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what do crayons have to do with structural racism and social change?

Crayons are a common choice of art material for children's first art making.  With crayons little ones begin by drawing scribbles using all of the colors of the rainbow and then some. As they age and become more aware of the world around them, they mirror what they see in their drawings and use their imagination to create new visions and interpretations of the experiences they have and the things they encounter.

Crayons were first created in 1881 by E. Steiger & Co. and popularized by Binney & Smith aka Crayola in 1903.  For over a hundred years kids have been making and exploring with crayons as their tools!  Crayola's first set of crayons included the colors of the rainbow plus brown and black.  In 1949 they introduced 40 more colors, one of which was named 'flesh' now known as peach.  The inclusion of this color was intended to allow children to draw people with a more realistic skin tone.  What must it have been like for children of color to only have one crayon - a color associated with white skin - as the one identified as flesh?  What must it have been like to not be able to draw a picture of your family, friends, or a self-portrait in skin tone that matched yours?  The lack of representation in our country goes beyond people of color not seeing people who look like them in media, it's in everything and found everywhere. For so long the negative stereotypes associated with race and color have been visually reinforced with things as 'benign' as crayons starting at a very young age.  It wasn't until 1992 that Crayola introduced the 'multicultural' crayon set.  Imagine the world it opened up for black and brown children.  Think about what it meant for a black child to be able to use a color other than black to draw themselves.  Or a brown child to use a color other than yellow and one shade of brown to color pictures of their faces and bodies. As a young artist, I remember the frustration vividly. I remember preferring paints to crayons and colored pencils, because at least you could mix and blend colors to try to get the right tone, even though I loved to draw and hated to paint.

The history of crayons offers a simple illustration of structural racism.  Introduced by a company founded by white male inventors at the turn of the century, the 'flesh' crayon defined the color that should be used for skin in children's drawings.  The idea that whiteness is what skin coloring was centered on was taught at a very young age to both white children and children of color.  Not only was a lack of black and brown representation in all arenas the norm, but children also did not have access to the tools necessary to self-represent.  Their otherness and feelings of being less than were found everywhere; even down to their box of crayons.  Today, children have a wide variety of colors to choose from when drawing people in their pictures and images involving skin, but the message that white is the preferred skin color is still ingrained.  

In February 2020, there was an article in the Washington Post entitled A 9-Year-Old Girl Got People to Finally Stop Thinking of the Peach-Colored Crayon as the ‘Skin-Color’ Crayon.  Finally!?  It's 2020!  The story is about a fourth-grader in a Virginia elementary school, the only black student in an all-white classroom, who noticed that when her friends would ask for the 'skin color' crayon the peach crayon would automatically get passed.  She recognized the problems this presents, and with the help of her mother, found a way to bring attention to the issue.  Her actions and words inspired her teacher and classmates to change the way they referred to and talked about skin color in the classroom. Soon after, her message caught regional and national attention. This mighty act of local awareness-raising from a young person of color sparked a national initiative called "More Than Peach."

There is great power in art materials, art making, and art engagement as a tool for learning about racism and equity, especially for children.  Art can offer an inclusive space for young people to explore issues that are important to them, and a medium to share their ideas about justice and social change.  The potential of art to empower young people and provide avenues for visibility and voice is invaluable.

See the article that features 9-year-old Bellen Woodard, a change maker from Virginia, whose activism through art is helping to change her classmates' and community's views on skin color and representation here.

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