12 December 2005

Skintone and Sausagemeat

Catching up on my Dear Prudie (which I love because I usually disagree with her,) I actually found a question that set me thinking.

I have proper Welsh skin. I say that, but to be honest, having Celtic skin is like being a kind of first degree mongrel. If we were all dogs, the rest of the world would be all the shades of grey between black and white, we'd be the spotty ones.

Obviously there is black heritage in there somewhere, just for the freckles. I also have a lot of red in my very dark hair. Under the freckling on me, however, is the very palest, porcelain skin and I have spent my whole life consciously weathering it to the point that I can at least wear a generic 'light' foundation cream; remembering how jealous I was, as a child, that my equally freckled mother had 'normal' (aka: vaguely healthy looking) skin.

As a teenager, when things like makeup were important, there were very few brands that had a foundation as light as my skin. Several called anaemic names like porcelain or alabaster were way too dark and of the few remaining options, most had too much pink in them and looked like I had smeared my face with lipstick or eyeshadow. Ridiculous. It was worse in the summer - the sallow whiteness, where it was, never changed, but my freckles went so dark that those ever-spreading splodges had the equal and opposite problem that more evenly dark skinned women will already recognise.

I'm a barleywhite kinda gal, the extreme pale end of the olive range. (F.y.i. I'd love black skin. It's stronger, and it doesn't wrinkle so damn fast.)

Come summer, as my school friends headed proudly towards exotic sun-bronzed shades of toffee, I was the one who stayed whiter than white, only my freckles multiplied and darkened to the colour of tar. The standing joke was that I sunbathed under a tea strainer or a sieve.

I'm not up to speed on racial acceptance in America. Is it really true that there is less racism pointed at hispanic types, than at blacks?

Heres the question to Prudie, that foxed me :
Dear Prudence,

I am black, with a light complexion, as is my immediate family—without any white parent or grandparent. I have often been in the position of going to school or working in an almost entirely white environment where whites have had little personal contact with blacks. Often they will tell me they thought I was Native American or Mexican. I have no trouble with this, but some will often say to me in a tone that suggests a compliment, "You don't look black," which I find insulting. Light or not, I am black, and resent any implication that I should be proud that I do not "look black." I usually respond, "Blacks are both light and dark, so I do look black." I'm not sure the people who make these comments realize it is insulting, and sometimes I want to say, "You don't look white to me," as many whites look like my family and we are all black. Any suggestions on handling this?

—Black and Proud

(Here's the original, with the disconcertingly defensive answer.)

Okay, I don't get it.

Obviously people have got to know this guy before the subject of heritage comes up. Obviously the people who get to that point already know him for who he is - a person - and already like him. Presumably up until then, he was getting on OK with them, too, and I guess if any were bigots or racists, he'd already know it, as they would have made their derogatory remarks about blacks in general in his earshot, unaware of his nationality.

Why would you say 'Oh, but you don't look black' in a chummy, sort of conspiratorial way?

I can only think of two reasons, once you know a person that well, and the most likely is embarrassment. The same sort of embarrassment as if you handed someone a bunch of flowers not knowing they were allergic. Its an apology.

You don't look = I couldn't tell = I didn't know = sorry if I offended.

The poor sod saying something like that is waiting for a smile, for forgiveness; they are waiting to know if their unwitting mistake has caused offence.

The other possible reason (which ought to be less likely in this day and age) is that perhaps some will have some residual awkwardness. Not the racism of others, but still the remains of fear. For some (and not just whites) really getting to know and like your first person of a particular other colour or race is scary - like talking to someone gay or lesbian *(hang on, hang on, don't get mad, I have examples). Not because you think less of them, but because this didn't factor in your upbringing and you find yourself in unknown, uncharted social territory, panicked not that this person might be tainted, but that you don't know how to behave. If you don't socialise with whites, you expect them to have certain attitudes, habits and sensitivities. And vice versa.

* I'm sure half the French still think all Brits have ginger hair and freckles, eat very thin cucumber sandwiches and would throw up at the smell of garlic. The first thing a nice person who genuinely held those odd beliefs might do would be to panic about their garlic breath and take a step or two back. Then look at the way so much TV and movie humour relies on two good friends, and one 'comes out' as gay and the other gets all panicky and scared to touch. No hatred, no bigotry, just social confusion and panic, and everybody laughs.

I remember finding out that in one of the Asian religions, showing a person the soles of your shoes or feet was an abonimable insult. Growing up in Southall, I clearly remember that sinking sense of shock because I like to sit on a chair with one leg crossed; reeling at the thought of how many people I had happily and innocently waggled the sole of that foot at, that I had inadvertantly insulted.

It's etiquette panic.

