Skin Deep Conversations…

August 9, 2012

Lately, many thoughts on skin pigment have weighed heavy on my mind, mostly sparked by several related conversations and incidents, most of which were with young people who have been indoctrinated to despise their own skin, if only on a subconscious level. Their young, malleable minds have been proselytized by the socially constructed lies within the messages that bombard them every single day, whether subliminal or out right aggressive. It’s heartbreaking.

And I’m just a white dude. What words of weight do I have to offer in this situation? I tip-toe around the taboo-ness of the topic in my mind, knowing that I was born into a race that was unfairly and ignorantly set as the “standard”. It disgusts me to even write that. Yet, I remember growing up, having several teachers who referred to the peach colored crayon as Flesh. Flesh?

The audacity of naming one color (yes, indeed the color matching the skin of Caucasians) Flesh is sickening and absurd (The Crayola color now known as Peach was officially changed to that from Flesh in 1962); an entire box of crayons could not contain the many various flesh tones in this world. However, little white kids could hold that “Flesh” colored crayon up to their little arms and see the match, cruelly confirming that sense of deeply instilled white superiority, “Yes, flesh,” whilst the little darker brown kids could hold up the very same crayon to their little arms, and rather than telling them something about the color of the crayon, they are told something about the color of their flesh, “Not flesh.” They’re stuck with Burnt Sienna, whatever that is.

Sure, things have changed since I was in elementary school. I was born in 1980. It’s 2012. But as much as things have changed, they have also just stayed the same, stagnated. Why is the standard-color of a Bandaid still the color of that crayon that was labelled as Flesh? Bandaids are meant to cover up a wound, but also blend in with the skin to conceal it. (I am aware that Bandaids for darker complexions are sold, but they are not as openly available, and definitely not the “norm”.) Have you ever seen a standard-color Bandaid on the skin of a dark brown person?

It doesn’t really blend in.

I have spoken to many people, of many shades of brown, about the topic of Bandaids, as a more subtle and accepted form of systemic racism in our society. A large amount of them feel that I am looking into it too deeply; admittedly, most of those people were people whose flesh conveniently conceals a standard-color Bandaid. To me, the fact that this is the “norm”, that it is “acceptable”, that it is “no big deal”, that we are completely calloused to it, shows me just how deep the indoctrination of the skin pigment heiarchy goes in all of us.

Way deeper than skin deep, to say the least.

My eleven-year-old neighbor Carl was sitting beside me the other day. He was born in Trinidad, but has lived in America most of his life. He has rich brown skin, and his head is covered with a thick offering of jet-black hair. Carl stroked my arm, and seemingly out of the blue said, “I wish I had white skin.”

I was surprised by his statement, “Why?”

Carl, “It’s more beautiful than black skin.”

Me, “That’s not true. Why do you say that?”

Carl, “Black skin is ugly.”

Me, “Not true. Who told you that?”

Carl, “I see it.”

I touched his arm, “I see it too. And dark brown skin looks beautiful to me.”

Unconsolable, Carl shifted the conversation slightly, “Black people are bad.”

At this point, I would have thought he was just saying things to say things and get answers, if I had not heard the seriousness in his voice, felt it in his eyes.

“Carl, that is untrue and a huge generalization. Some black people do bad things, but some white people do bad things too. People of all races do.”

Carl, “But white people are all good!”

Me, “Also very untrue, and another generalization. White people are the ones who brought black people over to America as slaves, Carl. That’s not good.”

Carl, “But that’s not now.”

We spoke about how the “then” impacts the “now”, and about generalizations. Carl tried to convince me he was not generalizing, “But all I see is black people doing bad things!”

Me, “Where?”

Carl, “In our neighborhood, on the movies! Shooting, killing, doing bad things!”

I gently reminded him that we live in a neighborhood that is populated predominantly by black people, and that is why it is “all he sees”, but if he were to go to neighborhoods where other races are the majority, he would also see them doing “bad things”. I assured him that where I am from, and elsewhere all over the world, there are many, many white people who do bad things.

