The other day, when I was bringing my son to preschool, a classmate greeted him at the door by shouting, "You're African! You're from Africa!" My son and I were knocked back for a moment, but he quickly recovered (as only a 5-year-old could), once his teacher motioned for him to help with an art project. I, on the other hand, bumbled my way through a retort to the effect of "We're not from Africa; we're from America," and briefly considered whether to mention our 200 years of family history in Haiti and Greece.
For the record, my son was born in Boston and raised across the river in Cambridge, Mass., where he lives with my husband and me. He has never been to Africa, though he can identify the continent on a map. He does, however, have brown skin, as do I. It is also relevant to the story that the classmate who greeted him has a history of taunting her peers, including my son, for just about anything. Apparently, my son's brown skin was yet another opportunity for teasing.
When I discussed the incident with his teacher, she seemed skeptical that the comment was racial and, as such, distinct from any of the other taunts or rude behavior that are routinely addressed with trips to the "peace corner" and more playdates. True, there was no explicit reference to my son's race or even to his skin color. True, also, that there is nothing pejorative about being from Africa.
Setting aside for the moment the mocking tone in which the greeting was delivered, what is so troubling about being called African? Perhaps what needs to be interrogated is my reaction, not the comment itself.
But here is where context matters. It is not simply that my son is not from Africa but that he is a visibly black boy in an overwhelmingly white school environment. He and his classmates are alert to his color difference, even if most attribute no social significance to it.
The child who taunted my son clearly recognizes the social significance of skin color, seizing on this particular difference to undermine his sense of belonging. To be "African" in this context is to be set apart from the school community. Unlike taunts of being a "baby," this is one that our son is uniquely vulnerable to, and the classmate who delivered the taunt appreciates that. That is why the "peace corner" is an insufficient solution.
What is the solution? When I described the incident to a friend, she suggested that my son show his classmate "what this African arm can do" and smack her. She then remembered: My son is not from Africa. Reifying false differences is no more of a solution than is violence.
Instead, as adults, we must begin by recognizing that children, even very young children, are color conscious. My son could sort light skin from dark skin by the age of 3, and I doubt that he is exceptional.
This appreciation of skin color predated, and exists entirely separately from, any understanding of race. Yet so often it seems that adults' discomfort with talking about the social concept of race leads them to ignore the concrete reality of skin color; we then disguise our fear as a principled defense of "colorblindness." Children are left to figure out for themselves what, if anything, skin color means.
Enter bullies to fill the void. We must give children the facts about skin color, emphasizing that pigment tells us much more about the amount of melanin in our skin than it does about who we are as a person. Instead of evasive and abstract talk about diversity, we should explicitly discuss skin color and put it in its place: an attribute that does not determine one's community.
Without that, dark-skinned children and their sympathetic light-skinned peers are intellectually defenseless in the face of divisive taunts. When a Cambridge-bred boy is teased for being African, he and his peers should be able to laugh at the absurdity of the remark. It is when they cannot recognize this absurdity that "African" becomes a dirty word.
Claudine Gay is a professor of African and African-American studies and government at Harvard.