Have you never brought Birthday cream cakes into an office, to find that one of your friends is quietly observing Ramadan?

Anyway, those are the only two reasons I can come up with. In both cases the 'white' (or the 'straight') is looking for guidance, or more likely for reassurance that they havent completely offended this person a million times already, and that's all.

Surely, if you were on the receiving end of such a comment, the question shouldn't be 'Am I being asked to be pleased to appear non-black', but 'Why am I reacting so fiercely and aggressively at someone admitting they thought I was white? Am I insulted by whiteness?'

Who is the racist in this situation?

Probably neither - they are just two genuine, amenable acquaintances thrust into a bloody awkward situation.

So far, genetic testing can link you back to one of 36 maternal lines and one of only 15 male lines. I would have to guess that, with the right information, these distinct branches could be linked again, eventually reducing the numbers.

The bottom line is, we are all related, all interrelated across the millennia. There have always been travellers. There have always been wars, with the exotically different women pilfered like trophies, or sampled and left to deal with the consequences. Ghengis Khan lived only 800 years ago, yet he shagged the best women from every tribe he defeated and already an estimated 16 million men carry his exact Y chromosome as direct ancestors. That's the same as saying 89% of the total male population of California today. (census)

Being black isn't about the colour of your skin, is it. Its a name for a (in the scheme of things, recent) group heritage. If it is about your ancient heritage, then you're the one with the problem. Don't get me started on whether your ancestor's isolated mud hut or cave was better than mine. And no that's not taking the piss - in the UK people were painting themselves blue with wode not too long ago.

Nobody needs a badge to know who they are. And as far as skin goes? We're all on a sliding scale of sausage, from well fried to clammy and raw, which has no bearing on whether you or I are a nice person or a bit of an arsehole, or whose ancestors were the meanest.

You don't look black? You don't look Scandinavian-Arian? Me either. Big bloody deal. Live with it.


The Jamoker said...

very nice post. and all very true, in my "palefaced opinion". in a couple hundred years, our descendants may all be light brown anyway...and that would be a good thing. no more fighting about who is better, when that fight is based solely on something skin deep. and, maybe less skin cancer too.

melinama said...

I think the stupid thing here is the original comment. Why is it ok to make these intrusive personal remarks? This is like telling a parent: "oh my, your child doesn't look the slightest bit like you" or asking: "are you pregnantn" or - as my MAIL CARRIER asked when she'd asked me "why is your son getting so many boxes in the mail?" and I actually told her the truth: "because he has brain cancer" and she then comes back with "what's the prognosis?"

Badaunt said...

Speaking of freckles, though, what happens to them? Mine disappeared. I used to have them, when I was younger, but they've gone. WHO NICKED MY FRECKLES?

(My mother always knew when I was about to get my period, because I'd go so pale my freckles stood out like little signals.)

Cheryl said...

Jamoker - thanks! :-)

Melinama - ouch, but I don't think this compares at all to that sort of painful invasion of privacy.

Badaunt - I think I'm guilty, mine have become larger, splodgier and softer edged as I age and I am hoping they will one day join up altogether.

zilla said...

Last night's racist quip:

Masa: Jenny, see that man, he rook rike Tom!

Jenny: Oh, Masa -- ALL white people look alike.

Seriously. I said that. It made the white people nervous, but Masa laughed out loud!

I can't speak for all Americans. My younger daughters' best friends are each black girls who were adopted into white families, and Moose's current girlfriend was adopted as an infant from Guatamala (also into a white family). I don't think my kids think about race much. I could be wrong.

The Editter said...

You're right, it's not about skin colour, it's about cultural identity. George junior, a 6 yr old Maori boy with 2 Maori parents who goes to a Maori school, has told me (white) that I'm a little bit Maori. He bases his classifications on how much Maori you know e.g. Daddy, how come your brothers are Pakehas? (= white).

I like his way of thinking, cos it focuses on cultural identity (although I do point out to him that I'm not actually Maori).

Rain said...

Sometimes when a white person wants to be friendly with a black person in the US they like to deny the black person's "blackness" thereby rationalizing their continued dislike of blacks in general. And yes hispanics are higher in the race pecking order here. I have skin somewhat like yours too. I am of English and Irish ancestry.

fineartist said...

Sadly some people in the world look for things to be offended by.

I have always said what Jamoker said, that some day, hopefully human beings will be so crossed around that we will all be gray, or brown as he said it. Should take some of the prejudice away, but knowing humans the way we do, they will no doubt find something else to feel superior about.

There is one race, the human race. I wonder why that is so difficult for some to grasp?

Great post, and YOU should have YOUR own column for giving advice, seriously! Always sensible, always right…on, you are.