“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What (Colors) Do You See?”

brown bearby Sachi Feris

I have been reading the book, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” by Eric Carle for over a decade to my kindergarten Spanish students (“Oso pardo, oso pardo, que ves ahi?”). In fact, I created a thematic curriculum around it, inspired by my teaching mentor, Mari Haas and her teaching philosophy that integrates connections to one’s community and culture as a core component.

Then how, I ask myself, in creating a thematic curriculum map for “Brown Bear,” has it never occurred to me to name race explicitly?

For those not familiar with the book, it begins:

“Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?”

The next page shows a red bird with the text, “I see a red bird looking at me…Red bird, red bird, what do you see?” It goes on with brightly colored animals until the last pages which read:

“I see a (White *my note) teacher looking at me…Teacher, teacher, what do you see?”

“I see children looking at me…” The text does not specify: “Children with many different shades of skin.”

After reading the whole book which explicitly points to the different colors of animals, the last page confronts readers with the color-blind framework which, as a fundamental part of United States’ history, instructs us “not to see” color when it comes to the picture of the children.

As a parent, I naturally gravitated toward naming race explicitly when I read “Brown Bear” with my own children: “Look, these children all have different shades of skin. Some have lighter skin we call White, like us. Some have darker skin and might be Black or Indian…”

But as an educator, I have had little experience using explicit race talk.

Why?

In my work via the nonprofit world, I spent significant time creating and facilitating curriculum that was specifically about issues of race, equity, discrimination, and justice. But in these situations, the need to use explicit race talk was made moot because the curriculum itself was the prompt for talking about race and justice. There was no need for proactive race talk when the curriculum prompted such talk.

In my work as a Spanish language teacher for elementary aged students I had followed my mentor’s philosophy in part…I had made connections to different Spanish language cultures through poetry and songs—but I hadn’t, until very recently, used explicit, proactive, race conscious language.

When I reflect as to why, I remember a school I once taught at where a kindergarten student, a biological “girl” had asked her teacher to call her a boy, not a girl. I happened to be doing my penguin unit in Spanish and I proposed a collaboration between this student’s classroom teacher and I to read “ And Tango Makes Three,” a book about the “gay penguins” in the Central park zoo, as a terrific and natural connection to this student. Unhappily, the school’s administration did not support us reading this book and that ended our proposed collaboration and our efforts to support this student.

I now teach in a school where I do feel supported to expose racism and heterosexism (among other “isms”) in our curriculum. But without feeling this support, it had been difficult for me to speak to race explicitly the way I naturally had as a parent. I have described many times, in my three-and-a-half-years of parenting, how liberating it felt to bring my racial justice beliefs to my parenting—I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to talk to my child about race in a way that made so much sense based on research I believed in whole-heartedly.

In Raising Race Conscious Children’s workshops, I have been overwhelmed by the number of participants’ comments that it felt “strange” or “awkward,” at first, to explicitly name race during the practice prompts—and almost simultaneously, how practicing this skill made them aware that this was something they could be, and should be, doing with their children.

The shift in becoming race conscious can be very simple. As my mom always says, “it’s not brain surgery.” It is about changing the way we think and speak about race and Raising Race Conscious Children’s workshops tell us that adults can “try on” this skill and commit to practicing it…in an hour and a half.

The goal of color blindness may be well intentioned (that race shouldn’t matter)…but the reality is that race does matter. Being race conscious allows the words we use as parents and educators to be tools that challenge racism. By being race conscious, White people can both acknowledge White privilege and stand up to do their part in undoing racism.

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Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and four-month-old son.