Carl seemed unconvinced, so I did a Google Image search for “Caucasian mugshot” and we scrolled through the hundreds of white people who had done “bad things”. Slightly more persuaded, I then got him to admit that most of the “good” he experiences in his life is also done by black people, seeing that the vast majority of his interactions are in his neighborhood.

Carl quickly switched over to his movies anecdote, and I quickly rebutted by saying that movies are not real life. I wasn’t sure if he was ready for the conversation about who controls Hollywood in the first place, and what their agenda is. I rather asked him what race the majority of the killers are in the horror films that he loves to watch: Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, the dude from Saw, all the ghosts in pretty much every movie ever…Caucasian. All of them. He got the picture.

Our conversation moved on to why people have different color skin, slavery, why Carl wants to marry a white lady, white people getting sunburned, hair that grows on arms, and eventually men with mustaches and at what point a boy can expect to be able to grow one. It was all downhill from there.

That conversation with Carl validated that his perceptions and attitudes towards skin are no different to the findings of the Doll Study conducted by the Clarks in the 1940s, the same attitudes and perceptions found amongst young people of color in Kiri Davis’s short documentary A Girl Like Me; the terrible idea that “white is good, black is bad,” or “white is beautiful, black is ugly”. Truly tragic.

And little dark-skinned girls bleach their skin to make it lighter, and relax their hair to make it more “acceptable”, all to fit into this image they are told is “ideal”. Ironically, on the other side of the spectrum, white women pay for expensive products, get spray-on tans, and bake in the sun for hours, all so their skin will be a darker shade of brown, a color that will only last as long as their products do, or as long as the sun decides it is his season to shine. This makes me think that white supremacist views were probably founded in the idolization of beautiful dark brown skin, the lustful desire to have deep, colored, flawless skin with no visible blemishes, with no beginning and no end. Hatred is often rooted in jealousy.

That discussion with Carl was direct and to the point, but I witness the same conversation taking more of a meta-communicative form in many of the exchanges and interactions I hear and see the neighborhood kids have with each other on a daily basis. James gets dogged-on every single day for how dark his skin is. The jokes are way beyond endearing, and are usually just plain mean, not to mention unprovoked.

James is fourteen. He’s originally from Guyana but has lived in America most of his life. His skin is a beautiful, perfect, deep, dark brown. Fortunately for James, he seems to be proud of his complexion, and therefore shrugs off the jeering comments as “ignorant”. But that’s just James.

Who taught these kids to loathe dark skin? Who taught Carl that “white is good, and black is bad”? I’m sure no one sat them down and taught them these things directly. More likely, it is in the messages the media pummels them with daily, in the dialogue of their elders, in the “history” they learn in school, in the sickening pop culture that continues to worship “all that is white” whether admitted or not, in their interactions with police and other authority figures, and in the subtleties of their day-to-day interactions with the world.

Subtleties that tell us that “white lies” are acceptable, but “dark secrets” are not.

Subtleties beneath a certain color being called “flesh”.

Subtleties of a dark-skinned child falling down, getting a cut on his knee, and covering it with a Bandaid whose color and form stand out exaggeratedly, because it was made for a person of a lighter complexion, a complexion that has unfairly, unjustly, and wrongly been set as the “ideal” complexion, the “standard”.

These subtleties can only remain subtle if we continue to allow them to. We can, indeed, call them out, exposing the lies that have guided our social interactions for so long. And I feel it is our responsibility to do just that. Carl needs to know that all shades of brown are beautiful, and it is not our skin that determines how “good” or “bad” we are, but contrarily our motives, thoughts and intentions on the inside, which lead to our outward actions.

I’m going to need Grace Jones to to run around shouting, “Black is beautiful,” with a boombox blaring India Arie’s Brown Skin, stat!

