Drawing Across the Color Line with Kids
A great many children love to draw. Yet, while more and more attention is paid to racial, ethnic, and other kinds of diversity in children's books, we pay little attention to diversity in children's depictions of the world. In observing our own children and talking to other guardians and educators, it seems that most kids, including kids of color, start by drawing White characters. This was true in our own childhoods and remains true today, even though children of color are fully half of all children in the US.
We think there’s a lot at stake in teaching kids to see themselves and each other across lines of race, and have invited some of our favorite picture book illustrator-writers to talk it through. Grace Lin, Oge Mora and Yuyi Morales will share their experiences as children who didn’t see people who looked like them depicted favorably or much at all in books and media. We’ll ask them what that invisibility cost them and how they came to create the images they wish they’d had as children. They also reveal their drawings of each other and take questions and comments from the EmbraceRace community.
In addition to watching the video of the Drawing Across the Color Line with Kids event that included a longer video and Q & A with the authors, consider watching a shorter version of the Grace, Oge and Yuyi's conversation and process of drawing each other (the right length for kids!). Lastly, we encourage you to use tips from this webinar to draw with the kids in your life and to show us what you come up with! Tag us in your drawings on Instagram or send us your drawings and we'll continue to conversation and learning - together!
EmbraceRace, Andrew: Welcome! We're excited to have you here. EmbraceRace, for those of you who don't know, is a national nonprofit organization. Our mission is to support parents, educators, other caregivers to children, to help those children be thoughtful, informed, and brave about race. And so, one of the concerns we have, one thing we pay a lot of attention to is a racial representation in the world, the kind of messages or kind of representations our children are seeing. And tonight, maybe for the first time, we pay attention to the kind of representations that children themselves are creating.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: Andrew and I are also a couple, life partners and we have two kids upstairs, Black multiracial girls. This conversation was inspired by them watching them. And when they started to draw, we saw a lot of White characters. They were drawing a lot of White characters and we sort of thought, "Huh, that's interesting," because they're surrounded, representationally and people-wise, by such a diverse community. And we thought back to how we learned to draw - what we were drawing, where we learned, what tools we had - we always started with white paper - and it brought up a lot of questions.
And talking to people anecdotally, it wasn't uncommon for kids to draw mostly White characters, no matter how they identified or were identified racially. So there's not a lot of research on this, but we really are interested in the questions and how to do this job of caretaking and parenting better around these concerns. And we're so excited that we have Grace Lin, we have Oge Mora, and we have Yuyi Morales coming to join us. We created a video with Kate Geist, who is our video producer. We're going to play that video for you, it runs about 44 minutes. It's a conversation between these three illustrators about these topics. And then at the other end of that, they're going to come on and answer your questions, so be sure to put those in the Q&A, I know you've sent some of them already. We're excited.
[Beginning of video conversation between Oge, Grace, and Yuyi]
Yuyi Morales: I used to do a lot of my drawing practice, drawing other people's faces. I remember at the time being kind of shy and not being brave enough to put myself out as someone who liked to draw. So then I copy portraits that were on the walls of my house or in the albums with photographs, and I would copy them. But I always like faces, that was my favorite thing to do. I used my face a lot. I will go inside my bedroom and I will close the door because again, I was so shy of showing my interest. Because at the time I was drawing people from my family, so they were very familiar to me.
But then when I was in middle school, one of our first exercises was to draw the person who was sitting next to us and that there was a girl and she must have been 12 years old, I was about 11. I remember not being one of them, not being one of the ones that everybody wants to be friends with, and this girl wasn't either. And by me looking at her and looking with the eyes of just what I see and I put it on the paper, became an exercise of observation. I didn't have that much conscious about like, I'm going to connect with her or anything. I was just trying to understand how she look like. Then I remembered that she was absolutely happy because the drawing kind of looked like her. When you are being seen by someone else and especially if that person is drawing you, then because they have to look at you carefully. It's like I'm grateful for that.
Grace Lin: Yeah. When you draw someone it's kind of like you're really seeing them. And when they see the picture they're so excited or they feel so something, because it's like, "Oh, you see me?" And I don't really remember drawing myself when I was younger. I remember very vividly ripping out ads from magazines and copying them and always these like beautiful women with like really long eyelashes and just copying and copying them over and over again. And always kind of looking at them like, "Oh, they are so beautiful!" And having this idea of beauty being unattainable as a woman and also very unattainable as someone Asian or somebody of a minority race because it was always a very, very beautiful White woman that I was drawing over and over again and idealizing.
Honestly, it wasn't until college that I started drawing characters that were Asian. And I started actually drawing like my parents and my sisters and even really myself. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, like Oge. To get in I think we had to do a self-portrait. And I think that was probably one of the first times I ever actually drew myself. And I remember feeling really uncomfortable and I remember even thinking, well, I don't have to be pretty. I just have to make a good picture. I never considered myself attractive because it was not what I thought what beauty was at that point. So that means all my whole childhood, and even those teenage years, I had an idea of what beauty was that was influenced by all the visions and art around me that was really harmful to me to the fact that I never drew an Asian person until I went to college. And I imagine it's extremely harmful to all the kids who experienced the same thing.
Oge Mora: I would totally agree with what Grace had said. I think when I think about any self-portraits I had done at that point, I was required to draw myself was the only time I would actually try to draw myself. And I had this idea, and I think sometimes young artists, at least in my time I had this idea of, "Oh, this is what good art is supposed to look like or be." Because the good art didn't have people that looked like me, I just assumed that like, "Oh, well, people like you, that's not the sort of art you should be drawing." And it was also for me coming into like, I think around like my senior year and in that first year of college just realizing that...
