When my cousin’s daughter spent a year abroad during high school – a tradition in my family – she went to small-town Alabama. Anna, blonde and blue-eyed, joined the cheerleading team. She wanted to fully experience America. She was the only white girl. But the Black girls insisted, “You aren’t white. You’re Swedish.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about skin recently, and power and history. Because I am white and it is now.

I am Swedish, too, but also – for a very long time – an American citizen. What does it mean to be white in this country? In the world?

I’ve also been thinking a lot about colonialism, because I spent my teen years in Hong Kong. And because of an experience I had in Barbados, now finally and fully under self-rule.

I was 6 when I sat on top of the scorching roof of that rental car. It was the Queen’s Birthday. It must have been April 21, as we were not there in June. (Queen Elizabeth celebrates two birthdays, apparently … look it up!) I remember looking out over the enormous sea of Black men in formation, some on horseback. I remember the uniforms as being gray, but who knows? I was familiar with uniforms thanks to Canadian public school. These looked like wool. I felt itchy on the soldiers’ behalf. It may have been spring, but it felt like summer! I was wearing shorts and flip-flops and sweating in the heat and having angry, squirmy thoughts. This was not just because the whole thing dragged on forever. It was because I thought it terribly rude of the Queen not to show up at her own parade. There was pompous music, there was circumstance, but it felt like a hollow occasion.

Just then, my 3-year-old sister spotted her! Anna (yes, another Anna!) slid down the car to the ground and zipped over, her red curls shining. Being a good little Swedish girl, she curtseyed and smiled broadly, finally getting to say it, “Happy Birthday, Mrs. Queen!”


The island woman, a tray of candy on her head like some magnificent crown, smiled, too. Her dress bloomed with flowers; she was large, as a queen might be. But I remember being horribly embarrassed, realizing too many things all at once. This woman ought to have been the Queen of There. This was her island. Instead, soldiers were fainting in the field, celebrating someone across a wide sea, someone who probably wasn’t even thinking of them today. She was probably eating crumpets and drinking tea in some parlor. My mother bought some candies from the woman, but I refused to eat them. I was practicing a skill I was already too good at: sulking in embarrassment at what adults did, and what they never said.

Kids have such radar for these things.

I am always thinking about what children can teach us, because I am a public school teacher and a kid-lit writer. I walk around in my own childhood daily. I watch children in the crucible of theirs.

Another memory sticks, as many of my memories seem to do, due to that heady combination of glee and shame. Shame at the adults’ actions. Glee at the child’s interpretation. It was long ago, in Canada.

My brother – finally, a son! – was the apple of my father’s eye. Pappa lined us up, in the living room, asking my mother and my sister and me to copy him, to stretch out our arms to my toddler brother, Karl.

“Let’s see who he’ll come to,” said Pappa. He loved games like that. The power dynamic, after all, so often tilted his way.


But Karl just waddled over to the very end of the line, and stretched out his own arms out.

Welcoming the world.

He was the embodiment of self and community, at once.

And maybe that’s the intersection of these topics?

Skin. Self-governance. The wisdom of very young children.

“Are you going to draw another Venn diagram on the board, Ms. Agell?” I can hear my students say.


Well, maybe.

For now, I am drawing one in my mind, and thinking:

Skin. Self-governance. The wisdom of very young children. Picture the circles.

Picture the middle where they all overlap.

Stand there.

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