by Carolyn Bick
More than 70 years ago, Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a study on both Black and white children’s attitudes towards race and racial preference. The children in the study overwhelmingly favored lighter skin over darker skin. And while feelings about their skin color have improved, a 2010 study showed that Black children still associate “goodness” with lighter skin.
This is part of the reason why Amy Pak finds the work Families of Color Seattle (FOCS) does so crucial, and why the nonprofit’s annual FOCS Arts Fest is such an integral part of helping children of color build self-determination and to feel as though they are valuable in their identities.
“[This] is really healthy, because, for many of us [older generations], that didn’t happen until college,” Pak said in an interview before the event. “As we know, the demographics are rapidly changing, and this intersectional identity is this great opportunity for young folks to be able to claim many different parts of who they are, and it’s not finite.”
The organization’s third annual festival, held Saturday, June 2, at Washington Hall in Seattle, drove home that point: all the artists, from dancers to DJs to the market’s exhibitors, were people of color. Pak said that the idea behind this is two-fold: surrounding children with different examples of people of color not only helps them foster a positive sense of self, it also allows them to tell their own stories, and gives them the tools to help them overcome instances of racial bias in their daily lives.
“Often, racism can be perpetuated by people’s perceptions of who they believe you are, and who they want to categorize you [as],” Pak said. “We don’t all fit into one neat box. … We want to make sure children have … agency to tell their stories from the beginning, versus someone else telling them who they are.”
Pak said these kinds of celebrations and education are “urgent” for children of color, given the generations of genocide and suppression they have faced and continue to face. People of color struggle for representation in everyday life, as well as in the realm of formal education, she said, so it is currently up to parents and organizations like FOCS to fill those gaps. If these next generations are raised with a strong community at their backs, they are more likely to grow into loving and compassionate adults, who can then take on the roles of educators and role models.
And it isn’t all beauty and light, either. In the background of these kinds of gatherings looms the specter of the country’s current political and social climate.
“Even adults are struggling to resist, in this political climate. … Through love and building community can we resist, in these times of terrorism that are excluding immigrants, separating children from parents at the border, killing children at the hands of police officers,” Pak said. “We want to make sure children know that their stories have power, and yet, they need to have compassion, to learn and understand people’s narratives and stories that are different from theirs.”
As a mixed-race woman with Indigenous First ancestors, Miriam Zmiewski-Angelova’s family history is fraught with both familial separation and colonization. The Indigenous Sisters Resistance member was never sure where she fit in, or even how to fit in, because she felt as though she wasn’t “enough,” according to messages both from society and the media. But after she conceived her son, Zmiewski-Angelova realized how important it was to try, for his sake.
“There is so much information available to us, there is no reason why I can’t put in the work,” Zmiewski-Angelova said. “It’s given me a lot more confidence as an individual, because I just feel comfortable, in spaces I am in. I can go to cultural events, and enjoy myself, and enjoy how delighted my son is to listen to music, and play with other children.”
This is why Zmiewski-Angelova finds events like the FOCS Arts Festival is so important for her son, who is also part Bulgarian.
“I love the idea of children helping us break down those barriers … in our adult heads, of how we enter into social circles – how we enter into community spaces. Sometimes, we don’t give ourselves permission just to play and to have fun, and to celebrate life with people,” Zmiewski-Angelova said. “I want him also to feel comfortable in any community gathering that he is in. He has a right to be there.”