“I guess it all depends on whom you ask and when you ask. Race, I've learned, is in the eye of the beholder.”- Raquel Cepeda, Birds of Paradise: How I became Latina
In his 2013 Atlantic article, “What We Mean When We Say 'Race Is a Social Construct,’” Ta-Nahesi Coates wrote, “no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.” For our collective and reflective excursion today, I have asked the writers to look at race as it pertains to the color of our skin. Simple pronouncements of black, brown and white do little justice to our nuanced and wide-ranging experiences with our skin color.
In addition, our ten writers occupy spaces across the applicable spectrum of skin-tones (see graphic below), but we are either described by others, or ascribe ourselves to the categories of, white, brown, or black. That is the challenge for today for us to describe what any of those mean to us.
As we process today, none of us speaks for our “race” or our color group, we speak for ourselves. How we see race, and all of our other identities, are “truly in the eye(s) of the beholder(s).”
The first time I came across "the race box" was on a standardized test scantron in 2nd grade. As soon as I saw race and ethnicity were separate boxes, I raised my hand in a panic and asked my teacher what to put.
"You're white, honey," she had stated.
"But my family isn't white. We're Dominican," I replied.
"But your skin is white."
"Yeah, but I'm not white-white," was all my 7-year-old brain could think as I grudgingly checked the 'white' box.
Taino, Portuguese, Spanish, Cameroonian, and Beninese - a pie-chart of a colonized island. But yeah, white.
As I started to hear the experience of what it is like to be a minority in America, I hated the fact that I was white. I was angry that the “American Dream” was a bunch of bullshit. My anger is not going to change the fact that my parents didn’t have to have a conversation with me about how to act strictly based on the fact that my skin was a certain color. My anger doesn’t mean shit unless I take steps to diminish the reason behind that anger. My hope is for people to understand when and where their privilege shows up, but also how to use your privilege for those who don’t have it.
Being black is a complicated existence for me, as I have had to defend myself from both ends of the “racial spectrum.” I have lived in environments since I was 14 years old where my blackness was always in play. Except for a few summer programs, conferences, or meetings my skin tone has always been definitively in the minority. And even in the most accepting spaces I am still not afforded the “luxury” of being “raceless.” My race is important to me because I identify with the beauty and the struggle of what it means to be Black in America.
In my childhood summers, my parents worked full-time, so they used to drop me off at a local park where I would play for hours. My skin got so dark - almost dark chocolate - and I loved it. But without explanation, my mother would scold me for this. Don’t get dark. Even now, she still gets mad. It dawned on me that “getting dark” was a bad thing in the
Philippines when I went to the drugstore and all I could find was “skin-whitening” cream. It was clear: Dark = different = bad. It made me realize how the darkness of skin divides.
Being white in America means being privileged. Up until high school, my race was essentially non-existent in my mind. I never had to think about my race because being white was and still is portrayed as society’s “norm”. I am privileged in that I can ignore my race if I want to. Unfortunately, it’s easy to turn off that part of my thinking. I can effortlessly hide behind my skin color and play ignorant to the privileges of being white. Acknowledging and recognizing racial issues is not mandatory for white people, because being white in some ways means being raceless.
Coming from a predominantly white society, skin color was never something that I paid attention to until I came to the US. When I arrived here I started understanding racial disparities and racial issues. I am much more mindful of topics that have to do with race and I try to educate my friends and family at home so that they can be mindful too. I do not consider myself a big advocate but I want to do what I can. I understand that being white means having an advantage over other people who are seen differently because of the color of their skin.
Blackness is being a warrior. Between being enough for the black community and fighting against discrimination, both implicit and explicit, it can get exhausting. Every day I am constantly reminded of my race and how my actions will be used to represent those of other black people. Part of it is allowing yourself space for mistakes and reminding yourself that you didn’t achieve all you have because of handouts, pity and white guilt. Being black comes with fear, healing, angst, seasoning, beauty, rhythm, black twitter and more. I embrace my race because without it I don’t know what I would be.
Race wasn’t discussed in my white family growing up, because it didn’t have to be. I grew up in a small, white town in which I could count the people of color on one hand. College helped open my eyes, slightly, but it wasn’t until after college that I began to fully understand my privilege as a white person. True to Debbie Irving’s book, my journey can aptly be titled “Waking Up White.” While I think my life experience with race still has quite a few gaps, I know my education in understanding my whiteness is just beginning.
I am fifty percent Italian and currently have the complexion of Casper the friendly ghost. I grew up in a community that was equal parts African American, equal parts white. One window into my past included myself and three African American boys driving to a basketball game and one of my friends commenting, “Don’t worry if we get pulled over, Drew is white”. During my childhood police brutality was a real issue around where I lived and Black families were having conversations about the police that my family wasn’t. It wasn’t until years later I’ve reflected more on what my friends must have been going through.
Being black to me is an experience of so much culture and fun. I am consistently learning new things about all the black people in the world. Growing up I can remember being so excited when it was time for the family to get together, whether it was holidays or just a bbq. The Caribbean music and food you can hear and smell blocks away. My grandfather’s family was from the island of Barbuda. I learned so much from him about not only the culture of Barbuda but African culture as well. Being black to me is also a battle to prove to people that are not black that we don’t fit in the stereotypical box of what they feel a black person is like.
Tomorrow: Gender Identity