Sunday, 22 May 2016

The colour of your skin

I was four. Mom said we were going shopping. We were going shopping for a doll for me.

I already owned three dolls, See-See, Susie and Freckly Face. My parents had this adorable habit of letting me name my own toys.

But back to my story. A new doll? That I could pick out myself? What?

We went to Kresge's and the Co-op. The local toy store. But none of the dolls we saw would do. We were looking for a "special" doll said Mom.  Finally we found it in Woolworth's.  This one, she says. I was dubious. She had no clothes. But she was pretty.

What are you going to call her? Mom says. Chocolate, says I. I was a kid. What did I know? My mom must have thought, well, there's a lesson in cultural diversity gone wrong.
Freckly-face, See-See, Chocolate, and Susie
The year I got the doll, my parents adopted my brother. My mom didn't think she could have more kids and my parents wanted more. The social worker asked them if they would consider adopting a child of a different race. The question threw them. They hadn't thought about it. Of course, they said. What difference would it make? 

So my brother was adopted. He was my brother. I never thought about the colnour of his skin. Except in summer when my skin burnt red and his was golden brown. I didn't think much about his race or even what "adopted" meant. We were family.

In Dawson Creek in the early 1960s, there weren't many people of colour. I suppose the special doll was my mom's way of showing me there were people in the world who didn't look like me because in my world,  among the Jenkins and the Dixons and the Jorgensons and the Baliskys and the Connellys, there were just a tiny handful of families who weren't white. Except for the indigenous people like my brother and sister who didn't look like me, but somehow didn't seem "different".

There were the Asian  families. Mr. Mah who owned the Mile Zero Cafe and always gave my Dad whiskey or "special Chinese tea" when we went for Chinese food.Bing Mah who owned Bing's furniture.Japanese Mr. Seto who owned Seto's Studios. Mrs. Parmar from Pakistan who taught grade 4.

The native kids certainly weren't as exotic as the Hamiltons. Mr. Hamilton, the story went, was an American working on the Alaska Highway who fell in love with a local lady. Herbie Hamilton was in my grade. Phyllis Mounce was my age too. She was adopted. They were our token African Canadians.  Everyone wanted to be their friends to prove they didn't care about skin colour. We were so proud that we did not discriminate against Herbie and Phyllis and the Mahs and Mr. Seto. In the heat of the civil rights movement, we white Dawson Creek kids knew we weren't like our U.S. neighbours who were the kind of racists we saw in the photos of riots and protest marches in Life Magazine.

We studied cultures and customs of people all over the world, but we never talked about our native classmates as having a unique way of life or their own spiritual beliefs. We knew their ancestors were here before our ancestors but we didn't wonder much about how they lived. They were just like us, weren't they? Except in Dawson Creek in the 1960s, we didn't go to their houses and they didn't come to ours. We were just kids. We didn't wonder why they were poor and we were middle class. We didn't wonder why by junior high their numbers dwindled. Or that by high  school, there was just one. Lorna Laboucan, whatever happened to you? 

I'm not a kid anymore. The things I never thought about back then haunt me now.