Here & there: Why acknowledging skin color matters

Elementary school in Northern Thailand near Chiang Mai.
Columnist Kat Dayton and sons visit an elementary school near Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, June 2013 | Photo by Alan Dayton, courtesy of Kat Dayton, St. George News

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.

Columnist Kat Dayton's three sons at the  Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, June 2013 | Photo by Kat Dayton, St. George News
Columnist Kat Dayton’s three sons at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, June 2013 | Photo by Kat Dayton, St. George News

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.

The author's son at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, June 2013.
Columnist Kat Dayton’s son at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, June 2013 | Photo by Kat Dayton, St. George News

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.

Email: [email protected] | [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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  • BIG GUY November 29, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    The Bangkok man’s plight had little if anything to do with his skin and eye color. It had a lot to do with where he was born: an economically emerging country with troubled government institutions. The author’s first inclination to tell her son that color shouldn’t matter was the right one. The fact that the kindergartener distinguished herself as having darker skin is hardly a reason for adults to focus on skin color or any other aspect of another’s physical appearance. We should interact with people based on their words and actions, not their skin color, race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Anything less is one form or another of discrimination.

    Not sure what Ms. Dayton’s point here was. What is she recommending? What will she do in similar situations in the future? What does she think her readers should do or not do?

  • ladybugavenger November 29, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Race matters

    • ladybugavenger November 29, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      Native Americans lives matter!

    • .... November 29, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      Maybe it does if you’re a “white girl” LOL ! some of the stupid things I see posted on here.

  • eddantes56 November 29, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    Ms. Dayton. Your heart is in the right place but you are incorrect; skin color has nothing to do with it. CULTURE has everything to do with it. This subject has been dissected in many books and articles but never discussed. Lawrence Harrison, Samual Huntington and Mariano Grondona are three who have pursued why some countries are successful and why others are not. Venezuela has all of natural riches that God could give a country while Japan is for the most part, a pauper in terms of natural resources in comparison to Venezuela.
    Grondina, an Argentine lays out 25 (values)where he contrasts one mindset that prevails in econ successful countries with the mind set that prevails in stalled/stagnant economies. It is worth a read. The attachment below has the 25 data points in an easy to read format and you can continue to a larger discussion if you like.

    One example: DESTINY: in progress-friendly cultures, the view is I CAN INFLUENCE MY DESTINY FOR THE BETTER. in progress-resistant cultures, the view is FATALISM AND RESIGNATION.

    Grondona’s list is quite interesting and I find that it rings true as I have traveled the world. Doesn’t mean people from Bangkok are bad people…..their culture often does not promote development.

    As as far as your “privilege” being a “badge of shame?”, an objective observer might say that in the history of the world, groups of people/ethnicities/races have been up and down in terms of their prosperity; every group has been under the thumb of some system at some point in time. The argument would follow that the Enlightenment, Renaissance presaged the formation of the United States and in part laid the foundation for the Industrial and Political Revolutions of the last 500 years leading to miraculous discoveries on all levels that have benefited all. I don’t see how Anglos somehow inherited that unfairly; you could make the argument that they created it with their pluck, some divine inspiration and good fortune along the way.

    Here is the Gondona article.

  • SteveSGU November 30, 2015 at 9:21 am

    Racism isn’t about the color of one’s skin. It’s about judgments made based on a person’s culture. “All African-Americans who live in public housing in inner cities (regardless of the shade of their skin) must be poorly educated and prone to crime,” so goes the racist thinking. “All Jewish people only think about making more money.” Can you tell who descends from Jewish heritage by the color of their skin? Of course not.

    There are people who think very superficially who immediately make judgments of people by their appearance, and that also is not based on the color of skin. What we need to do is to teach people not to make assumptions about someone and to get to know people before deciding what we think about them. Of course, in the meantime, if you choose an appearance that looks like a criminal gang member, don’t be surprised if people are a bit wary around you.

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