Community Columns

To get beyond skin color, we first have to talk about it

More than 40 years after the civil rights movement made headlines, racism remains a touchy topic. People tread delicately around it, afraid to say the wrong thing. It underlies February's Black History Month; it's a hot potato in the presidential race; it's an issue in the way Modesto chooses its City Council members.

I came to the United States from Belgium in the 1970s, when Boston was desegregating; racial tensions were explosive. By the time I graduated from college in 1981, the edge had been blunted, yet race remained a taboo subject. But as a teacher in a special Boston summer program, I had to discuss the topic with my class -- and I hadn't a clue how to go about it.

My 17-year-old students were racially representative of the region -- Latino, Indian, white, black, native American. Bright, enthusiastic and curious, they tackled every topic my co-teacher and I presented. Until we hit racism and what it meant, and how to deal with it. The classroom went silent. So we asked them to write about it for the next day's class. After they left, we devised a way (we hoped) to trigger a productive discussion.

When students poured in the next day, they met me swathed in pillowcases. Only a pair of green eyes stared out at them. It had the desired effect of throwing them off balance and wondering what was going to happen. My colleague opened the discussion by asking them to share what they had written. They had little to say.

Without ceremony, I stripped off the pillowcases and hopped up on a table. I was dyed bright green from head to toe. I walked around in front of their startled faces. "Well, what do you think?" I inquired. "Talk to me! Touch me! Ask me questions!"

Reactions poured out. "You have to be different with green skin." "Does being green feel different?" "What if it doesn't come off -- you'll stick out wherever you go."

And then the kids realized they were asking me what they wanted to ask the others -- but were afraid to. I remember them all staring at each other, hearing themselves. And the taboo was broken, and the questions flew, with honest answers, and surprise and laughter and even tears. For at least the semester, the barriers had been lowered, and a chance for understanding allowed.

That was nearly 30 years ago. Today, as I pass by our valley schools, I see the tapestry of colors on the playground. Children of all races romp and play. I watched three girls walking along, jabbering at each other, giggling and squealing. One was white, one brown, one black. It didn't seem to matter; they were friends -- and it gave me hope.

Racism, like all prejudice, is a learned habit. Children are not born with it. As parents, educators and adults, we all need to remember that if racism is to become a thing of our past, it is up to us to work together and weave all those colors into a unified whole -- and to promote a classroom, work environment and community in which individuals are judged for their actions, not for the color of their skin.

Newcorn is a Modesto resident. E-mail her at