In 2013, I worked as a caricature artist at Warwick Castle which is located in the West Midlands of England. One day, a family of three approached the caricature stand and the dad nudged his little son and encouraged him to ask me for a drawing. The boy was about 5 years old and visibly nervous as he approached me but was still able to politely request to be drawn.
As the young boy sat down in the customer’s chair, he seemed curious but shy as most children tend to be around that age. I pulled some ‘funny’ faces and tried a couple of my template live artist jokes to draw a smile out of him but nothing. He was looking at me but definitely wasn’t in a mood to smile so in In the end I just drew a generic smile and the parents seemed happy with the finished product. When the little boy got up from the chair his eyes immediately fixed on the hand I was holding the drawing up with. He then turned to his parents and asked, “Why are the man’s hands brown?”
It was clear to see that the question caught his parents off guard and their initial reaction was to try dismiss it with awkward laughter. His mother then looked at me apologetically and said, “Kids ask the worst questions don’t they?”
I joined in the awkward laughter and for a split second it seemed better to say nothing about skin colour. I imagined that doing so would possibly make the situation even more uncomfortable for everyone, particularly the parents.
When the laughter ended, it was followed by awkward smiles all around but when I looked at the little boy, I realised he hadn’t laughed at all. In some way this led me to start explaining to him that my skin is brown because I was born in a different place. I added that people that are brown like me can also be born here but their parents, grandparent or great grandparent may have been born somewhere else. I told him that when he gets a chance to visit more places, he would find that there’re many different shades of people. I wasn’t sure if he could make sense of what I was saying but his face suggested that he was somewhat content with the explanation I had provided. I put the caricature in a protective tube and handed it to him and off they went.
When I think about this interaction now, it does makes me laugh but it also make me think about how we tend to deal with situations that appear uncomfortable. How do we decide when is the right time to address certain situations or issues? How often do we make such decisions immediately and how often are we ‘forced’ to act because there’s simply no other option.
I don’t believe that the parents had avoided the question of skin colour before the caricature scene played out, after all, their son was just 5 years old. It’s possible that our meeting was the first time their son had asked this kind of question. And as a result they simply didn’t know how to respond so they reacted in a way that many people would in the same situation. They panicked.
When I looked at them, the impression I got was that there was a fear that the question itself was offensive. But when I eventually provided a response, everything was fine and there was a real sense of relief at that fact.
I like to think that at the end of the day when the parents were sat down at home talking about their day out at Warwick cattle, the caricature scene was mentioned at some point. And I do hope that if the family were to revisit the situation, the parents may be able to respond more appropriately or acknowledge the validity of the question and simply concede that they don’t know how to answer it. I imagine that under those circumstances, I would felt less hesitant about providing some sort of answer to a genuine and innocent question.