I actually had this really interesting experience in my first year of college at this apparel critique, where they were looking at the artwork that these apparel kids were making. And there was this one girl who came in and she had these crazy outfits for her models. And I was like, "Oh my goodness. They're going to not like this. It's ridiculous. What's this artwork? What's these clothes that she had made?" And they actually took really well to it. And they were like, "Oh yeah, no, we totally understand that you're really into costume design. We can totally tell by like what you yourself are wearing." And I just thought that was like a kind of a moment where I was like, "Oh." I started to think about the connection between myself and my artwork. And I was looking at my artwork in this time and I'm like, where am I in this? Why these images? Why would I be drawing this, this isn't what I know.
And then I started thinking about my godmother's home and the clothes that my mom likes to wear and artists that are prevalent in my community that like I knew so much about, but I just kind of put them in the back of my mind and just didn't really reflect those in my actual artwork. And I think there's something really powerful about being an artist where you have the ability to put images or put people that you admire, things that you think are important, in the spotlight. That's the great thing about being an illustrator where we get to bring light to those sort of things. And I started to more so think more deeply about, well, what am I giving spotlight to, what am I giving light to? And I want it to be things that were deeply important to me. And I realized up to that point I hadn't before.
There's something really powerful about being an artist where you have the ability to put images or put people that you admire, things that you think are important, in the spotlight. That's the great thing about being an illustrator where we get to bring light to those sort of things. And I started to more so think more deeply about, well, what am I giving spotlight to, what am I giving light to? And I want it to be things that were deeply important to me.
Grace Lin: And I went through a very similar thing when I was in art school. I talk about this quite a bit in some of my talks about how I went to Rome, Italy. And while I was in Rome, Italy, and copying the greats and drawing the Roman landscape and learning all these things. And then realizing that I myself was never in my artwork. Well, I met an Italian man and he said, "Okay, so your parents are from Taiwan and they came to the United States. Why did they come to the United States?"
And I realized at that moment, I did not know the answer and that I knew all these obscure things about Roman history. I could tell him how long it took for the Sistine Chapel to be painted but I couldn't tell him why my own parents immigrated to the United States. It was that kind of revelation that I was not in my own art, I did not even know myself. The idea of an artist being somebody who has a vision or a message or something they want to share with the world and then realizing that I was not being an artist, sharing anything with the world, because I had never even looked at myself. And that was what was transformative for me as an artist.
Yuyi Morales: It makes me think about like, what you are mentioning right now Grace, this ability that we have, or we don't have sometimes, of seeing ourselves with love, with admiration, with reverency, with curiosity before we can transfer all of that to seeing someone else. If have not been able to practice it with ourselves, how can we then offer it to someone else when we see them? You both grew up in the United States, is that correct?
[Oge and Grace nod affirmatively]
Yuyi Morales: Yeah. So I grew up here in Mexico and here in Mexico of course we have racism like everywhere else. But one of the things that this particular about Mexico is that racism is something that we hardly have against others. It's something that we have about ourselves.
We were taught when we were colonized that if you were Mexican, if you belong here, you were of less worth, of less beauty, of less intelligence and everything, and we have carried that forever. So it makes me realize how difficult it is for us to be gentle, kind, admire and approving of ourselves and how hard it is when you don't have that practice, you haven't practiced it with yourself. You cannot put it out there either. So for me has been a journey of learning to look at myself and honor things like the way I look, especially when they don't fit the images that we have been always provided about what beauty is, about what intelligence is, about what that being of certain worth looks like.
A lot of kids when they enter the United States, but especially those that come from Latino families, they are also having that battle. They are also trying to figure out how to feel proud of the way that they look. Does that happen to you too? Have you seen that in your community?
Grace Lin: Oh yeah.
Oge Mora: Oh definitely. I was at a school and I was doing a collage workshop. I have my first grade image of me, I drew myself and so I had the kids draw themselves. I was working with the kids and going around and seeing how they were working with stuff. And I get to a little Black girl and she's like drawing, well, she's not drawing actually. There's like nothing there. And I was like, "Okay, like what's going on? How are you doing?" And she was just like, "I hate my ears. I hate my hair. I'm ugly. I don't want to draw myself." And she was just having like such a hard time and was just really stressed out by this idea that she had to depict herself. And I was just telling her, I was like, "Your hair is like my hair. It's beautiful and your skin and everything is like mine."
It was kind of like, your parents always will tell you like, "Oh, you're beautiful, blah, blah, blah." But when you're like a kid, you don't really like, believe them. You're like, "Oh, you're just saying that." It was like kind of like a real emotional experience, like seeing her go through that. And also the idea that she was only like in first grade. And it just kind of like made me think of myself and how early kids internalize those images. And I'll say at the other side, there was another kid who was a little Black boy. And he didn't like want me to see his paper. And I was like, "Oh, show me your collage. Like what's going on. I want to see what you're drawing."
And he was like, "I have to start over. I did it wrong." And I was like, "No, let me see it." And he had drawn himself. He had essentially drawn the little boy from, "Thank You Omu!" with like the little buildings in the back because he was drawing himself in the way through that image. And that was just kind of a moment for me. And I was like, "Oh, it's amazing. Keep going!" and things like that. But it just was kind of shocking for me where I just kind of remembered how important it is what we do and also how early those messages kind of like seep into your mind without even realizing it. Like I think if I was sitting here today, I can't think I can remember if I had any kind of issues from that age, but it's there. It's in those images that you're constantly seeing and seeing, and you carry it with you for a really, really long time without even realizing it.
Grace Lin: Yeah. And it's so heartbreaking when you hear and witness those things. Before COVID, I used to do a lot of school visits too, and I would go to a lot of schools that were not very diverse, very like homogeneous and usually not diverse, meaning mainly White. Very often I would go into school and there'd be like one Asian girl or one Asian boy and their face, just like me coming in like, "Hi, I'm the author today" would just like completely light up and be like, "[Gasp] You're the author?" And they'd be like, "Oh my gosh." And they always would come up to me right after. Like, "I'm Chinese too." As if I couldn't tell.
But those interactions, all of a sudden you realize how much that matters to them because it's like, "Oh, the author that came in, that my teachers are making a big deal about, that is obviously somebody that counts, looks just like me." And, "Oh my gosh, that means people like me count." And that is something that I think I craved so much when I was a child so desperately. And it's so important, I think, that we try to kind of feed that in the kids today.
