Black woman wrapped in a green blanket sitting with her back exposing a large white handprint on her back.

An English Lesson on Why Race Matters (or Doesn't)

"Human Beings differ in a number of inherited features, e.g. skin colour; shape of nose, eyes, lips; type and colour of hair. They are: Yellow featured. Yellow, copper skin; fairly broad nose... White featured. Pink, olive, light brown skin... Black featured. Black or dark brown skin; broad nose, thick lips..."


The New First Aid in English Second Edition, written by Angus Maciver and published in 2006 by Hodder Gibson, is a staple in our home. An earlier version of the book called The New First Aid in English Revised, published in 1986, was a central part of English language practice during my junior and high school days in Jamaica. My husband and I bought this second edition in 2011.

Anyone who does a fair bit of writing or editing could probably relate to the idea of having a companion text like The New First Aid in English on hand for quick reference. Aside from English grammar checks, the book is a helpful reminder about the information we don't keep top of mind. For instance, what do you call a group of chickens? A brood. People at a rowdy scene? A rabble. What sound does a crow make? It caws (that one still stings – my husband and I had a bitter row over that word in a Scrabble game many years ago. Feelings were hurt, a mom was called, enough said).

I have two daughters, ages ten and seven. Both girls are really into books and will read anything they can get their hands on; The New First Aid in English is no exception. They enjoy the word-building and absurdities exercises. The book is filled with pencil marks from where my oldest daughter answered all the associations and analogies questions. Our family likes to make word games out of classifications and gradations, and sometimes we use the book to study up for Scrabble matches.

Recently, my 10-year-old daughter, LeeAnn, read on page 128 of the second edition book that there are classifications for human beings based on the colour of their skin and their hair type – whether it is straight or curly hair, the colour of it; the shape of their noses – narrow or broad; the colour and shape of their eyes, and the thickness of their lips.

And LeeAnn’s question to me was: why does that matter?

When she showed me the text and asked her question again, I paused. I intended to tell her that it is just a classification strategy, a method of using descriptors to express groups we wish to identify as having things in common or needing to be recognized as different from other things that may seem similar. But then I saw the page heading: "Useful Information," and I immediately reconsidered my answer.

Pg. 128 of The New First Aid in English Second Edition describes the inherited features that differentiate human beings as 'useful information.'

It was April 2020. The girls were in their second week of home learning due to pandemic lockdowns, and they had already lost interest in whatever online learning tips, tricks, or treats their teachers or I doled out.

In addition, despite COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement was on the upswing. We were inundated with news and social media reports about the tragedies that the movement sought to draw attention to and how different communities dealt with the calls for action. My girls were deeply affected by it. They had never felt so much anxiety about being Black. By luck, LeeAnn’s question was perfectly timed, and our home learning situation put me in a position to help her find the answers she wanted.

Acknowledging my insecurities

I have my insecurities about being Black. I grew up in a country where about 92% of the population identifies as Black. I felt no apparent discrimination from other Jamaicans because of the colour of my skin, the curliness of my hair, or the flatness of my nose. But there was an undercurrent of bias.

The messages were insidious. The images I saw in books and on television and the ideals of what we celebrated as successful and beautiful in our daily conversations were not Black. Those images had fairer skin, straight or less curly hair, and more angled noses than my own. I, and many Black girls and boys I knew growing up, aspired to become that ideal in one way or another.

I suspect that open discrimination did not exist in my world because even the people who were brown and fair-skinned were still considered Black. As I grew older, I learned I would only be called Black if mine was the darkest coloured skin in the room. So, in my lifetime, I have been described as having dark skin, brown skin, and fair skin – it all depended on who I was standing next to. But in the grand scheme of things, other than self-esteem issues, there were minimal repercussions to those interpretations of Blackness that I encountered in Jamaica.

The subtle and the not-so-subtle forms of racism

My first real challenge with racism came when I travelled outside of Jamaica. It was in the UK, at around age 19, that I first felt unsafe because I was Black.

On a train ride from London to Camberley one Sunday afternoon, I had my first encounter with other human beings who threatened me with violence simply because I wore Black skin. As terrifying as that encounter was, the thing that was most traumatizing about that experience was that none of the other train passengers came to my defence. I was alone, this young Black girl, against a group of white boys. Even if they had different reasons, I interpreted the bystanders' silence as confirmation that I was less than them, just as the group of boys said.

"The way I see it, means and class are the real social dividers in the place where I grew up."

