Shades of People

by | Apr 1, 2024 | StoryMaking

It began with a fact, a belief, an observation, and a book.

The Fact?  

Race is a social construct. Research from the University of Toronto suggests that race-based biases emerge in the second half of a baby’s first year of life.

By 3-years of age research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General shows that children associate some racial groups with negative traits. By age 4, children in the United States associate whites with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school.

The Belief?

Racism is debilitating to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) children, families, and educators, and toxic to peace and equity within societies. No child, family, or educator deserves to be discriminated against simply because of the colour of their skin, shape of their eyes, or texture of their hair.

Those of us who are White have a huge responsibility to talk about and explore racial identity with young children.

The Observation?

I was teaching in a very homogenous rural school with only a handful of Black, Indigenous, or Asian children. Everyone else was White. As teachers in the kindergarten program, we had been intentional about including culturally diverse materials in the program.

  • A bin of crayons with varied skin tones were accessible to the children every day… but rarely touched.
  • Two Black baby dolls were snuggled up in a wooden cradle in the dramatic play area, but the coveted babies for play always seemed to be the dolls with white skin and blue eyes.

Clearly, especially in a classroom and school with very little ethnic diversity, we needed to engage children in thinking and talking about diversity.

We started by sharing more stories with our group of kinders that featured Black children as heroes, helpers, and problem-solvers. When these story characters struggled to be accepted or understood, we talked about this too. The children could relate to these powerful feelings that they themselves knew well.

The Book?

It was the book Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, though, that gave us yet another way to explore diversity with curiosity and appreciation.

Shades of People is a beautiful non-fiction book, featuring ethnically diverse photos of children. The first two-page spread of this book speaks wordlessly though images of hands and faces. We stopped to ‘read’ the emotions of these photos. We noticed that no pair of hands looked the same in these photos; nor did they look exactly like ours. Yet we could see these hands ‘speaking’ feelings we understood though their gestures.

I invited the children to look carefully at their own hands, and then to compare their hands to the person they were sitting next to. What did they notice? How did their hands vary in size, shape, colour, crease lines, thickness? This sharing of what they discovered about their hands and others’, I hoped, would help personalize the connections they made as we read Shades of People together.

Throughout this book the shades of skin are likened to colours we find in food and in nature. It describes people coming in colours of peach, coffee, cocoa, almond, rose and gold. It talks about how hard it is to get the shade of skin colour right when we paint. The final page of the story returns our gaze to interconnected hands each with varied colours of skin.

We decide to take the idea of skin tones being like colours we find in nature to make watercolour paints from natural materials. We will use these watercolours to paint our unique skin tones.

I needed to experiment with this idea of making paint before offering it to the children. The warm red colour we needed emerged from cooking a beet and using its cooled cooking juices. The cool blue colour came from thawing and smashing frozen blueberries and using a fine sieve to capture and remove the seeds and pulp from the blueberry juice. The rest of the colours came from my spice cupboard using ground ginger, clove, paprika, turmeric, cocoa, and cream of tartar. I mixed each spice separately in a proportion of about 1 teaspoon powdered spice to 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons of water. This gave me the array of watercolour paints I thought we needed.

Each paint container had a designated paint brush so that every child had the chance to layer colours in their purest forms onto their paper.

Each child began by tracing one of their hands onto a half-sheet of watercolour paper. I showed them a colour swatch of the paints we’d created. They held the swatch next to one of their hands to identify the colours they thought they might need first to create their skin tone. We noticed that our hands were not uniform in colour. The backs of our hands and our palms were often slightly different shades. For some we could see evidence of veins or scrapes or lines on our hands that added nuances to the colours we chose to use.

Of course, some children were simply fascinated by the idea of layering shades of paint that they had made and smelled – triggering memories and stories about food or mealtime experiences they had at home. For some painting enthusiasts, their hand tracing totally disappeared beneath layers of paint. We talked about this too. Could it be that their hand was now wearing a mitten and their hand was still there hidden underneath?

When they were satisfied with their work, I asked them to tell me the colours of paint they used while I jotted them down to accompany their hand picture after it had dried. I wanted their parents to better understand their children’s work too.

Shades of all people are fascinating and beautiful… especially when we can see one another without a black and white lens, and instead seek the beauty of diversity.


Click the button for a reference document to natural paint sources to use in your program.