Oge Mora: I'm thinking of the times when people have drawn me and it's always been an act of love. They go, "Oh, I love you so much, okay? I wanted to draw a picture of you."
I don't know how you guys felt when you were doing your portraits. I felt a little nervous. I kind of felt like someone was watching me over my shoulder, which I don't think any artist really likes someone to watch them as they draw. And you're like, "Oh, you're making me nervous. What if I mess up?" And I think there's also a lot of fear that can come about when you're drawing someone else. And you're like, "Oh no, what if it doesn't look like them? What if I don't get it perfect?
Grace Lin: What if I hurt their feelings?
Oge Mora: Yeah. And it is about kind of like getting over that hump and just kind of putting yourself out there. And being comfortable with maybe the first line I put down isn't a perfect line, but it doesn't have to be the perfect line. I can just kind of go about, and I can learn about this subject matter as I'm going about it and just getting comfortable putting lines on the page.
[Video of Oge Mora drawing Yuyi's portrait in Oge's studio]
Oge Mora: I'm always looking to like get the simple shapes. So you really want to break things down into like circles and squares. Because I don't want to get too precious about every single line because those are going to be the things that I'm going to be cutting out. I can just kind of go about and I can learn about this subject matter as I'm going about it.
[Oge presents the portrait of Yuyi to Yuyi and Grace]
Grace Lin: Oh, that's beautiful! Can you put it a little closer?
Yuyi Morales: Wow! And there's so much in your style.
Oge Mora: Like the first drawing I did was more of like a drawing of you. And then I kind of just took my favorite things. Like your nose ring, the way it shines. I was also like obsessed with your hair, the little curls and loops.
Yuyi Morales: Yeah. My hair and a nose ring and that's it.
Grace Lin: I'm sorry, was that cut paper or paint?
Oge Mora: Some of its painted. Some of its cut paper. So I had like a sketch underneath it and then like I traced out the bits and then I cut the paper and put it in spots. It's half and half.
Yuyi Morales: Wow, I love it.
Grace Lin: All right, who's next?
[Video of Yuyi Morales drawing Grace Lin's portrait in Yuyi's studio]
Yuyi Morales: My drawing of Grace, even though I made it with a lot of love, it doesn’t exactly look like Grace. And I think that I want to give myself permission to not have to make it look exactly like Grace, but to understand that it is a combination of looking at me at the picture of Grace and doing with what I have with whatever my hands, my pencil, and all my tools and whatever skills I might have. Something happened on the paper. I'm going to call it the translation of Grace, which has to do something that Grace is, but has so much to do with something I have to give, right?
[Yuyi presents the portrait of Grace to Oge and Grace]
Grace Lin: Oh, wow.
Oge Mora: It's beautiful.
Yuyi Morales: I drew with my pencil first, I can show you, and I tried to copy what I saw, what I was seeing about Grace, like her eyebrows. I was thinking, "Oh, these are like the clouds that are on the face," and then I gave you lots of colors for your skin and your hair. I have these pastel crayons and that's how I started painting it. I was remembering about the themes of your books and some of the things that you've put out there for the world, and one of the thoughts that came to me is it was the night, the sense of the night and the sky so I decided to give you a sky night outfit with some stars and these little flowers. Just kind of experimenting.
Grace Lin: Aw I love it. It's so beautiful, Yuyi.
[Video of Grace Lin drawing Oge's portrait in Grace's studio]
Grace Lin: I feel like everyone should draw or paint or illustrate or draw their friends, and kind of try to really understand their personality because you're trying to convey it in the art. It's when I'm doing the painting that things kind of become more alive to me. I started thinking of her as a really bright and vibrant person and how she's so open and warm. And all those kind of characteristics came into my head as I started mixing the colors.
[Grace presents the portrait of Oge to Yuyi and Oge]
Grace Lin: So this is what I did.
Oge Mora: Oh, it's me! You did my glasses so well. I love it.
Grace Lin: So I painted with gouache, and I know I didn't quite get your chin right.
Oge Mora: No, it's great. I love it.
Grace Lin: It's gouache which is a thick watercolor kind of thing, opaque watercolor.
Oge Mora: So I also love the outside, the marks. I love the vignette you've made around me.
Grace Lin: Yes, well, what I really enjoyed was really getting your hair and doing the way it fell on the shirt and everything like that. That was really fun. I actually mainly illustrate Asian people and Asian characters. What was illuminating to me was how different your hair falls on your clothes versus when I paint my hair falling on my clothes. It's a much different kind of feel so that was really illuminating to me.
Oge Mora: It looks so amazing.
Grace Lin: I was really nervous showing it to you.
Oge Mora: Oh, no.
Yuyi Morales: I realized that, too, that it made me nervous because you don't want to be seen as someone who doesn't do it right.
Grace Lin: Yeah.
Oge Mora: Yeah.
Yuyi Morales: Is that correct? Is that how you feel?
Oge Mora: Yeah.
Grace Lin: Yeah. So, it's an interesting thing. When we ask kids to draw someone, how do we alleviate that worry? Because if we feel it, then they must really [feel it]. Maybe it's the idea that they draw something and they don't have to show it to the person. Though I don't know. I don't even know if that's really the right thing to do either, because I feel like so much of it is like seeing a friend. Like I was saying, when you draw somebody that you know, there's such a love that you feel when you do that. So I would also hate for them to just choose an anonymous person that they have no connection to and just draw that because they're scared to share it. So maybe it's just more embracing the fact that there will always be fear when you create art, but embracing that fear and having the courage to go forth.
Oge Mora: And just because you draw someone that you know, doesn't mean that you have to show it to them?
Grace Lin: That's true.
