What Color is a Heart of Flesh?

When is it time to own responsibility for a problem that began before the age of reason?

I’m sure my racist mentality began in front of coloring books. I’m not saying it was Crayola’s fault. But that’s when I learned to think in black and white. I know this from my first racial conflict.

It was 1962 or ’63. I can still remember the smell of coffee poured over vanilla ice cream, something I loved eating at the counter in the truck stop diner next to my father’s animal hospital. This time I sat on one of those plastic-padded stools next to a grown-up man. I couldn’t have been more than three—years later my mother filled in the detail that the man was black. Our arms nearly touched. Maybe he was left-handed or maybe he just liked to rest both arms on the table. But being right-handed, my spoon-wielding arm was next to his and the color difference didn’t make sense. I didn’t have crayons that matched both arms. I had “flesh,” which my parents had taught me was “skin color.” So I asked him, “what color is your arm?”

“Skin color,” he said, smooth and easy and without hesitation, then asked, “What color is YOUR arm?” “No, MY arm is skin color,” I argued. After all, wasn’t it?

My mother told me the argument went on for a while. I never remembered that part. But what I remember is it's taken six decades to unravel the racist fabric of my upbringing. I don’t like to talk about it because I don’t know how to talk about it.

But I do know that it’s time to own it.


— Lee Ann Haney

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