grenada where she is a global politics and travel writer. She can be contacted at sarahglenn2010@gmail.com or via her website, SarahGlenn.Net.
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