Oge Mora: Because you know, I think about my own sketchbook and it's kind of like a diary. There's parts where I write my thoughts and then I'll draw in my little secret personal drawings of people or things that I'll see around. Even with the painting that I made of Yuyi, I mean I knew I enjoyed doing it and I liked it, but I didn't know how Yuyi was going to like it. But if you could make an illustration on a drawings you really like, you can maybe when you're ready share them with someone else, but you don't have to.
Yuyi Morales: A lot of the kids that I go to, they believe that they don't like to draw. A lot of them compare themselves or they have been discouraged in their attempts. And it makes me remember how fragile it is, creating. And we, as artists, I know that. I know that when I'm just starting to do something, I will feel so weak about it. I will feel like I'm not good enough. I'm not capable enough, that my drawings look awful. And there are stages of our work that feel so fragile that we don't even want to show them anybody, because any gesture of disapproval might just break us and feel like, "Okay, I am stopping here." And I know that happens to children as well. That's why most adults don't continue drawing, because at some point, they were made to believe that if it didn't look like Michelangelo or something like that, then it wasn't worth it.
And thinking about how children who are just being exposed to the idea of looking with different eyes, looking with open eyes, and what they can draw, they might feel overwhelmed by the task. And they are probably going to draw what they have always seen. It's not like I have an answer, so I kind of put it there. Like it makes me wonder how do we do that? How do we give a child that we have just met an open experience of the world of what they can draw?
Oge Mora: What got me into drawing or art was stories and just really liking stories and seeing the pictures and things like that. And then wanting to do that for myself, like, "Oh, I want to try to draw my own stories." And so thinking about what stories or whatever, if it's movies, or TV, or what books like your kid is reading or is being exposed to. That can inspire them to make their own work. And really exposing your kid to just a whole variety of books, and stories, and tales, and things that can really engage them, I think it's really great.
Because I think something that I've noticed a lot when I talk to a lot of other illustrators or authors is, oh, I'm drawing these images or I'm writing these words, because I didn't see myself in picture books. But as we're part of this field and look back at history, those books and those stories, they were there. A lot of those stories, like there were stories that were there. But the thing is it's not enough just that those stories were there, but how are we connecting those stories to kids? And did kids have access to those stories? And making sure that there's that connection there.
Grace Lin: The books are not enough. And the truth is there's this new wave, ever since We Need Diverse Books came out, like, "We need diverse books!" and we do need diverse books, no question about it. And we've needed diverse books for a long time, but the truth is we've had diverse books. And these books are just tools and they're wonderful tools, but they're completely useless unless we use them. And so, the important thing is to use these tools, to share with your kid as many different kinds of books as possible. And not just books, though of course we're all like book lovers, but even as much as like watching the TV programs they do.
Like are they only watching programs that don't have any characters of color, maybe encourage them to watch something else to add to their repertoire. Try to think of it as like trying to give them a media diet that is very, very diverse. Like they all talk about like when you eat your food, your plate should be colorful, like that's the healthiest thing. Well, that goes the same thing with the media that they ingest in terms of visual, and reading, and all those things. It should be as colorful as possible. Like looking for the diversity in everything that you do.
Try to think of it as like trying to give them a media diet that is very, very diverse. Like they all talk about like when you eat your food, your plate should be colorful, like that's the healthiest thing. Well, that goes the same thing with the media that they ingest in terms of visual, and reading, and all those things. It should be as colorful as possible.
Yuyi Morales: And then doing it in a way
that sometimes might feel risky which is that you look at others with the eyes
of admiration, of curiosity. We haven't been taught to do that. Even when we
ask questions, most of the time we know the answers. We hardly know how to ask
questions, even us as adults, that really are open to the answer that the other
one is going to give. So how can we draw, paint, our children, how can we
transmit that, that their experience is open to receive all kinds of answers,
all kinds of features, colors, energies, everything? I will believe that's a
life learning, but at the same time, I think that we have to start somewhere.
Grace Lin: How do we cultivate this as a lifelong process? I really do think it's a lifelong process of letting a child feel validated. Like they need to feel validated, they need to feel like they are important enough, not in the sense of an ego, but that they can do these kinds of things. And that's really a life thing that parents are always struggling with, I think. But at the same time, as outsiders, as teachers, as friends, as authors just coming into the classroom, yeah, we cannot give that to them, but maybe we can give them a taste of that, because I think it's true. I think that kind of validation is something they need to keep building and building in their whole life. But hopefully we can give them a little of that and hopefully they can get a little of that through the art process. And I think the thing that we have to emphasize during the art process is the idea of what Oge was saying about it's okay to feel vulnerable.
Creating art is always going to be an act of vulnerability, and it's always going to be an act of courage. And the idea of being like, "It doesn't matter what it looks like, what matters is that you did it and that's the courageous, brave thing to do." And I think that is what we should emphasize as caregivers, as people who are encouraging kids to create. It's more the encouragement of the bravery of doing the act than the actual thing. And I think if we keep doing that, that is something that can hopefully help add the coins into that self-esteem that we're all trying to build in kids these days.
Creating art is always going to be an act of vulnerability, and it's always going to be an act of courage. And the idea of being like, "It doesn't matter what it looks like, what matters is that you did it and that's the courageous, brave thing to do." And I think that is what we should emphasize as caregivers, as people who are encouraging kids to create.
Yuyi Morales: Wow. It makes me think about how important it is to create a place where first, it is okay to be vulnerable. And maybe if we are capable of drawing someone, that's something that honors ourselves, but it also honors others. We have to live a life that teaches us how to do that. Even when we are not drawing, even when we are not creating. So when we come to the desk and we take our piece of paper and start creating, which is a process in which we actually can look at our own feelings, our own emotions, our own thoughts, and process them and make something else. That time kind of takes from everything that we've been doing around it and just brings it all together and makes us create something.
But probably out of the blue and just by drawing is not necessarily going to stick. In order to be powerful and have something that really fits our soul and even our own identity, and the way that we see others is going to have to be surrounded by many other things like you were saying, Grace, like at school, then we are going to have to look at math problems with a different lens.
