Peach is not the only skin colour
Bellen Woodard never expected her story to become part of a museum’s collection, nor that legislators would name her in proclamations, nor that news crews would want to film her. Nor did she expect a single moment in school would spark an idea, which would see strangers across the United States talking about identity and race and childhood.
Bellen’s story began in her third-grade classroom in Loudoun County, Virginia. “My friends were asking for the ‘skin-colour’ crayon,” she says. She knew that meant the peach-coloured crayon. She also knew her skin wasn’t the colour of peaches. She was the only black girl in her grade.
Bellen went home that day to talk to her mum, Tosha, about how that question made her feel. Tosha called it “uncomfortable”. Bellen described it as “disincluded”. She questioned whether there was a better response than automatically handing over the expected crayon and instead remarked, “I think I just want to ask them what colour they wanted because it could be any number of beautiful colours.”
So that’s what she did. She started using those words. She then heard her teacher say them, too. And soon, her entire class was talking about skin colour in a way that went beyond peach.
Seeing that shift sparked something in her, Tosha said. Bellen realised, “If this could happen here, we could make this happen anywhere. I felt it should also be in other schools because everyone else should know there is more than one skin colour.”
Enter More than Peach. Bellen came up with the idea of creating kits that could be donated to students who might not be able to afford art supplies. Each kit would contain a drawing pad, a personal postcard from her, a standard box of crayons or coloured pencils, and a special box of Crayola’s Multicultural crayons or coloured pencils. In that box of skin-tone hues is the colour ‘peach’. But there’s also ‘apricot’, ‘burnt sienna’ and ‘mahogany’.
Bellen’s initial hope was to get kits into all elementary school classes and middle school art classes in Loudoun County. For the first batch of supplies, she used about US$200 she had saved from modelling children’s clothes for a chain store. Her school also hosted a fundraising drive.
Since then, though, she has had to adjust her goal. Donations have come in thick and fast, as has demand for the kits. Bellen is aware she is in the midst of something much bigger than her. She knows the conversations swirling around her aren’t just about crayons.
When asked how she came up with the idea to use multicultural crayons, she says she first saw them in second grade. “But I never really thought about them,” she says. “They were just another pack of crayons to me. Now, they are more than just a pack of crayons. Now, they are a kind of change.”
Bellen has received praise from Tracy Jackson, head of counselling services for Loudoun County Public Schools, who acknowledged Bellen for her courage in speaking out “so that students of colour can be represented authentically when completing art assignments in school.” She has also received proclamations from the Leesburg mayor and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, been asked to speak in front of her school board, and has received an invitation from a state delegate to be honoured on the House floor.
The most recent acknowledgment of her efforts — one that has left her parents feeling “floored” — came when the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC) asked if it could add one of her kits to its collection. “As part of its mission, the VMHC is committed to collecting, preserving, and sharing Virginia history — including history that is being made today,” said curator Karen Sherry. “We were moved by Ms Woodard’s initiative to foster greater inclusivity and representation for people of colour, and would like to add the story of this young activist to our collection.”
ABOVE Bellen (left) with her mum, Tosha