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Blog Against Racism Day: Skin and the Color of Money Redux

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Today is Blog Against Racism Day, launched by Creek Running North. I wrote an essay on racism and colorism at my pad back in July that I am reposting a snippet of here to continue much-needed discussion on the topic, particularly in light of the many comments on my cross-post of "The 'new blackface' lesson" on Pandagon last week, which were, let's say, interesting.

People across the political spectrum have difficulty discussing race, but the problem is particularly acute on the Left these days. Many progressive whites feel: 1) unqualified somehow to discuss the topic or 2) are afraid of being slapped down for offering what appears to be an obvious or "stupid" question or opinion. As I also commented in the "blackface" thread:
Race politics for white liberals who don't know many black people on a personal level is an abstraction, not something they live. It's admirable to be for civil equality and against hate, but it's quite another thing to:
* have black friends that you are comfortable discussing race issues with
* live in a neighborhood that is not predominantly white
* send your kids to schools that racially reflect the city in which you live
* feel comfortable in social situations where you, as a white person, are in the minority (if this ever occurs at all).

...The important part of this is talking about complicated feelings and self-reflection...and that goes both ways, mind you -- I think many blacks, in not wanting to deal with the discussion of personal feelings and race with whites, oftentimes throw up the defensive attitude. I understand this too -- sometimes you just get tired of being seen as a color, a political "object," not a human being, by the dominant culture (across the political spectrum).

Openness on all sides can only help, not hurt.
Communicating honestly about all of the complicated relationships between all colors of the human rainbow is sorely needed as well; it's certainly not just a black/white issue.

***

Skin and the color of money
"Can black people tan?"
-- a white college student at Fordham, back in 1983, asking me whether I could turn browner in the sun, as we sat outside in the late spring.
My answer to that question, by the way (after I picked my jaw up off of the floor) was to calmly say "yes," and I took off my watch so she could see the contrast between my tan and what was underneath my timepiece. I then held my arm up next to her olive-skinned Italian forearm to show her that my non-tan color was lighter than her skin tone.

Gina was quite friendly and earnest when she asked the question. The fact that she felt comfortable enough with me to ask it, made me feel that she deserved a response that would not humiliate or embarrass her by pointing out her ignorance. I was, however, quite perplexed by the blunt question for several reasons. It made me curious about what she exactly thought "black" meant in physical terms (educating her on the fact that race is a social construct probably would have been too much for her to handle). In her world, though, were we that different? Did she have no concept that all humans just have varying amounts of the same chemical, melanin, that affects the complexion they have? Was she just racist? That last word is loaded. Gina was not outwardly hostile toward someone of another race. To narrowly define that word here -- she is a victim of growing up in a world of cultural, institutionalized racism and lack of exposure to people of another color.

That lack of exposure perpetuates the problem on both sides. It must be hard if you're white, asking a question about skin tone, hair texture or any physical characteristics commonly associated with being "black." You've got to take the leap of faith that the person you're asking isn't going to react badly. If you're black, the insult of the question can cut psychologically deep. Are they judging my whole value by my color? Are they saying I'm subhuman? Am I, yet again, the inferior "other"? The fear of negative reaction on both sides in this politically correct world often ensures much-needed conversations on race will never occur. It doesn't stop the ignorance, the stereotypes, or promote healing on either side when you remove the ability to ask and answer simple questions about difference.

You can read the rest of the essay here, and come back and comment.