We are going to see their food that we bring to the table, not that's something that only came from the market, but something that a person, a real person had to grow, and picked, and transport, and eventually bring it here to where we are eating. So it's going to have to be a wholesome experience. So that then drawing doesn't become only the act of taking a pencil and making lines, then it becomes a way of processing everything that we are feeling and living at the moment.
Oge Mora: Yeah.
Grace Lin: Yeah. That's so beautiful, I completely agree. I think like what we were saying how the books are just a tool, I think you really pointed out how creating art is just a tool as well to make sense of all this stuff around us.
Oge Mora: And I think something that I really admire about kids and I'm just eternally fascinated by is just how good they are at that. Like kids are just so observational and they just they see so many things. Like even when it's on the topic of books or picture books that we all make, like I'll go into school or something like that and a kid will ask a question about an image. And I'll be like, "How did you even notice that?" Like they'd see all those tiny details. They just are really good at reading images and just really being observational. And when I think about my experience as a kid, it's like I was always a people watcher. I always loved looking at people, like, how do I get what I'm seeing on that page was something that was always kind of difficult for me.
And I think it's for every artist to this day. I think it's something you get better at just with the more and more you draw. It's like an instrument where that practice, you get better at translating that. What makes your work magical or what makes you magical isn't what's on that page, it's the fact that you're seeing that beauty. That's creativity, it's just seeing the beauty that's all around you. And kids are just so observational and just very cognizant of that.
And so, I think if parents are thinking with their kids, like one thing I always try to get kids out of is you know when kids are first learning to draw, they get so precious and they're like doing these like little feathery lines. Like maybe you start them without even thinking about they have to draw someone at all, just get them in the process of making marks, and scribbling, and just really having a lot of fun on the page, but putting something on the page.
[scene of Grace conducting an art project with a group of kids around a wooden table on a back porch]
Grace Lin: Both me and my husband are pretty creative. We're always kind of making things. One of the things that my husband and I foster in my daughter is I think that we really foster an atmosphere of creativity. We just always have materials available. And like, so there's always art supplies anywhere, like on any shelf anywhere. So, art supplies and books are always available. So she sees us making things all the time. So she's like, "Oh, I'll make something too."
And I also think of this touches on what we were talking about in terms of vulnerability. If you draw something and you're like, "Oh, I'm a little scared to show it because of this, but I'm really proud of doing this and it made me feel so good doing it, and I feel so connected to the person that I was painting because of that," those are the things that they will get, because, you've done it with them or like in parallel.
I think those are the things that I would encourage parents and caregivers to do. Or at least to bring in artists into the room in the classroom who shows how much they love it, and then students will see that and they can emulate that and it's a model for them. I think modeling is something that is so important that we haven't really given as much weight to in the past. That we thought our words were enough. Like, "Good job. You love that. I love that." And not that they're not important. Words are very important. But I think modeling and actions count so much more.
[scene of Grace painting Oge]
Oge Mora: I think there's just something really flattering and touching about someone taking the time to try to see you. We look at people all the time, but someone really sat down and was looking at you, in particular, and was thinking about, like Grace [Lin] was talking about, how my hair rests on my dress and the patterns on that and really, really conscious of you. It's like it's a very intimate connection between you and the things that you draw and someone drawing you and seeing that back, you know?
[Scene of Oge drawing Yuyi, and then Yuyi drawing Grace]
Yuyi Morales: Yeah. Yeah, I can tell also that I feel right now, I am still enjoying that feeling of being seen because it feels like I've been loved. For that time that you took to make my portrait, to look at me and with your work, with that precious thing that is your work, you did something about me. It's like who has done that for me before? Very few people because it's an act of love that very few people give, I think. Not for the reasons, not because of lack of love, but sometimes because we don't feel gracious enough to do it in that way. There are many ways of loving and that's one of them.
Most recently I've been studying and learning from other people about how we interpret love and we usually tend to give our love to the people that is close to us, maybe our family or our partners, the people that we choose. And to that peoples, we give them respect, we give them time, we give them care, but we usually don't do that for other people that is not the ones that we have close. If we just met someone, it seems like we think before we give them all of those things, and I don't know why.
We haven't been taught to give all of that to people that we don't know yet. It seems like it is exclusive. We only have it there for my mom, my child, or my partner. But what happens when we have someone else who is just as beautiful, worthy, alive, and everything, is just another person. Are we capable of giving that other person the same love, the same things, the same respect, the same quality of treatment and all those things that they don't have to earn it because they are worthy of that, of receiving that from every one of us? So in this moment, when I see the drawing that you made of me, I just felt like you loved me for that time and I'm really grateful for it. I'm just delighted.
There are many ways of loving and that [drawing someone's portrait] is one of them... So in this moment, when I see the drawing that you made of me, I just felt like you loved me for that time and I'm really grateful for it.
Grace Lin: I love what you said, like how you don't have to earn it and that when you want to give that love... And I've only met Oge two or three times but after painting that picture of her, I feel so connected. Honestly, I feel like, "Oh, she's my best friend now," because I painted it and I've thought of you, all these things. And I think when you showed the portrait you did of me, Yuyi, it's just so touching. It just feels so amazing to think someone was thinking of me and not just the way I look but all the aspects of the things that make me and that is such a gift.
And that is probably what, for me as an artist, for me, for my history, for all the things, that's so much of what I've been striving for in the work that I do and who I am. It's like always striving to be seen and be worthy just because of who you are, you know? And so seeing that really made me feel like, "Oh, wow, that's what I've been looking for," and so I think that is the gift that you get when people draw you.
Yuyi Morales: You know what? It makes me wonder, like right now, how we are in this COVID times and we cannot hug each other, we cannot touch each other. How this could be a way of showing our connection and our love and our curiosity until we can again hug and do other things. I think this could be a really awesome way of saying, "Hi," and saying, "I'm here for you."
Grace Lin: Yeah.
