The middle-aged woman, her skin the smooth darkness of equatorial Africa, beckons to the blonde-haired porcelain-tinted child of four. “Can you say ‘je m’appelle Esther’?” I ask the child. She smiles shyly and repeats to the woman: “shmpel Esther.”

The woman laughs and bounces the child onto her lap. “Tu as peur des noirs?” she queries cheerfully. I cannot bring myself to translate this literally, and ask instead: “Esther, have you ever been held by someone from Africa before?”

In this woman’s village, I know, a child of four might, conversely, fear a white person. What a bizarre and ghostly thing pale skin must be for those who have never seen it. The woman’s daughter, only half-white, was shunned (yet revered) by the other village children, she has told me. To compensate, the daughter once ground charcoal and spread it on her body in a thick (though short-lived) paste.

“I don’t think she’s afraid,” says the daughter “In America, there are lots of people with dark skin. She must have seen them before.”

The child is not afraid: she turns and innocently begins talking to the woman, telling her about the backyard swimming pool she likes to swim in when it gets hot outside. The woman understands nothing of the speech: Elle ne comprends pas.

The child is not afraid, but she is not completely at ease either. It is strange to be held by someone like this; someone who talks only incomprehensibly. She smiles but, even at four, she does not look the woman in the eye.

The woman, on the other hand, is unabashedly complementary. She tells the child she is beautiful. She gets the child to repeat it: “shwuibel,” and then, delighted with her propensity for the oddity of French, tells her she is intelligent.

Later, alone with the child, I finally translate the woman’s first question and ask if she was afraid because of the darkness of the woman’s skin.

“No,” she says “but I like light skin better, like me.”

“Oo,” I say (how politically incorrect children are) “that doesn’t mean she’s mean or anything, you know. Didn’t you think she was nice?”

“Yeah,” says the child “but I think light skin is prettier.”

How wicked, exactly, are the honest particular preferences for skin tone, language, nose shape, height-to-weight ratios, curves and muscle tone and teeth and hair and scent? Rarely are such preferences thought bad, unless they injure. Mentioning them, though, seems cruel. Borderline genocidal, even, if it has anything to do with ethnicity; never mind that most people still marry within their particular cultures. So the child must be educated, if not to think that this woman is just as pretty as she is, then at least never to say what is in her mind as she studies the melanin content of her skin.

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