I am confident that that kind of assault, and the bystanding of it, would never have happened in my own country. The way I see it, means and class were the fundamental social dividers in the place where I grew up.

But the indignities of that train ride pale compared to the kind of discrimination that stares you right in the face and claims to be the source of authority about yourself.

For example, Cadet uniforms at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK, where I trained to become a Commissioned Officer, required ‘nude’ tights for women wearing work dress and ‘black’ tights for ceremonial dress. Against my skin, ‘black’ stockings looked black, but ‘nude’ pantyhose looked white. It looked ridiculous, and no one else wore white tights. It was an uphill battle to get permission to wear tights that were a color that would look nude against my skin. The color is ‘french coffee,’ I was eventually freed from the shame of wearing white-looking tights with my uniform in my second term.

No one, not even I, understood why it was such a big deal to me at the time. In the late 1990s, when this happened, it was about how I looked: silly, tatty, colors clashing left and right. I was the Black girl wearing white tights, while the others appeared neat and polished because their uniform looked as intended - as if they wore nothing on their legs.

"My new community was intolerant of, or at the very least in denial about, my identity."

Now that I am older and wiser, I realize it was a big deal because it infringed on my sense of self. I was made to do and be something else because the world I was in at the time refused to acknowledge that what worked for one group of human beings, the human beings that fit the majority characterizations, did not work for everyone. Thus, the reality was that my new community was intolerant of, or at the very least in denial about, my identity.

Another international Cadet who came to Sandhurst a term after me was made to remove the braids from her hair. Naturally, she complied, but if you do not wear Black skin and have Black hair, you could not understand how hurtful a request like that can be.

Intolerances like this go well beyond race. They overlap with gender, culture, sexuality, and all other forms of identity that people are told to put away lest they lose the privilege of being treated as self-determined human beings.

Teaching without telling

So, with all my baggage about race and identity, I attempted to assuage my daughter’s anxieties about where she stood in the spectrum of racial classifications. The most important lesson was understanding if and how the classifications could best be used.

LeeAnn and I set a lofty goal: to debunk the (racist?) misinformation that The New First Aid in English Second Edition claims is useful information. We began with the assumption that it was misinformation because it presented reductive descriptions of complex human characteristics. But was it racist? We turned the wheels on that one for a bit, reading definitions of racism and racialization on the internet and talking about when something is racist and when it is not.

Even as an adult, with all the experiences of subtle and blatant racism under my belt, I had no clear answer.

Racism nowadays isn't something that can be shunted into black-and-white thinking. Many people do and say things without understanding that they could be considered racist. For example, one of our white friends refers to my husband as the ‘chocolate teddy bear,’ I chuckle every time I think about my other friend whose six-year-old son once insisted that my favorite flavor of ice cream had to be chocolate. It made all the sense to him; he is white, and his favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla. I chuckle far less when I remember the stranger, an older white man in the waiting room at our family doctor’s office, who described my daughters' hair as ‘nappy.’

These personal encounters with racializing talk are vastly different from the policies of discrimination designed to make those who are racially diverse feel and look like outsiders – remember the Sandhurst uniform policy I mentioned earlier.

The outcomes are also quite different when the policies and behaviors put people’s lives, income, well-being, or sense of safety at risk. One need only look to Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Lives Matter; All Lives Matter, and countless other campaigns that are prevalent in 2020 for examples.

LeeAnn and I agreed that we could not decide if the words were meant to be racist, but if we were in a scenario where someone spoke to us and acted in a manner that echoed the words of the text in a way that made us feel uncomfortable, we would call that person racist.

"Racism is about how the people around you make you feel."

Victory! First lesson learned: racism is not some abstract concept you hear about on the news or read about in books or on social media posts; it is about how the people around you make you feel. If I feel safe, assuming I must love chocolate ice cream because my skin color resembles chocolate is not a problem. I will laugh about it with you (and your parents) because I think it's funny that you thought that up. If I feel unsafe, it will rub me the wrong way.

Is this "useful information"?

After our nearly hour-long struggle with the concept of racism, we returned to our study of the words on page 128 of the book. The aim now was to determine if the information was indeed ‘useful’ as the book claims. With basic data-collecting skills in hand, we set out to put the information to the test.

From the COVID-free safety of our living room window, we watched people walking along the sidewalk in front of our house. I asked LeeAnn to identify how many people checked all the boxes for the Yellow, Black, and White classifications.