Oge Mora: When I think about why I am an artist or why I love art, I love people. I love drawing people because I love people and I love meeting new people, seeing what they're wearing, seeing how they express themselves, and seeing kind of that light that they have inside them and trying to capture that likeness in an image, you know? And I just think that it's that love of people and that love of people different from me and that love of learning about people, especially people who are different from me, is what really motivates a lot of my artwork. It's like the artwork, it's a celebration, you know?
Grace Lin: Yeah.
[End of video conversation between Oge, Grace, and Yuyi]
EmbraceRace: Hello! That was an amazing, wonderful conversation. There's so much to appreciate in that conversation. We have tons of questions for you all then tons of comments and tons of appreciation for what you've just said or recording of what they've said. There was someone who said, "This is the perfect evening ever!" or something like that, in the middle of COVID!
We'll go straight to questions and let me start with the one that I'm super curious about myself. You said, all of you had the experience, really, of not drawing yourselves for some time, right? So what I'm wondering, obviously that changed, and you're both seeing yourselves as worthy subject of your own art, but also seeing your communities and other things that you hadn't seen earlier.
What difference has that made? What has that meant to you to go from an artist who didn't draw yourself, your community, to someone who now does?
Grace Lin: So for me it's been absolutely life-changing. I think I talked about this many, many times about my path of creating the books that I create now. Like all of my books feature Asian characters, which is kind of crazy when you think about the fact that I never drew any Asian characters before college. And the truth is because I did not want to be Asian. I basically rejected my culture, and I spent a lot of time not wanting to be who I am.
And it's through the painting, it's through creating these books, it's through creating these images over and over again that I have finally felt a sense of peace with my identity and not just peace, but pride, pride like feeling like, "Oh, I don't have to prove if I'm Asian enough or American enough. I'm just who I am." It wasn't just like that. It's been like years and years of creating art like this.
EmbraceRace: What is at stake if we can encourage more children to do the same, or be it obviously not as professionals, but [as creators]? Oge, do you want to talk about this?
Oge Mora: Yeah. I think the act of having my work embody who I am gives you a sense of freedom. I feel like so much of my life was trying. It's like you see the images constantly of who you're supposed to be. This is what a Black girl is supposed to be like, or this is what a Nigerian person's supposed to be like and all these sort of like images or conceptions. And you're constantly trying to conform to those things and conform and conform or fit into these like established molds. And so to finally have a space where someone doesn't have to tell or decide those things for you, you get to decide what images are being celebrated and shown, and it's a very freeing kind of experience I think, especially for young kids.
And now, kind of looking back at myself, I always remember with my locks, up here there's one lock that's shorter than all the rest of my locks, and it's shorter because around the time when I was around eight or nine, I chopped it because I was actually trying to like chop off all of my hair because I hated it so much. And I would always see my friends with scrunchies and could do their hair in these different ways cause their hair was straight and it just worked that way. And I was just tired of not looking like so many of my friends did. And so I started chopping off my hair cause I just couldn't take it anymore. And it was actually my mom who caught me and was like, "Oh no, you can't cut your hair! You can't cut your hair! It's beautiful." And she was able to stop me.
But even to this day, whenever I have my hair all the way down after a shower or something like that, and I see that lock that's like shorter than all the others. And I remember there was a time, this thing that you love about yourself, that's actually one of the most beautiful things about you, there was a time where the world had you in such a way where you thought that that was the worst thing about you. And it's been kind of interesting coming into adulthood and looking back at all those things I was trying to hide about myself and erase about myself and those being the things that I love the most about myself, it's just a really freeing and complete feeling. Yeah. And just being able to have space to celebrate those things so that maybe a kid down the line won't feel that intense need to erase those precious, beautiful things that define who they are.
I think the act of having my work embody who I am gives you a sense of freedom. So to finally have a space where someone doesn't have to tell or decide those things for you, you get to decide what images are being celebrated and shown, and it's a very freeing kind of experience I think, especially for young kids.
EmbraceRace: Thank you, Oge. Yuyi did you want to offer some thoughts here?
Yuyi Morales: Yeah. Well, I was thinking about what you both, Oge and Grace were talking about, like this attempt of always trying to be someone that we are not. To me, yes of course I wanted to be blue eyes and blonde when I was a kid because in my school and in my community that was what was appreciated. And even though we didn't have really books for kids, everything around us always told us how beauty and worth was supposed to look like. And it makes me think right now, I'm learning here from all the comments I'm seeing within, and also from all this conversation that we're having.
But it again, it makes me think so how do we bring that to kids? Are kids just quickly going to pick it up when we say, "Oh, you are so beautiful. You should go on and draw yourself?" Most kids are going to say, "I don't believe you!" Like they are not ready to accept the truth because, "Well, this person is my teacher, it's my mom and she's telling me, so of course she's going to tell me that." But as a kid, I'm not necessarily going to believe it. I believe in the power of art but I also know that the healing of art is not immediate. It takes work. It takes to be the constant part of our daily exercise, and it has to be a company of the art of living.
If we are in a place where we are not seeing ourselves as something that is worth and something that is present, someone that is a person, if we are not seeing people like us being celebrated, if we are being criticized all the time by how we act or how we look or the way we speak. I was watching the video and I was hearing myself once more speak the way I speak, which is cut like this. And I talk about many other things that it's not a specific to the theme and I burble and I find myself less more thinking like, "Oh my goodness, this the way I speak and I don't know if people who are seeing this video are going to understand me."
It takes a moment for me to stop those thoughts and say, "I'm proud of the way I express myself. That's how my brain, that's how my expression works and it is okay." So if we, as adults, have such a hard time being kind to ourselves and seeing the value of how we express ourselves, how we make drawings, how we speak, how we eat, how we wear something. If we have those problems, what happens with our children? And it takes me again to thinking about how we make our world, this is space and where children can practice being themselves without being attacked, stopped, criticized for who they are. And I think that's this is a world that we as adults, we are going to have to figure out.
I believe in the power of art but I also know that the healing of art is not immediate. It takes work. It takes to be the constant part of our daily exercise, and it has to be a company of the art of living... It takes me again to thinking about how we make our world, this is space and where children can practice being themselves without being attacked, stopped, criticized for who they are. And I think that's this is a world that we as adults, we are going to have to figure out.
EmbraceRace: Yeah, I really appreciate that. And what you've all said. It's funny Yuyi, I love the way that you all express yourselves, but I was saying to Andrew earlier that, and also during the video, that Yuyi's always asking the question, you know what I mean? Yuyi's always saying there's no recipe.
[Yuyi, Grace, and Oge nod affirmatively]
EmbraceRace: And inviting us to think more deeply, to think harder about it and to bring more to complicate things in fact, to bring more in. And I think that's an issue, a problem that we have at EmbraceRace a lot, or just in general, if you're talking about race and kids, that people want a recipe. And if we had the recipe EmbraceRace would be done, right? If we knew how to stop racism and sort of negative racial learning.
But really it's about the bigger questions. We know some things, right? But it's really about raising our capacity to sort of ask the questions and process what we're thinking and bring it all in and do that with our kids and have our kids also learn to be sort of critical, but also embracing and questioning and learn to be on their own journey as well. So anyway, that's so real, what you just said, I really appreciate it.
And I think that's implied in what you said, but Yuyi and all of you really asking critical questions and being okay with not having the answers to them, right? Or being okay with having only partial answers. That's really clear and really for you all to do this in this context, and this is actually a thing, but a number of people have commented on it in the chat. It's amazing that they are willing to talk about vulnerability in art, you are willing to be vulnerable in what you know, what you don't know, your experiences, your reflections, the journey continues.
EmbraceRace: It's a real strength. It's a real strength that you each have, and that you really seem to bring out in each other as well, which is really lovely to watch.
What tips do you have to help kids navigate not drawing racial stereotypes, if they're drawing across the color line?
Yuyi Morales: You're always going to make mistakes about that.
Oge Mora: Yeah!
Yuyi Morales: We make mistakes before we can do it right. Because I don't even think that I know the answer to that, I don't think you know about it. When I'm making my books I have made all kinds of mistakes too. I come from a place where diversity wasn't exactly what we were about. And then when I got to the United States, I remember seeing so many different kinds of people that I had never seen before. And also, I came to the United States as an adult and yes, I had all kinds of stereotypes about people. And the only thing that occurs to me right now is something that we mentioned in the video which is curiosity, we need to be really open-minded about seeing others and what they present to us, with nothing in our repertoire. Just open up to whatever this person in front of me is without me anticipating anything, without already assuming what I'm going to see. And if we can foster that kind of curiosity, that will be great. I know I'm trying to foster it for myself too.
Oge Mora: No, I definitely agree with Yuyi. I think we all make mistakes, we all are learning, we're all eternal students on this road of how we're reflecting the world around us, within our art. I think something which is usually a pitfall that a lot of professional artists get into is that when someone says, "Oh, you're trying to draw someone." And you immediately are just trying to just grab things from your head. The thing about images is that there's so much that you'll take in without even realizing it, you know. And a lot of times a really great way to combat just kind of going to the stereotype or just kind of resting on what you might've already drawn is just drawing from life, drawing from the people that are around you or drawing from references and things like that. And not just kind of just trying to conjure an image straight from your head, if you're case in point here, you're drawing a little Black girl.
Even for me, I'll go to my sketchbook cause I'm always sketching people, before COVID, sketching people at cafes and things like that. And just kind of taking those sketches of people I've seen around or a memory of that. And that's how I bring life into my artwork. It's not something that just kind of came out of nowhere. For example, something like the little girl in Saturday. Yeah, she's got a lot of inspiration from me when I was a little girl. Those patterned tights are from when I worked at a toy store, there was a little girl who came in with the coolest patterned tights. And I just thought, "Wow, those are really amazing. I want to draw someone who has patterned tights too." But you can only get that if you were observing, and kids are already such natural observers, that just really kind of encouraging them along that process, I think is always a great, great thing.
Grace Lin: So I'd like to take a slightly different approach to that question cause I'm assuming we're talking about kids, right? And I'm thinking that we're talking about really, to me, I'm thinking we're talking to younger kids. And the idea being, if they create something with a racial stereotype, instead of saying, "That's a mistake," or getting really upset about it, maybe it's about talking about it. When we talk about books a lot and we talk about what we read. I read to my daughter and she'll say something that, to me, is inherently racist, right. It'll be like, "Ooh," I'll kind of cringe. And my first reaction is to like, "Oh, that's not right! No! Why do you think that?" And then try to go over. Whereas actually perhaps the better reaction is, "Oh, okay. Why do you think that the Black boy is like this?" and then talking about that and figuring out the deeper meanings of that.
And so when a child creates a piece of art that is full of racial stereotypes, it's such an opportunity to talk about, "Oh, this is very interesting. Why do you think that this character needs to have this kind of hair? Is that because that's all you have seen of this kind of character?" and going deeper into that. And like, "If that is, let's look at some other People of Color, let's look at some other Black people and you'll see, Oh, they have all different kinds of hair," things like that. I think that this is an opportunity to feed them more versus an opportunity to be like, "Oh! That's a little cringey," which is a natural reaction, right. But I think that if you keep that in mind, that instead of going to the cringe, going to the place that this is your kid taking in what they've seen in the world and spitting it out. And if they are spitting out something that makes us cringe, we have to figure out what to put in them that's better. And that's kind of what I was thinking.
And so when they're doing a racial stereotype and they're painting it, and you can see it and it's bothersome, then that's when I feel like we have to start thinking, "Okay, why don't we look at a real person?" And you try to make it look as much as that person as possible. And realize that Black person doesn't... "How's that different from what you really drew?" And not in a way that makes them feel bad, but just to make them more observant of what they are creating. I guess that's what I was thinking.
EmbraceRace: That's great. And Grace, I know you use models as well, right?