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A Piece of Hate Cake Revisited…

April 18, 2012

For the most part, the Swedish minstrel cake and the event surrounding it sparked mass outrage. However, today articles and opinions have surfaced, suggesting that the artist Makode Aj Linde did not intend on the cake being the final work of “art”, but rather the scene as a whole as the final work, giving harsh critique and commentary on racism in Europe and the West’s quickness to jump on pointing out oppression in Africa without full knowledge and insight. People amongst this camp are praising Linde for his brave and provocative success of exposing this modern-day colonialist mindset.

Writing for Africa is a Country, John Palme acclaims, “It’s a brilliant staging of structural racism and post-colonial existence.”

Giving Linde credit as a master puppeteer, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley wrote for Ebony, “I saw something powerful and heartbreaking unfold in this gallery. The celebrants and revelers at the exhibit were merely unwitting–but abundantly willing–performers in Linde’s play. The cake was not for their delight. The wails he let forth as the cake was cut into was not for their amusement. Linde wasn’t enjoying the moment, making light of a brutal history; indeed, his presence served to shame them, to shame them for partaking in something so distasteful as a cake representing the countless girls and women who have been brutalized. They should have been outraged. They should have been disgusted, haranguing for the cake and the artist to be removed immediately. But they weren’t. Rather than recoil in horror and outrage at the sight of such a cake or the sound of such screams, the men and women in attendance–The West–ate and chitchatted and snapped pictures of the spectacle.”

Though Linde admits to attempting to expose racism and ignorance of Europeans who only focus on certain types of oppression in Africa when racism is still rife in their communities, he claims he did not know what the response of the crowd would be. “I think a lot of people saw some images taken during the performance, saw the pictures online and took the images out of its context. And they accused me and the cultural minister to be racists,” he said. “So I think the people who have been upset about the art piece, about the images, have seen have misunderstood the intention or the agenda of me as an artist.”

It is interesting to note that much of the focus has been on the fact that Linde is a black man, and his artwork in the past, much with the minstrel blackface theme, has been dedicated to raising awareness about racism. Fair enough. What has not been emphasized is that Linde is mixed race, which means he is just as much “white” as he is “black”, showing how the one-drop rule still plays a huge role in our global culture. This would not even be a conversation if a white artist attempted the same “art”. Also, though I’m sure Linde has come across racism living in Europe, it is also noteworthy that he was born in Stockholm, and is assumedly just as far removed from the plight of Africans as other Swedes are.

No one can argue that, no matter what the artist’s true intentions were, Linde’s stunt exposed a strange form of modern-day imperialism and racism. But I think the question we should be asking is, at what cost? Does one injustice hold greater weight than  another, as the atrocity of female circumcision was seemingly made light of, allegedly to expose racism and imperialism? Even if the West shouts out about “oppression” they may know little about, it does not take away from the fact that genital mutilation is a disgusting form of torture, performed on young girls who have no choice in the matter, negatively affecting them for the rest of their lives.

Linde’s tasteless portrayal of an African female undergoing genital mutilation in the mocking form of a cake is a serious problem to many people. Take for example poet and author Kola Boof, who is an actual victim of genital mutilation, who cannot see past the mockery, tweeting heart felt tweets in response to the Ebony article,

@kolaboof: Who is getting this “meaningful artful picture”….at the expense of CUT WOMEN like myself? They see it as hilarious!

@kolaboof: I am vaginally infibulated. I have suffered…my entire life!!! My life is HELL!! And you think this is reaching people??”

I know art is a powerful tool that can be used to expose the ills our societies are plagued with. I am also all for freedom of expression and speech. But I also believe that with that freedom comes a sense of responsibility, and I do not believe Linde acted responsibly, creating “art” that was insensitive to the very people he was allegedly trying to help. And though he claims his point was to expose these post-colonial mindsets of Europeans, he continues to dismissively make excuses for the the Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, and she continues to refuse to apologize for any part she had in the event. Wait. So, what was the point of it all again?