My Skin is Yellow

During my last year at Harding, while I was taking graduate classes, playing ultimate and waiting for my wife-to-be to graduate, I also worked at Sidney Deener Elementary as an ESL Teacher.

With ESL (English as a Second Language), the emphasis is on getting non-native speakers to learn English, so technically, you don’t really need to be able to speak the native language of the students you work with. But it does help to be able to understand their language, and since most of the ESL students were from Spanish backgrounds and I was a former Spanish major, they offered me the job.

I did have one student who did not speak Spanish. His name was Phong, and he was a second grader from Vietnam. Phong was very smart—he was a math whiz and excelled at all kinds of logic puzzles, but when I met him, he had an English vocabulary of about 20 words. Needless to say, he was my most challenging student.

I worked with Phong every day for the next six months or so, and although I enjoyed all of my students (with Searcy not exactly being a multi-cultural mecca, I only had seven students in all), he quickly became my favorite. Getting to know him better and witnessing how much progress he made in learning English was easily one of the more rewarding experiences of my life, and it gave me some insight as to why teachers like to teach.

But Phong gave me some insight into other things too.

Like any other elementary student, Phong had a spelling list each week, and every week we would do various activities to help him understand the meanings of the words he was learning to spell and incorporate them into his working vocabulary. Towards the end of my time with him, he was capable enough with English that I would have him demonstrate his understanding of the meaning of each spelling word by using it in a sentence.

That’s what we were doing one morning when Phong came to the word “yellow.” He paused and looked around for a minute, and then smiled and exclaimed:

“Yellow. My arm is yellow.”

I remember being a little taken aback. After all, we’re not supposed to refer to people in colors, right? Describing someone as “black” inconsistently draws disapproving looks, glorifying someone for being “red” generally leads to a school having to change the name of a mascot, and everyone knows that referring to an Asian as “yellow” is offensive.

In this culturally-sensitive frame of mind, I was on the verge of correcting Phong when I realized: if he said his arm was yellow, who was I to tell him it wasn’t? I mean, it was his arm, and his skin was yellowish in a way, just as mine was whitish.

It didn’t bother him in the least to say that his skin was yellow or to realize that mine was white; he knew that we were different, but he also knew that the difference didn’t matter.

It seems to me that over the years, people generally have one of two reactions to the issue of race: either that racial differences are supremely important and even insurmountable, or that there are no differences at all.

I think Phong’s approach is more correct than either of these: we are different, but those differences don’t matter with respect to our value or worth as human beings.

This is also in line with the view that the Apostle Paul put forth Galatians 3.26-29:

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, their is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul wasn’t saying that there were no differences between Jews and Gentiles; he was saying that those differences are nothing when compared to the unity we share in Christ.

If we could come to the understanding of Phong, and of Paul, I think the world would be much better off.


Anonymous 5/10/07, 12:09 AM  

That kid is amazing. I wish there were more people who could acknowledge who they are instead of hide behind the politics. When we face the truth, it's so much easier to heal a really painful past and figure out that there is no Jew or Greek.

Luke Dockery 5/10/07, 8:13 AM  


I agree completely.

Obviously race is a sensitive issue, and color terms can be and have been used perjoratively, but what especially frustrates me is when politically-minded people decide for ethnic groups what is offensive and what isn’t.

Kenny Simpson 5/10/07, 8:14 AM  

My skin is red, but only because I'm sunburned, so I don't get a scholarship :)

Luke Dockery 5/10/07, 9:21 AM  


Don't feel too bad. I know a lot of people who are permanently red, at least in the neck area, but they don't get scholarships either.

Anonymous 5/10/07, 12:03 PM  

The sad thing is: someone someday (probably very soon) will "correct" Phong on his "unacceptable" reference to race and he will eventually learn that color is offensive. Children have amazing insights... adults do a great job of teaching them otherwise. I hope Phong keeps his innocence. ("Unless you become like little children...")

Luke Dockery 5/11/07, 12:20 AM  


You're probably right about him being “corrected” soon. I was thinking of Jesus’ words about children as I was writing this.

The Doc File © 2006-2012 by Luke Dockery

  © Blogger template 'Fly Away' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP