Thursday, June 26, 2008

Seeing in color


When I was in graduate school here in the United States, I dated an African American for a short period of time. I was absolutely furious when we had an argument and he then accused me of not understanding him "because he was black". He was absolutely right, I didn't understand him - but it had nothing to do with the colour of his skin. I had had similar misunderstandings/arguments with white boyfriends, and the Iranian I lived with when I was living in France. It had everything to do with the fact that we had been brought up in different places, and to my mind using the color of his skin as an explanation was racist on his part.

It is too easy to explain differences of attitude as racial when in fact they are cultural or personal. There are people of other skin tones I have no desire to associate with, but it does NOT mean I am racist. There are many white people I would not want to associate with - am I racist because I don't like their values? (Prejudiced? Yes. Racist? No!)

My maternal grandmother lived for many years in South Africa and although she tried hard, the racism of the white South Africans rubbed off on her. When she had a dark tan (which she worked very hard at getting), with her dark curly hair and dark eyes, she did not look 100% white herself. I am sure she never realized that, but it made a great impression on me. If it was so difficult to tell someone's race, then what was the point in judging someone by the color of their skin? The chairperson of the African American studies department at Harvard recently found out that genetically he is 50% white. He and his family were stunned! I just don't see the point in deciding in advance if you are going to like someone or not based on the way they look. Of course we all do make snap judgements - not just looking at skin color, but the way people dress or the way they sound. It doesn't make it right, but neither does it make it right to accuse me of racism when I decide that I don't like someone because of who they are as a person.

I am delighted that both my kids are in classes that, although not as diverse as I would like, are not 100% white. Already it is clear that neither of them really understands why anyone would be racist. They are way ahead of me at the same age as I grew up in a town where there was precisely one adult who was not white! It took me many, many, years before I was comfortable talking to people of other races and not constantly thinking that they were somehow different.

My biggest eye-opener was the summer I lived in Taiwan when I truly experienced what it is like to be one of the minority. I lived with a Taiwanese family, I took the bus to work every day, and I taught in a Taiwanese school. For days on end the only Europeans I saw were at a distance in the restaurant at the Lai-Lai Sheraton as my bus stopped outside it. I went through all the usual stages of culture shock even though I knew what to expect. I loved Taiwan, I hated Taiwan, I slept too much . . . I remember one day I went out for lunch with some Taiwanese acquaintances. We went to KFC. For them it was a treat. For me it was torture. It made me violently ill, in a way Taiwanese food never did at any point in my stay. Shortly after lunch I was suddenly absolutely desperate to get to a toilet - preferably clean and with toilet paper, though at that point I wasn't fussy. My friends thought fast and recommended we get off the bus we were on at the next stop as there was a McDonalds. That was one place where I was guaranteed there would be toilet paper. After I was done being ill (for the moment at least), I washed my face as well as my hands because I was sweating profusely. When I looked up at myself in the mirror I realised how sick I really was as my eyes were a strange shape - they were round!

It took me several minutes to realize there was nothing wrong with my eyes. I simply hadn't seen any Western eyes in weeks, there being no mirror in the bathroom at the apartment where I was staying. If being in the minority for only a few weeks made me feel as though I had something wrong with me when I looked in the mirror, I could barely begin to imagine the effects of years of not seeing people like myself . . .

I began writing this post months ago, before the American presidential race had narrowed itself down to two candidates. Clearly race will be an issue for many people when they vote this year. I wish it weren't. I am confident that my decision will be based on who I think will do the best job and not on the race of the candidates. Hopefully within my lifetime race will no longer be an issue in these elections - or gender either!

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if everyone would realize there is really only one race, the human race. It would be a very dull world if we all looked alike and all had the same cultural references.

Stinking Billy said...

You have lived in places I have only heard of, and doutless a few that I haven't, but you have put into words my own exact sentiments on racism.

The subject is a minefield and, unfortunately, we find ourselves walking on eggs more and more. But I am in your debt. Thank you.

rosiero said...

A wonderful item. Wouldn't it be great if the whole world thought like you. I am pinning my money on Obama. What a refreshing change he would make.

Mmm said...

Very good post. i really enjoyed this. Very interesting and so true.

"It is too easy to explain differences of attitude as racial when in fact they are cultural or personal."

--how true.

sablonneuse said...

I couldn't agree more. Very well put.

AliBlahBlah said...

I remember being amazed when I first came to the States and a girl I worked with made a great point of mentioning her boyfriend was white - I hadn't even thought about her race before (honest), just thought it was ironic considering her name was 'Blanca'.

Great post.

david mcmahon said...

G'day from Australia,

A friend of mine recommended this post to me ...

I can see why.

Sandi McBride said...

One day everyone in the world will wake up and see nothing wrong with any other living thing...they will be going along being perfectly civil to anyone or anything they meet...they won't try to kill a living thing for food or foul...and that will probably be the day the world ends...no I'm not a pessimist...just a realist...

Kari (GrannySkywalker) said...

I had a teacher in high school who taught me a lesson that I have passed down to my children. He took a sheet of white construction paper and held it next to the face of a white kid in class. It didn't match. Then he took a sheet of black construction paper and held it next the face of a black kid. It didn't match either. He took a sheet of yellow paper and held it next to a Vietnamese kid - no match. And he took a sheet of red paper and put it next to the face of a native American indian kid. It didn't match. None of those "colors" truly defined anyone's skin. As that teacher pointed out...all of us, of every race and descent, is really just a different shade of brown. In other words, we were all more alike than defining ourselves my race would have us believe.
My children and I have lived this lesson for as long as they can remember. So when we encounter racism - on any side of an issue - it comes as a bit of a shock to all of us. We feel it's unnatural to treat someone differently just because of their skin tone. Unnatural and downright stupid. And yet it still happens, even in this day and age. I wish I knew why. Better yet, I wish I knew how to stop it.

Excellent post. Excellent.

Kari

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