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Melanin talk: Explaining race to youth

Melanin talk: Explaining race to youth

“You burned your hands?” she asked me from the bleachers of a college football game.

“No, why?” I responded.

“Then why is it a different color from the other side?”

Black people have different shades on their hands. Photo captured by Canva.


That was the first time I ever paid much attention to the fact that the dorsal aspect of my hand was a different color than my palm. When you’re born and raised in a predominantly African- American community, that’s not something you bother to pay attention to. And it was definitely the first time someone asked me about it.

The curious person who asked me was my college roommate’s younger sister—a white, rosy-cheeked little girl. I would’ve expected a question like this at my first college at Northern Michigan University, but not at my (now alma mater) HBCU Lincoln University.

I could tell she meant no harm from her question, but my roommate’s stepmother looked mortified. My roommate apologized immediately. Her father, who was within hearing distance, looked from me to the little girl on my lap. And that was when I realized two things: New York wasn’t the mecca of diversity that I thought it was (or at least Long Island clearly wasn’t, which was where they were from) and this family (all white) was definitely going to let me take the reins on this topic.

My 19-year-old brain fumbled my way through what I knew about skin pigmentation and melanocytes while this little girl (who couldn’t have been more than nine or 10) listened. By the time I was done, she—who was holding my hand and remained on my lap—held up my fingers, looked at them slightly longer and responded, “OK.” And then she leaned back to rest her head on my shoulder.

On the other side of me, I could see my roommate’s parents breathing a sigh of relief. They went back to watching the rest of the football game. Meanwhile I half-glanced at the game but spent more time looking at my brown hands, far more interested in them than I ever was before.

Explaining how melanin works is easier than the race talk

I could’ve explained racism and prejudice and the Civil Rights Movement to this child. But that wasn’t what she asked me. She simply wanted to know about my hands and nothing more. I realized that was the easiest way to explain race to someone who is young enough that she hasn’t started forming stereotypical ideas about what each race is like.

I thought about that recently while reading a Medium post from Dave Smith entitled “How Schools Can Help Neutralize Racism.” His first step in discussing race was to “teach all students about the chemical melanin.” Meanwhile I’d taken on this topic 20 years ago while dusting off everything I’d learned in biology class.

As much as I enjoy saying “black girl magic,” “melanin magic” and “melanin poppin’,” and singing along to Kelly Rowland’s “Coffee” and Beyonce’s “Brown Skin Girl,” that child’s question makes me feel a way. It’s nothing that she said. It’s that my answer to her question has created worldwide historical violence and segregation—because of something as simple as skin color. The idea that finding a job or owning a home or talking to the police becomes significantly more difficult for people who make more melanocytes than another is hard to comprehend when simplified.

And if it’s hard for me to make sense of it, I know a child’s brain doesn’t quite understand how carrying Skittles and iced tea or jogging around the neighborhood or being accused of whistling at a woman would get some people killed. But for others, it’s just another day. Simplified, the topic of pheomelanin (the type of melanin that creates pinkish parts of the body, along with strawberry blonde hair or redheads) versus eumelanin (the type of melanin that creates dark eyes, hair and skin) holds too much weight. There just is no logical reason for racism.

What happens after the simplified race talk?

After the game, my roommate’s family and I went out for dinner. Her little sister was stuck to me like glue, and I didn’t mind. Truth be told, I wish those two could’ve swapped places and she’d have been my college roommate instead. Her level of innocence was refreshing after having the worst two years of my entire life at NMU before transferring. I liked that no one had the opportunity to screw with her brain yet, linking her to all kinds of prejudices, racism and stereotypes.

This is one of my favorite things about small children. They really just want to play and ask questions. More often than not, their questions are meant to get a logical answer, not for you to back up their own opinions. When her stepmother asked me would I mind babysitting the daughter, I knew why. Sure, she may have needed someone to help out when she couldn’t watch the little girl. But I knew her real reason was to give this child exposure to someone she clearly didn’t have much experience with: me, a black girl. Yes, I was a teenager in college just like the older sister, but there was something different about me. My melanin’ was poppin!

Every blue moon I think about that little girl and wonder what kind of adult she grew up to be. My college roommate and I had a feud over something very stupid. It was either not cleaning up or a CD. I can’t quite narrow it down. She moved out of our dorm room shortly after, and then I moved off campus into my own apartment. The next time I saw my former roommate’s little sister was at another college football game. She caught sight of me and stared up in the stadium seats. She waved, and I waved back. I wanted to reach out my arms for her to join me, but I wasn’t going to ask her to choose between her sister and me. So I forced my eyes to look away at the field. After a while, I didn’t feel the girl’s eyes staring at me, and she returned to chatting with her family.

Although I never did have those babysitting moments with the sister, answering any other questions she had about skin color or (potentially) race, I hope she found someone who would. (The ex-roommate and I did make peace months later. Our mutual friends brought her to my apartment to get ready for a college party. But we were never as cool as we were when we first met. I didn’t get the impression that our mutual friends, a foursome of black girls that were my complexion, were around her family though).

I think Dave Smith is onto something with his op-ed on how to educate children. If we do it the right way and remove our own biases from their questions, that can help. By answering the question asked instead of the weight of the world in each response, they may grow up to not have to explain why something like two shades of a hand color have created such a dividing line among us. Then again, for some kids, having a longer talk outside of palm color is inevitable. Here’s hoping one day it is not.


Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Shamontiel L. Vaughn. Find out more about her at

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