Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reflections On Skin Color

Ahhhhhhh! Woo. I'm finally getting somewhere--one more "final" left (it's pass/fail and take-home). And by the end of the week, I will be at "home." Good, because it's a change of pace and I can watch all the college football bowl games (not that I wouldn't have anyway). Bad, because I will still have work to do and will be fearing for my life for the next two weeks (and with this being the holidays, it's even worse anywhere). But on to the topic.

I've been thinking. People seem to think that only racial minorities, particularly blacks, have a race-influenced outlook or identify as a group based on race. The Nopper article that I linked to in my last post cites to this book (read the review by Jeffery Mingo, too) with research that essentially says as much. But this past year has convinced me that white people react to racial situations or situations that evoke the idea of race in much the same way as blacks do, except their opinions often are the opposite of blacks' opinions. But whenever whites feel that a white person is discriminated against or that a situation involving whites as the wrongdoers is unfairly characterized in terms of race, the reactions tend to be the same. Whites become very defensive, and sometimes they argue on the white person's behalf to the point of denying any role he/she had or making him/her the real victim. This is also what black people tend to do.

Interestingly enough, because Asians and Latinos aren't in the media the same way as blacks and whites are, what I've observed (at least in Asians) is that they look at these situations involving whites or blacks and take sides accordingly. In other words, race as it relates to blacks and whites divides Asians. For example, I was surprised to go to an "Asian American" message board and see Asians arguing that the Michael Vick sentencing was "racist bullsh!t," just as a black person might say. Of course, you also had Asians making "white" arguments on Michael Vick and against blacks in general, as well. In the few media situations that do involve Asians in relation to other races, I was surprised to see as much neutral language as I did, racially. Here, I'm thinking specifically of the hardly-publicized beatings of Asians by, usually, blacks or Latinos. Now, I was at a message board where a thread discussed beatings by blacks, and, clearly, while there was some racially neutral responses, some Asians did engage in group identification that resulted in an "us vs them"-type response.

On another message board where blacks discussed the increase of Latino-on-black hate crimes, a few Latinos showed themselves and seemed to do the opposite of what white people do while still "grouping" the majority of Latinos--they argued the attacks don't represent Latinos and that the majority of them align themselves with blacks (which, if you read my last post, I obviously question). Some blacks argued the same thing, although one black--as I mentioned in my last post--expressed the belief that immigration is part of a white plan to racially expunge blacks from the US. Although many blacks are suspicious of Latinos, out of all the non-black racial/ethnic groups in the US, blacks probably feel the most kinship with Latinos. And of all the non-black groups, Latinos probably have the most members who identify more with blacks and/or less with whites. So that peppers some of our group identification defend-and-blame games.

This is still not really even the topic of my post. What I'm getting at, though, is people tend to get defensive on a personal level even when someone they don't know, but look like racially, is attacked in any way...regardless of the racial group to which they belong, but most especially blacks and whites. Okay.

A question that has burned in my mind for the past couple years is why do white people get so mad about being called racists, even if a person is referring to the group and not specific individuals? After all, the "goes-without-saying" in the charge is that we don't mean every white person. Furthermore, my very simple logic is that we all think racist things, engage in racially alienating behaviors (i.e. strict same-race dating, eliminating only blacks as possible partners, same-race friends only, same-race neighborhoods, etc) or, at least, racially stereotype (which, when I refer to "degrees of racism" in all Americans as I did in my last post, I would identify racial stereotyping and generalizations as Degree 1 racism, i.e. the lowest level of racism. And, clearly, each higher level of racism encompasses each lower level, i.e. Degree 2 is something like engaging in these exclusionary behaviors, which usually entails doing so based on stereotypes and generalizations. Pure Degree 1 racists stereotype and generalize but usually don't let those ideas influence their friendships, relationships, housing and so on, while Degree 2 racists often do. My white friends are Degree 1 racists. Get my theory?) Now, every racial minority I know has no problem admitting this. But a lot of white people do have problems admitting to having a racist bone in their bodies or even that racism exists or is more than just the exception in the US. Why? And it's not just public criticism, as whites have no problem making racist comments publicly...just problems admitting the comments are racist or that they are racist.

Not too long ago, I think I might have come closer to figuring out the answer by looking at myself. As mentioned before in this blog, I'm biracial, light-skinned, many white features. In relation to other black people, there were a lot of things I didn't experience or completely realize growing up, much like there are so many things white people don't experience or realize about black people. I've used hair as an example before. Now, surely, many biracial blacks have issues with their hair. I never really did, not in the same way that apparently most other black women have. Consequently, I don't really understand the big deal black women make of hair--their own, other black women's hair and white women's hair (more so when they were younger)--or how much their hair has affected them. When I was growing up and other black girls were admiring my hair, I really didn't have any idea what that was all about. Other black females tell experiences about taunts or comments relating to skin color, but, for me, almost all of my black hierarchical experiences were in relation to hair. I don't think I've ever had a black person comment on my skin color or other features, aside from family members.