We both grew weary of the exercise within minutes. It felt disrespectful and rude even to reduce the people we saw to racial descriptions.

Ms. So-and-So is not who she is because she is "White featured with straight hair and a predominantly straight nose." She is who she is because she is the lady who lives down the street that sets out a table at the front of her house to give out Halloween candy.

Mr. XYZ, who walks by our house every day, isn’t who he is because he is "Black featured with short curly hair and a round flat nose." He is the guy who always says hello to us when we are out tending the front yard or sitting on our porch.

We gave up when we saw our first anomaly, the teenager who lives a few blocks past our house who walks by about the same time every day on her way from her job. We did not know her name, but we are on walk-by greeting terms with her parents – one is White featured, and the other is Yellow featured. This time it was me, tired of keeping track of what people looked like, who asked, “why does this matter?”

And my daughter answered: “I don’t see how it matters. This isn’t useful at all.”

"If you choose to go by what people look like, you are racializing them."

The second lesson learned: If you choose to go by what people look like, you are racializing them, which means that all human beings can be racialized.

This does not necessarily mean that racialization is a bad thing. After all, we use racialized descriptors to make distinctions among people when it matters. For example, to tell this story, I must talk about my Black self, my white friends, and the features of the people who walk past our house. It is simply a method of communicating information that helps to clarify what I need to describe. To that end, most of us engage in racialization to distinguish ourselves (and the people who look just like us) from anyone who does not look like us when the situation calls for it.

But when is racialization not useful? Here comes the third lesson learned: tune into your sense of what is right and fair to find out.

LeeAnn initially complained about the passage because she sensed something unfair and unjust about it. She raised an eyebrow, asked a question, and wanted an engaged answer. At ten years old, she is beginning to learn how to discern right information from wrong information. There is no universal script for how to do this. It all boils down to what we consider fair and proper as individuals and communities.

For people of colour, the human beings that The New First Aid in English describes as Yellow and Black featured, there is a history of discrimination due to racialization, which was consciously and unconsciously shaped by colonial, neocolonial, and imperialist practices. For a long time, those practices were taken as correct or acceptable by many, in some instances, even by those who were being discriminated against.

Those mechanisms for seeing and treating people of color differently are now institutionalized in various ways. But people of color have always pushed back against that taken-for-granted way the mainstream sees and acts towards them. They do it out of a sense of justice and fairness. And in many instances, the people who descriptively fall within the mainstream, the "White featured" human beings the book refers to, will support, and sometimes lead, the causes because of a shared sense of justice.

The real lesson is in listening, feeling, and discovering.

Critical thinking happens when we open ourselves up to the potential for controversy. Those worrying classifications in The New First Aid in English that perturbed LeeAnn became an excellent opportunity for us to talk about why we are different looking from the other people that she goes to school with. But it also affirms for her that we are all equally valuable as human beings, no matter what they or we look like.

"It's okay to feel offended by descriptors that reduce people's humanity."

LeeAnn is discovering that it is okay to feel offended when she sees descriptors that reduce the humanity of people we know and do not know in this way. She is learning to see it as a form of othering that paves the way for discrimination, stereotypes, and dehumanization. She is coming to understand that it is okay to stand up to anyone who says that her hair, nose, or skin colour matters in how she is being treated. She is learning to appreciate that it is also important that she stand up for others who would be told the same, even if they look different from her.  

Moreover, when something seems unfair and unjust, she raises an eyebrow. Better yet, she is comfortable expressing that the information seems off, and she wants to engage with supporting adults in a discussion about it. And when she talks about it and how the information makes her feel as a person, she better understands what all people of all identities have been struggling with for generations.

These are great things to know and understand when you live in a world where prejudice exists in many forms.

Embracing the complexities of imperfect information

Will we keep our copy of The New First Aid in English Second Edition?

Absolutely! How else will we quickly remind ourselves about essential English grammar rules or study new words to add to our Scrabble repertoire? In my mind, learning about the world and where you stand begins with questioning what you know and what you think you know. I am pleased that we have the book and that it stirred the conversations that it did.

"Information is never perfect, and information sources can be flawed."

The real lesson for LeeAnn was that something with great use could also violate our sense of self. The exercise helped her to understand that information is never perfect and that information sources, even printed books, can be flawed. We can choose to take what we want from it. And we can teach ourselves and others that there is right and just information and there is wrong and unjust information. Both are valuable because they help us to learn. But we will never know this unless we open ourselves up to the information and ideas that exist out there.

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