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Color as a Tool for Young Students: When Critical Thought Battles With Splitting Hairs

My soon to be seven year old grandson came home excited about his performance in school. His mother asked him, “what color did you get today?” He pretended nonchalance, sighed once, and asserted, “I got Purple.” His mother was pleased.

I asked him what the color for his performance that day represented and he told me it meant he had done a “Great Job.” Other representations for performance in his first grade class were measured by the colors, Pink for “Outstanding,” Blue for “Good Day,” Green, for “Ready to Learn” Yellow, for “Stop and Think,” which was third to the worst. Still others were Orange, for Teacher’s Choice, and the worst, Red, for Parent Contact. These color swatches for behavior and achievement gave me an uneasy pause for the apparent dubiousness these distinctions posed through the use of benign colors. I began to think about how so many people are oblivious about color as a tool in other areas of human activity.

I wondered about the visual example an oak tree, the quiet shade its green leaves provide, and then specifically the picture of one I use as a tool demonstrating the roots, trunk, branches and leaves to represent of White Supremacy and Racism. Naturally, I equate the ideology and system used to sustain it like a tree that grows inside and outside of the ground silently and without seeming consequence, and the way White Supremacy grows and expands within consciousness without the conscious mind even being aware; quietly. Then I asked:

“How could the use of a seemingly benign color wheel to ascribe value to the performance of children have any connotation inside of the White Supremacist ideology when clearly the idea lives outside of it?”

Nevertheless, I thought, this is where the construct of colorism begins in earnest, and it is because White Supremacy is baked into the pedagogy of generations of the Meritocracy of superior versus inferior in Education. So it is both natural as well as unnatural that Education would be where the benign use of color to denote achievement and recognition for merit would begin, even before the visible distinctions of Race as Color or Race as Character have taken hold fully as concepts in the minds of children.

My grandson said he received Purple. The day before he received Pink. Some days he receives Green and one day he actually got second to last, so he is no fan of Orange, but has never yet received Red. He is afraid of Red.

I asked his mother, who is white, what she thought of the color designations used to apply merit, and she thought nothing of it, so I then asked her to consider something I knew she had never considered before:

Using color as a tool for achievement, merit, superior and/or inferior performance has the power to become a reinforcement for the color of skin later on, as the child associates the colors black and white with superior and inferior, with value and merit, just as religion associates the colors black and white with good and bad.

She said she would begin to use the words, Outstanding, and Great Job, Good Day and Ready to Learn for his performance in school as a reinforcement on his good days and even Teacher’s Choice and Red just in case he ever had a bad day. She admitted she never thought about the use of color before, and although I knew about its use as a tool, I was stunned by how early color as a tool might be used, and how easily it could indoctrinate a young mind in the direction of connecting color to bodies as a codifier and distinction as well.

When I begin to close think, or critically think of the use of color as a tool, the overarching question for me becomes, why associate merit with color? If I were to ask that question right now, what would you, the reader, think? How would you answer? Now, some might respond with the obvious: “this is how children learn color.” Other responses might include, “It’s just another thing teachers use when children are too young to understand the meanings of the words associated with the colors.”

Certainly by the time children are in pre-Kindergarten they have a relatively good command of their primary if not both primary and secondary colors, so it isn’t as though these colors are being used to teach them color. I would think a great way to teach children words and reading in the first grade would be to literally place the words themselves on the board and use them instead of colors. Provide the definitions of the words in relation to their performance in class.

It is said that by the time children reach pre-K they already have a grasp of Race as Color, but many only understand the colors black and white as being either good or bad. I already know that my grandson understands White Supremacy, at least in the way that a six year old can, because he told me he did. My grandson is no ordinary child.

“I understand White Supremacy, Nana.” He said.

I guess he should. He hears me when I do presentations and write essays, and he is in my room, listening when I am reading my essays aloud.

The question, “why associate merit with color” I believe is mostly rhetorical, since it should obvious colors used in his school are being used as a tool for recognition of accomplishment. Nevertheless, it caused me think very deeply into the implications of the use of color as a tool again, applying to it the added dimension of just how early the indoctrination begins. I must admit I began to wrestle with the concept itself and whether I was simply splitting hairs, or making something out of nothing; using a completely benign learning tool to apply my view of the inner malevolence of White Supremacy. I already knew about the relationship between “green” and go, caution and “yellow,” and “red” for stop, because I am indoctrinated to know what is represented by road signals. Therefore, use of color such as this for safety is definitely outside of the realm of White Supremacist thought and practice. These colors are not used for safety, but for the value of a person through their achievement. That is categorically different.