Skin color is a funny thing. Despite the fact that we talk about it so much (yes, that includes me), explicitly and, much worse, implicitly, it is inherently meaningless. It tells you absolutely nothing, except for a vague ratio of pigmentation an individual can call his/her own. It is completely arbitrary, unreliable and unstable what kind of fictional “race” and its fictional meaning people have linked and continue to link to someone’s skin tone, and despite such delightful historical artifacts like “The One Drop Rule”, the concomitant construct of “miscegenation” and the fact that people still think of “mixed” “race” children as the progeny of two people “mixing” their “black” and “white” blood, for example, there is no inherent genetic marker of “race” other than what people have assigned to certain phenotypes. And yet… As always, disclaimers like this one simply have to be followed by actual experiences that show time and again that people cannot be bothered with logic or actual importance or decency.
I am a light-skinned Afro-german person. Not that this should matter, but it actually does. Having been raised in a white, small town family with middle-class aspirations, this proved to be somewhat of a problem. And what’s the german way of dealing with those? Right: denial! Denial in the form of years and years of not addressing the simple fact that I don’t look like the rest of this side’s family, of dressing me in super-frilly white dresses, of never allowing to let this “unruly” hair be unbraided, of teaching me poems of every dead white literary person one can think of, and of making sure this foreign looking kid is extremely well-behaved, to not stick out more than she already does.
The thing is: I actually believed I was white, or like everybody else, and would emphatically deny that I am also Black when people would ask me why I have all that pigmentation going on (…to somewhat paraphrase). Friends of mine would emphatically defend my whiteness, saying that I was not Black, but “Brown” (which is so much better, apparently), and others would give me “compliments” about being so light, because, obviously, things could have gone a lot “worse”… All in all, I was extremely embarrassed when being called out for that apparent difference from the enforced norm.
Again, skin color is a funny thing. Because while being the “Black” kid for more than a decade, at some point the novelty wore off and some white people decided that I wasn’t even Black enough to really be Black – so things took a turn: from (thinking I have to try) a “Whiteness” to a “Blackness” defense.
People have the idea that people with various (fictional) “racial” backgrounds are always living in the inbetween, are neither white nor Black, and, therefore, have no personal or political or cultural home, being rejected as not truly belonging to either (of course, bi-polarly constructed) Black or white communities. I, for one, never had the slightest problem with acceptance as an Afro-german person in a Black community. Not once did a Black person tell me that I’m not really Black enough to be so Black to be considered Black enough as to be discriminated against as Black (see what I did there? Trying to demonstrate the ridiculousness). That is a white thing to say. Not once has another Black person questioned or discredited any racist experience I have shared with them. That is a white thing to do.
Apparently, it vexes some white people that they’re not the arbiter of what can be called “Black” and what not, even though that’s what they’ve been doing for centuries. Apparently, it vexes some white people that they cannot define who is really dark or “exotic” looking enough to be bestowed the honor of believable experiences of discrimination. Apparently, it is a complete affront to have the audacity to try to single-handedly define your own identity as a person of color without their input and evaluation. And, apparently, the ambiguity of skin color and uselessness of the concept of “race” that is so clearly shown by racially “unclear” skin tones like mine, or, as a friend of mine was once called, the “ambiguously beige”, makes some white people immensely uncomfortable, because it breaks up the idea of clearly defined “racial” lines, of “us” and “them”, of European or non-European, of “occidental” and “oriental”, of literally “black” and “white”, and of their right and ability to define which is which.
It also gives light-skinned Afro-European people the doubtful privilege of what has historically been called “passing” as white and/or “brown” (but not “Black”), and of experiencing the delightfulness of not only hearing the usual racist bullshit white people say to people of color, but the racist bullshit white people say to each other about people of color when they think none of the latter are around and/or believe that light-skinned people of color naturally seek to distance themselves from more dark-skinned people of color and, hence, relish the opportunity to be included in circles of white privilege, thanks to internalized racism and the actual pseudo-opportunities that seems to hold for some. This is when people let you know what they refrain from saying out loud and/or mask as pseudo-facts in more “diverse” audiences, i.e., that the “dangerous neighborhood” they have been warning you about is actually any neighborhood that has more than two Black people on the street (alas, some racists are happy to even write about it without any hesitation). This is when people tell you that they’re really not racist, but this one Black dude the other day was looking at them funny, and they got all scared, because you never know… This is when your new (temporary) roommate tells you that she really doesn’t like Mary J. Blidge because Blidge “overacts the part of ‘strong Black woman’”, although this roommate knows that “this might sound really bad”.
When I first started this blog, I thought I’d write about sexism and pop culture, about the ridiculousness of Men’s Rights’ Activists [sic], about reproductive rights and conservatism. Obviously, those have always been related to other dimensions of social structuring, but not once have I thought that this blog would be so much about intersections of racism and sexism, and that I w0uld have to repeat myself all the time. And that’s because I thought that it is a given; that people who are somewhat conscious of the feminist bloggersphere in germany would know a thing or two about Women of Color’s critique of second-wave feminism and the illusion that germany has no history of colonialism and/or has been purged through the Shoah of any form of racism. Not in a million years had I thought I would have to write about such basic things as Blackface, or why Black people do not have the responsibility to educate white people no matter what degrading crap these white people hurl at them, and that Feminism™ is not inherently a carte blanche (literally…) to say whatever pops into your head. Oh, how wrong I was… Apparently, I expected too much from people who call themselves “progressives” or whatever in 2012. Racism is alive and well, of course, and one cannot even keep up with all the face-palming these days. Moreover, it is still the job of people of color to acknowledge and discuss it.
Yes, skin color is a funny thing. It comes back to you at the most inconvenient times, it gets thrown back in your face when you least expect it, and you realize that it had actually never left you all along. This is why I keep talking about it, because so many people write about social justice and feminism and still don’t have a clue about anything else that should also play into their analysis. Skin color is a fundamental social structuring element we take with us every day, no matter what some allegedly “colorblind” progressives and conservatives say, and it affects my day, every day – not only when yet another person asks me where I’m from and is dying from the horrors of being unable to place me.