31 for 41: Beautiful Skin

Dear Donovan,

After you started preschool, you once came home and announced to me, “I am the only brown boy in my class.”  I wondered if you had figured that out through your own observations, or if another child had pointed it out to you.  I assured you that your skin is beautiful, but internally, I was already worrying that you might experience pain because of your pigment.

Your grandma raised me to love and appreciate people of different skin colors.  When she worked at a Perdue chicken plant with many Latino immigrant workers in the 1980’s, she taught me to respect those workers while many viewed them with resentment and distrust.  One of my caretakers when I was young was my beloved Mrs. Bryson, a Cherokee woman.  As a little girl, I had the honor of meeting the Brazilian wife of Kenneth Cates, and having their children show me the scars on their fingers from piranha bites.  And you know just how much Coach Vergil Shamberger has always meant to grandma.  I was raised hearing her stories about this black man working in an integrated high school in the 1970’s who took the time to show fatherly care to one of his white basketball players.

Through these experiences and stories, the message to me, from my earliest memories, has always been clear:  every skin color is valuable, and equally so.  I have tried to consistently give you the same clear message.  Since lots of people have lots to say about skin color, though, I want to intentionally say a few things to you on this issue:

1. Human constructions of categories based on skin color have varied over time, and still vary from geographic location to location, and by context.  Simply stated, “Race is an idea, not a fact” (Nell Irvin Painter).  If you and I could travel around the world today, visiting New York City, San Jose de Ocoa, Nairobi, Tokyo, and Wagga Wagga, we would be assigned to a unique category at each location.

A Dominican woman once shared with me her experience as a school-aged immigrant to the United States years ago.  In her words, she “looked black” in the context of the society where she lived, but of course, her language and culture were quite different from the majority of the black students around her.  Although she shared a common language with some of the other students from immigrant families, her darker skin color was a barrier to being accepted among some of those students as well.  She found herself in a very lonely spot, as she did not fit into any of the categories that had been constructed in that area.

You have had experience in this area as well, and you understand it in a way that I cannot.  I would just encourage you to be a student of other people’s behavior.  From the behavior of people who have assumed things about you or treated you unfairly because of your skin tone, take the lesson of carrying on in strength and dignity when others reveal their weaknesses.  Remember that those people are telling you who they are, not who you are.  If they have to make assumptions about your personality traits by looking at your skin, they have already proven that they are not qualified to define you, since assumptions are made in the absence of knowledge.  

This brings me to my second point…

2.  Never assume that you understand a person’s experiences in society by looking at their skin color.  Many humans are trying really hard to understand what it is like to walk in someone else’ shoes.  This is a good thing, but there are still no absolutes when it comes to understanding a person’s unique life experience.

I cannot look at a “white” woman in North Carolina and assume that, like me, she has had the luxury of not having to tip-toe through her public life.  That woman could be an immigrant from Eastern Europe who had to spend years pretending to be of a different religion just so she and her children would not be killed.

I cannot look at a “black” woman in North Carolina and assume that she is the descendant of enslaved Africans.  That woman could be an exchange student from Nigeria.  I would love to learn what women from both of these experiences have to teach me, but I do not want to ever assume that I know their stories just by looking at them.

I once heard a story of a woman who was shopping in a grocery store when another woman passed by her and basically suggested that she needed to go back across the Rio Grande.  The second lady’s argument revealed that she did not presently support immigration.  The irony, lost to her since the first lady never responded, was that the first lady is Native American, and it had been quite some years since her family immigrated to North Carolina (as in hundreds of years).

My point is this:  Do not assume that you know someone’s story.  There may be generalizations that can be drawn, but there will always be exceptions because we are talking about humans.  We are complex creatures.  We grew up in different settings.  We see things differently.  So let each complex human tell you his or her story, instead of assuming that you already know what it is.

Also, do not try to tell other people what their story should be.  I have been astonished at people who claim to be speaking up for a marginalized group, but while making their argument, they themselves try to dictate how members of that marginalized group should view things.   We sometimes have a difficult time spotting our own contradictions.  To avoid those contradictions in your own life, do a lot more listening than talking.  Receive people’s stories.  Let them tell you who they are.

And on that note, while you let people tell you who they are, you do not have to let others tell you who you are…

3.  You do not have to apologize for your skin color.

The amount of pigment in your skin was coded when 23 chromosomes and 23 chromosomes came together to form a zygote.  You had no control over that.  Apologizing for your skin tone would be the scientific equivalent of apologizing for having brown eyes or the hitchhiker’s thumb.  I will say the same thing that I would say about any person with any shade of skin.  God made you.  Your skin is beautiful.  End of argument.

I must rush to say that I am not trying to oversimplify the issue of race relations, nor in any way minimize the evil of racial injustice.  It is indeed evil for a person to decide in their heart that, because of someone’s skin color, that person is somehow less human and less deserving of respect, protection, and opportunity.

I cannot say it better than this, so let me just quote Billy Graham:

“Why is prejudice wrong? One reason is because God created the whole human race, and every human being bears something of His image. The Bible says, ‘From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth’ (Acts 17:26). When we hate someone or dismiss them as unworthy of our concern, we are refusing to see them the way God sees them.
But prejudice is also wrong because Christ died for people from all races and all backgrounds–and He did so because He loves them all. How can we do any less? The Bible tells us that Christ will be praised in heaven, ‘because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Revelation 5:9).”
This is not an attempt to dismiss skin color or people’s experiences.  I believe in celebrating unique qualities of individuals.  I also believe in being self-aware of my own position within a given social construct.  I am very aware that I have always had easy access to band-aids, baby dolls, and princess movies that reflect my skin tone.  I am aware that many of my friends have not had that same access, but they have wrestled with the messages contained in that lack of access.
Be that man who tries to put yourself in others’ shoes, so to speak, to see things from their perspectives.  With your friends, be a man who creates the conditions in which people feel safe to share their stories and be themselves.  On your job, be the man who places a premium value on the voice of the one who is different from the rest of the group in some way.  Rest assured that your skin tone is exactly as it was intended to be, and does not grant you any more or any less value than others.  Speak up when others forget that.

Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:  But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. Acts 10:34-35

…for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart. I Samuel 16:7b

I love you forever,

Your mama

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