The Skin We’re In

There are several books with a similar title…one children’s book that we enjoy at our house. But a call from a friend yesterday had me thinking about it.

She was doing something near a table at the beach where our kids were all involved in activities at Vacation Bible School when she overheard an unknown boy talking to Melkam, my five year old. The kids had big white bandanas and were preparing to tie-dye with the group. The boy next to him said (apparently several times) “I’m going to wipe this brown off your skin so that it will be skin-color.”

What did Melkam do? I asked her. Nothing really, just kind of ignored him. She couldn’t tell if it was really registering with him. I wondered if I should come get him, or go talk to a camp counselor and make a big stink. I didn’t. I talked to Melkam later when I picked him up for karate. I asked him if he had fun, if he’d had a good day. Yes, he happily chattered at me about what they’d been doing. I asked if he liked the kids, if the kids were nice to him. Yes. He made a new friend, he couldn’t remember his name. Sigh.

Then this morning I read my friend Dakota’s blog. She lives in Ventura California. We live in Sandpoint Idaho. I only need my hands to count how many black people my kids see on a regular basis. An executive at our bank. My friend’s adopted kids from Ethiopia and from New Orleans. A girl who was on Alex’s basketball team, and her mom. We sometimes drive an hour and a half to go to a black gospel church in Spokane where we are welcomed with open arms and we tell the kids that Mommy and Daddy may be the only people with light colored skin in church today, and they giggle and squeal with delight.

Like Dakota, I try to find a legitimate reason to start a friendship with other African Americans because of their skin color. What is that, like reverse racism?

On a recent trip to the Washington Coast we drove through Ranier Valley in Seattle to get to a highly rated hole-in-the-wall Ethiopian restaurant. There were scores of Ethiopians playing soccer in nearby parks, walking together, etc. The little community park in Redmond where I took the kids and dog while my husband went to a meeting was filled with Indians, Ethiopians, Asians. I miss that. The restaurant had the best injera I’ve ever tasted! The lovely family who runs it tried to greet our children in Amharic and it’s the first time Alex, our oldest, has registered regret for not remembering how to communicate with his fellow Ethiopians.

We will just keep taking advantage of every opportunity we can find to bring people who look more like our kids into their everyday lives. August brings two: First, we’ll take the kids to opening night of our famous outdoor music festival to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Remember them from Paul Simon’s Graceland album? Here’s a cool video of them performing. Second, we are hosting two boys from Liberia for a week in mid-August, along with one of their leaders, as the Matsiko World Orphans Choir tours our area. We did this a few years ago with two girls from Uganda. This time around the visiting kids will have children to play with at our house.

Despite the dearth of ethnic people in our area, we have found it to be a wonderful and loving community to bring our kids home to. Our oldest gets easily overwhelmed with lots of chaos…we’ve discovered this on visits to San Francisco and Seattle, for example. It has been nice to ease them into their new family and American culture in a small quiet place, with small schools and close friends and no long commutes anywhere. We are grateful for this, but no place is perfect, and ours could certainly use some more diversity. We’ll just have to keep working at it…hard!

2 responses to “The Skin We’re In

  • Anne Lyon

    Kimberly, I so enjoy the stories you share, especially your style of writing! Tom and I are doing great…life seems crazy busy these days for everyone! I will send you and Charles an update really soon!

    Miss you both! Anne and Tom

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