The fact that black people haven't really raised skin color with me probably contributes to the way I respond to statements about light-skinned blacks being favored over darker blacks. When black people try to point out that white people have all these privileges that blacks don't have, white people deny it, get defensive, don't want to think about it and so on. It's so obvious to us, but these are people who don't experience what we do and, so, don't have the context to think about what we go through. They usually don't know those experiences exist because they don't live it. Race-related comments that are maybe made to black people are comments that white people generally don't hear. When it comes to race, it often takes people telling you what they go through...which is something many blacks don't want to do, and it's a lesson many whites don't want to receive. Yet, it takes both revealing and listening. But that's not just true between blacks and whites.

When I have heard blacks say that black men and whites prefer light-skinned blacks...I stop. "Black men don't approach me," I think. "They pretty much never have. I've seen darker girls with black men who have been interested in them and boyfriends, and I've never had a black or white boyfriend. And pretty much every black person I know, all darker than I am, socializes with more white people than I do." I read stories about darker black women being told things like "you're pretty, for a dark girl" when they are talking about the skin color preferences. And I'm like, "I've never heard anything like this" or "no one has told me I'm prettier than dark girls."

Bam. The first instinct is to deny what is being said. And then when I calm down and think more rationally, I can recall times when black guys have been interested in me. And I can recall times talking to white guys who like "light or mixed black women." But am I still in denial when I turn around and say that I don't know whether or not skin color had anything to do with black men's interest in me, or that I don't think men "prefer" black women, period, but would rather be with white women? Or that white people generally are very uninterested in me?

On some level, I accept that what black people say is true. But there's another part of me that really doesn't want to hear it. Why? I can't stand the thought of being a part of something so silly or that crap like that is still going on. Although I know I'm not the kind of black person who runs around thinking they are better than other blacks because of skin color or thinking that darker blacks are unattractive, I still feel personally attacked sometimes when I hear stories about how bad black women felt growing up because of their hair or skin color, particularly when they mention light-skinned blacks or blacks with "good hair" because that's what I look like. The "goes-without-saying" isn't registering as a "goes-without-saying" to me, even though these women aren't necessarily putting down light-skinned blacks or blacks with "good hair"--they are just telling it how it is. When I hear or read these things, though, I just associate what they're saying with, for example, my walking around campus, passing some darker black women and their automatically assuming that I am that kind of black person. In fact, I feel pretty sure that some blacks do assume that.

And why would that assumption be unreasonable? After all, I'm fairly certain that some white people sometimes worry that blacks in their presence automatically assume they are racist...and they are not wrong. Hell, I do it. Unless I get a good feeling about a white (or Asian or Latino) person, like I did with pretty much all of my white and Asian friends upon first meeting them, I assume they are racist towards blacks. And, though I'm the kind of person who generally doesn't care what people think, I still can't help but not wanting something like what black people see when they see light or biracial blacks associated with me. For some reason, white people thinking I'm racist towards white people is fine--maybe because it's not altogether untrue--but blacks thinking I'm racist towards blacks is not...even though that's also not altogether untrue. I'm at least a Degree 2 racist, regardless of race, because I do let race color a lot of my decisions...decisions that ultimately are exclusionary--particularly of whites, but often times of blacks, too, as well as Asians (as mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I don't have much experience with Latinos in my presence).

For me, the idea that I'm racist and that racism is some big, bad thing based on history is not the problem...although I suspect it is the problem for a lot of whites. For me, the problem is that I am black. And the problem for me is that I think it's crazy for people to think they are better than other people based on things we don't have any hand in. I can control my intelligence and my maturity and my human decency, and, indeed, these are the main reasons why I tend to put myself above others. Still, although I don't place myself above or alienate blacks based on things blacks can't control, I arguably do it with white people--"arguably," because one could question whether or not whites can control their relative privilege and, thus, related experiences, whether or not you can blame individuals for their group's experience...an experience that is not put into motion by them, and whether or not the fact that their experience is beyond their control gives them passes to be Degree 2+ racists when there are other whites who are merely Degree 1 racists despite that.

But when it comes to black people, I don't like the idea that my being who I am can make other black people feel bad about who they are, or the assumption that I enjoy making them feel bad. Make no mistake, I'm not guilty about my relative privilege. I like my skin color and I like my hair--as far as the texture goes, anyway--and I even like looking like my "white" father's family. But I don't like the resulting racial dynamics.