Grace Lin: Yeah. Actually, one of the things that inspired this whole thing is I actually very, very, very rarely do books that do not feature Asian characters. But for my board book, I actually did one with a Black child because it was a series. Because I decided to do a Black child, I felt very worried that I would fall into racial stereotypes because I very rarely draw Black children. So I actually went out and I purposely got a model. And I purposely used that so that I could make sure that I didn't fall into those blind spots, because I think you can really easily fall into blind spots, even with the best of intentions.
EmbraceRace: Okay. So one of those solutions would be, like you said, have people draw a friend or a real person, so you're not drawing "Black people," you're drawing your friend.
Grace Lin: Right. You're drawing Oge. You're not drawing somebody else that you're imagining.
EmbraceRace: You talked a lot about vulnerability and we have a lot of questions about vulnerability with kids. And Oge and Yuyi, the two of you really talked about the drawing as a collaboration, right. That you are bringing something of yourself, engaging something in the world. So it's sort of a collaboration, not to discount what it is that you bring.
If you're drawing a person, part of the concern that you might have as an artist is, and you all expressed it when you did your reveals of each other, is how will the person receive it, right. You might like it, but they might not.
What is the responsibility you have [for the other person]? What is your responsibility to that person's sensibility, if you're drawing someone else, versus to that thing that you have that is special, that you are adding to the collaboration?
Oge Mora: I think there's first the surrendering the idea that you have any sort of control of how they're going to take their portrait. You might like it but they might not like it. I think there's room for that because art can be so subjective sometimes. Someone might look at something and they will be like, "Oh, it's not right," or "This is not the sort of style I like things." And then someone else will look at it and be like, "Oh, I love it. It's perfect. It's beautiful." And when I feel very vulnerable or very timid about that drawing and that experience, I actually really like that subjectivity, and I'm like, "Well, if this person doesn't like it, well, there's someone else who might like it."
Yuyi Morales: Yeah. I was also thinking about the question can go to also us as adults, and I think that our responsibility is huge. As adults, we are in the process of learning how to be very responsible for our depictions of other people, but now for children that would be a different question, and I think a different answer as well. Because children are just being themselves and they are learning, whether something that they are doing might be hurtful to someone else. And for that, we are going to have to be there for them in our best, with our best of our tools. I feel like as an author, as an illustrator, as an adult that I am, making books for children, my responsibility is enormous because anything that I do, if it is not well done, well thought and it doesn't come from the right place, really can make a lot of damage. And I think that I need, and we need to be very careful about that.
I think that we also have to risk sometimes. And when we put our work out there and it's going to be public and other people is going to see it, we are going to have to be ready to hear the feedback of others and make amendments or whatever needs to be done that has to do with our own growth, our own learning. But I think that for children, it's probably different because they are just learning how to see others and the depict others and create their art and how that art brings me to a better place emotionally, mentally." And for that, I will offer that whatever art work kids do, that needs to be treated with a lot of care and love even what you were saying Grace, even if the picture is stereotypical or has something that we don't see, before we cringe, right, we ask the right questions and we see, "Oh, I see that you did this. Can you tell me more about how you did it?" Can we accompany those children to see things differently and do a different work?
But also I will say to let them know that the artwork that they create belongs to them. It doesn't belong to us, it doesn't belong to the teacher, it doesn't belong to the parent. It is their work and they have a right to not show it if they don't want to, to not share it with others if they don't want to share it. Because the other part of the learning for children is to know that whatever they are belongs to them and doesn't have to be as a review of us as adults. Our job there is to love them and guide them and not to destroy their sense of creativity and the way that they see our world.
Oge Mora: Yeah, no, definitely. I just also remembered my second point. I think it's really important to foster a sense of... Regardless of how anyone takes any picture that you make, that doesn't mean anything about you. We've been having such a big conversation about how you're reflected in your artwork and like, "Oh, if you're doing these self-portraits and stuff like that." But I can make a painting of myself and I can make it as realistic as possible. And if someone comes in and they say, "Oh, I don't like it." That doesn't have anything to do with me. There's that separation there, that a painting is just a painting. Obviously for us as professionals, there's a lot more responsibility in there and there's more of our artwork has a larger platform and has a responsibility and visual media. But for a child, if the painting or if they have a friend who doesn't like a painting they did, or a picture or something like that, that doesn't have anything to do with them, even if they are the one who made it.
And that's even a lesson that us as artists, I can't speak for Yuyi or Grace, but I have to remember something like that. And it's very freeing, where I might make a piece and I might like it, or I might not like it, or someone might like it, or they might not like it. It's okay, it doesn't really have anything to do with me. I can make another piece or I might do something else that they might like. I think when we're talking about kids and whether or not the person that they're drawing appreciates the piece that they have, I think there's something important on lowering the stakes. That if you can keep it very relaxed, it's not this gigantic kind of big deal, just to get them more relaxed with the act of creating, that you don't want them to feel so stifled that they're afraid to just really express themselves.
EmbraceRace: Okay. That went by very quickly, we so appreciate everyone for coming out, the illustrators for taping yourself and for drawing each other even when you're used to broadcasting or putting out your stuff in a much longer process. That was very brave. We really want to encourage people to start drawing with their kids, model that for them as well. Do it yourself and tag us @EmbraceRace, and we'll see what what you all come up with. And we will continue the conversation another time. So we're really grateful. Thank you, everybody. Goodnight.
Drawing Across the Color Line with Kids resources
Watch the webinar - a 45 minute video of Grace, Oge and Yuyi in conversation and drawing each other, followed by a Q&A with the EmbraceRace community
Watch the shorter kid-friendlier version - many teachers and caregivers want to show their kids these videos! There's nothing inappropriate for kids in either session. But because they are geared at adults, consider showing kids the shorter version. This version includes more time with Grace, Oge and Yuyi in their studios making their drawings.
Get the Action Guide! Let's continue to conversation! Check out these tips for drawing across color lines with your kids and let us know how it goes - send us pictures, tag us on Instagram, send us your thoughts.