I have a friend (I’ll call her Becky) that got married a few weeks ago, and Sally and I went to the wedding. I’m sure Becky’s been the subject of scorn and derision many times throughout her life because of one certain effortless talent and ability she possesses: She can tan. I don’t just mean, “Oh, your skin went from a shade of ivory to a refined taupe.” Becky gets straight-up dark. Such is the envy of many a pale white girl. At one point during the newlyweds’ first dance, Becky had her back turned to where Sally and I were standing, and her dress showed her upper back. The wedding was earlier this month, so by that point Becky had already begun her summer sojourn into epidermal darkness, and as they were dancing, I jokingly turned to Sally and said, “You know, if I didn’t know any better I would think this was an interracial marriage.” And we all had a good laugh about that, but in the days that have followed I keep wondering (and keep being unable to answer) this: For people who are racist, at what point is skin too dark? Because, see, Becky is white—a.k.a. Caucasian—but she’s not white—pasty.
I don’t ask this because anyone made offensive remarks towards Becky. Again, she’s Caucasian. But we are in the Deep South, and you are aware—aren’t you?—that many white families in this region (be it Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia) still wouldn’t let their white daughter date a black man if she wanted to? And I wonder where the distinction lies for those families, those parents. I’m guessing it’s more an actual ethnicity or race qualifier and, perhaps, not so much the skin tone. I say that because of a novel I read my senior year of undergraduate studies. Edward P. Jones’ The Known World expands a mere footnote in history when African Americans owned other African Americans as slaves. Jones is intent on making distinctions about the skin color of some of the characters in the story—that through years and years of master/slave rape, many of these slaves hardly even look black anymore. One such woman in the book, who looks practically white, owns some slaves. But, even so, the white populace still views her as black or African American even though you wouldn’t necessarily know that she is. So she is effectively in no man’s land as an individual who upsets the (literal) black-white binary.
For the characters in that book (a story set many decades in our nation’s past), even if an African American looked almost white in skin tone, the dominant society would still view him or her as black. So really, it’s not about skin color at all, and I think deep down we know this. To say that’s the crux of racism is only getting at a fraction of the problem. It is literally, metaphorically, and philosophically “skin deep” to assume it begins and ends with the color of one’s body. I think we can undeniably argue that the starting point of tension lies within physiognomy, but then it goes deeper from there. What I continue to wonder, though, is whether or not the same sort of tension captured in The Known World sticks around today? Let me explain: I taught five separate classes every Friday this past semester, and I loved the diversity of my students. Many were African Americans, but one in particular had such light skin you could almost convince yourself that he was Caucasian. Would families in the Southeast let him date their white daughters? I wonder. Would some people in the South view Becky, if they ran into her during the summer, as non-white? as Other? as less?
At what point is a person considered less than us and worthy of our derision? We’ve conjured up these monikers of “black” and “white” to create distinction and separation, but if we are under the impression that we hate other people because they “look different,” then we are severely deluding ourselves. We create that opposing stance because we think we’re better, not because we’re just not quite jiving with their appearance, but we use that as the entrance point to treating them with less (or no) humanity. (This issue also can and should apply to how we view, think of, and treat people with disabilities.) At what point does someone’s physical difference become so different than ours that we begin to consider him or her as below us? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and there probably isn’t a universal standard, either. All people have their specific comfort zones, so I’m sure one person would be turned off by something that wouldn’t bother someone else in the slightest, but I don’t know where that begins. I guess it just depends on the person and the situation. To start my musings with an example of a girl who tans may seem ridiculous, but I wonder if this issue of race, Otherness, and less-ness would be a stumbling block for other families if Becky were to walk into their lives—groups of people that, for whatever reason, have not been able to let go of the fact that difference is unavoidable.
(Ending side note: I’m reading Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia right now for my thesis research. It’s a good read, but I don’t recommend it simply because it’s cultural theory and really difficult to understand. I don’t even know what Gilroy’s taking about half the time. But one distinction he makes is that racism is not a product of race, but rather, that race is the product of racism. Gilroy believes, and argues effectively, that the colonial power construct is what created and fostered racism—that a sort of ethnic absolutism was necessary in order for the colonial project to move forward. The only problem is that today the imperial structure has largely died away, and yet, racism very much still exists. Gilroy’s whole point so far—I’m two chapters in—is that if racism is going to be dealt with, we have to stop acting like its sole causation period is in the past because there are present predicaments creating current problems that only make racism more flagrant and strong. Gilroy acknowledges, though, that he’s not making a popular statement when he says this because people—especially Westerners—don’t like to hear that racism still exists. They bristle at that and argue it’s locked away in the different eras of Atlantic slave trade and Civil Rights. But that’s Gilroy’s whole point: We end up using the past as a scapegoat to turn a blind eye toward our current contributions towards racism. For him, America’s response to the September 2001 attacks is another example of an Empire’s racially driven actions. He argues racism continues to grow because Caucasians in today’s society don’t think they have anything to apologize for—“Grandpa was racist, but I’m not.”—so African Americans withhold forgiveness. There’s a gap that isn’t being bridged, and its roots are just as much in the present as they are in the past. Anyway, it’s an interesting read. If cultural theory is your thing, you should check it out.)