Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My White Skin

In racism class this year, we had to write a paper about the first time that we realized the color of our skin. Because I have been able to deconstruct my story, I'll share it here without shame.

When I was in elementary school, I came home one day and said, "Mommy, why are the black kids the ones who are bad in class and get in trouble?" This has stuck with me for many years, and my mom and I have discussed it as recently as a few years ago. My 7 or 8 year old brain was making a simple observation: that the children of color in my classroom were misbehaving (or perhaps they were being punished for misbehaving more, making it more apparent to me). I can't go back in time and analyze this further, it just is what it is.

My entire life I've been privileged by my white skin. I've never had to worry about anyone making assumptions about me, being followed in a store for fear that I would steal, I've never had to worry about finding make up in my color or hair products that would work for me. I have never been harassed about my race. Assuming that I procreate with another white person, I will never have to warn my children about the dangers of systemic racism. I can get angry and have people listen to me instead of attributing my anger to misconceived notions about the color of my skin. The list goes on.

I was never challenged or made aware of my privilege until I got to college and began taking courses in sociology and racism. I made it 18 years without ever having once to think about the color of my skin. Certainly I thought about it, but I was never made to think about it. My white skin has afforded me that luxury.

In India, my white skin grabs attention. People stare, point and gawk. Some of them take pictures of me with their phones. Sometimes when we're in a cab, the driver of another car will stare at my for so long that his car begins to swerve until he looks back at the road. My blonde hair and green eyes probably only further this phenomenon. Today at the mall, almost every child I saw tugged on their mother's kurti and pointed me out. At one point, we were in the food court and I felt a tap on my arm. A young girl asked, "Excuse me Auntie, could we please take one photo?"

My immediate reaction: yes. She was a child, and I love children. She was adorable, reminded me of the children I've babysat and my little cousins and I've had such little interaction with children, I immediately said yes. Her mother snapped some photos on her phone and I smiled at the little girl and said, "I want a photo with you too!"

Afterwards I bent down and asked the little girl her name. I believe she said "Mitra" but she was shy and speaking quietly. I noticed the beautiful Mehendi (henna) on her hands, and asked to see them. I cupped her hands in mine and told her how beautiful it was. She hugged me (hugged me! A complete and total stranger, but that's how happy she was?), and I stood up and told her mom, "Your daughter is beautiful." She pressed her hands together as if she were saying a prayer, nodded and smiled. I nodded back, and then went back to my table.

I told Phillip and Beth about what had just happened and Phillip said, "How does it feel to be the exoticized one?"In the mall as we walked around I noticed that all of the advertisements featured white people. Here are some examples:
This model is literally wearing Indian style clothing. And she is fair skinned and blonde haired.
Phillip, Beth and I talked about it and Phillip said that he doesn't see it as things being "Americanized" but more "Westernized". I can see that - there are white people in GB and all of Europe in general. I've noticed that in all of the childrens' clothing sections, there are large sections of shirts that have English phrases on them "Mommy's cute boy" or "I am COOL" and then small sections that are more traditional Indian clothing. It seems as though everything is moving in the direction of being more Western, which is sad because the culture here, in my view, is beautiful and interesting and I would hope that it could be preserved as much as possible.

But back to the story about the photo with the little girl. What makes it so exciting for a child to see a woman with white skin? I remember Hillary once telling me that if I ever went to China with her, people would want to take pictures with me because of my light skin and blonde hair. My first thought is that it's just uncommon to see white skin here in Kolkata (I did not see one other white person during our entire trip to the mall. Actually, come to think of it, I've only seen one other white person outside of our group since I've arrived.) But - it is deeper than that. There is an admiration there, for my white skin.

It makes me uncomfortable when I think about it for too long, but I guess the things that make you feel discomfort when you think of them are the things most worth thinking about.

India was colonized by the white British. This means that the British barged into this country, told billions of people that they were now in power, and then took over everything, changing the way things had been for centuries. In the late 19th century, it was because of choices the British made that tens of thousands of Indians died of hunger during a crop famine. Yet, even after all of that, there is something in existence... some systemic, worldwide message: White is good, beautiful, and best. Today in Spencer's (sort of a grocery store plus Target) I came upon some skin lightening deodorant. It actually whitens your underarms. There's also a large array of lotions, sunscreens and other skin lightening products. Many women walk with umbrellas, I'm told, to avoid their skin becoming darker.

I recognize all of this. I don't deny my privilege or the luxuries I've been afforded in life solely because of the color of my skin. Accepting this as reality is one thing...but what is the next step? I may not be able to refuse a photo with a 7 year old girl just to prove a point that she probably wouldn't even understand yet - that would probably just been seen as rude. However, reinforcing that I think she is beautiful and complementing her Mehendi was the best I could do. The question is: What else?


Grace Pusey said...

Many complicated feelings on this.

That's not quite how colonialism worked. I can't remember the statistic exactly, but something like less than 0.25% of the British population ever lived in India at any point in time. Extremely simplified version of British colonization: the systems of power they set up were set in motion via the cooperation of native elites with British officials at the expense of the poor and marginalized because they saw *something in it for them*, not sweeping military defeat. Ultimately, yes, the British are the ones we should hold responsible for their colonizing projects, and no, I'm not blaming anyone for being colonized; just saying that this is one of the reasons Euro-centric beauty standards remain in place.

I think the only thing to do is be rude and refuse to have your photo taken. We have to start disrupting the exoticization of white skin (and thereby the devaluation of dark skin) somewhere. It's uncomfortable, yes, but I think it will bring you peace of mind. Because at the end of the day, colonialism-in-action is a compilation of small moments of aggression (in this case, an internalized, seemingly harmless self-aggression), not the darkly evil historical moments of crisis, brutality, and disaster we often think of when we think about colonization.

Carlitos said...

It is going to be interesting to sit down and talk about your experiences in India. Thinking about the differences between there and where I come from.

Kristen said...

Thanks for the correction and insights, Grace. I knew you'd know more about that component.'s so hard to be rude. :-/

Eva said...

I dunno. I think this is all really valuable and important to think about, and I think the picture thing is awkward, but...urgh...something about assuming that it's because of the value and exoticizing of white skin on the part of the little girl and then acting on it *towards that little girl* feels weird, too. There's got to be some other way here, but I'm kinda coming up blank. :/

Grace Pusey said...

There will always be an excuse to not do the right thing.

Eva said...

But does refusing to have your photo taken actually disrupt the exoticization of white skin? I am not trying to make excuses in order not to have to do the right thing, thanks very much, I am just not sure it IS the right thing.