After 31 years in the United States, I find myself more American than I ever expected to be, yet not so American in many ways.
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!