Newly Minted

Newly Minted
Right after I was hooded

Friday, May 15, 2009

Who's Orange?

I realize I am several days behind, but keeping up with the Obama bashing took a back seat to senior proms, graduation and entitled students. That said, did our president REALLY make a comment about another man's skin color? I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it. The clip that left me breathless; our mixed race president stating that John Boehner's skin color was one "that does not appear in the natural world". I had to ask my husband what that meant exactly. My husband burst out laughing and said "the man is orange".

When my daughter was born, my childhood friend - also a person of mixed race who recently declined participating in my scholarly work as she refuses to be identified by race - which is fine and only relevant because her obsession with skin color, informed me that my daughter was orange. My daughter was born with a shock of jet black hair and while not orange, she had a now absent color in her skin. Both my boys were born extremely fair, my middle son was pink, so her skin color wasn't even an honorable mention in my examination of the new baby. My girlfriend, who refuses to be identified by race, wouldn't let it go. I finally got mad at her and confronted her about it. She said, well not Elmo orange (I am pretty sure Elmo is red) but orange like white people (thought they were pink). I never ever thought of white people as orange but apparently America does. My husband didn't think it was an odd color assignment for Boehner's skin, even though after extensive image googling I just don't see it. Anyway...

Skin gradation is a big part of my thinking about race, interrace, and post racial categorizations. Skin color is intimately related to how race is and has been socially organized. Evidence of this is easily found in how questions of race are handled in the South, Latin and Caribbean Americas. Some censuses have reported upwards of 23 categories of "race" which are all directly related to skin gradation. While logically we can imagine skin gradation as a principal way of identifying and categorizing "different" races; it is also particularly impactful inside communities of color. In my experience, having been raised in a white community with no access at all to people of color, skin gradation - at least as a tool of separation - is remarkably absent. In my home community, I was black because everyone else was white.

Before my orange daughter was born, my first experience with hierarchies of skin color occurred when I was about 27 years old. I had decided to get my hair done by a "black hair stylist" as we finally had one in our community. I had spent my life fighting with my hair, pulling it back and breaking it off. I had discovered, through media exposure, weaves...and I was going to get one. I was a general manager of a retail chain and was driving from store to store so I stopped to find out how to get my hair done. I was so excited. When I entered the proprietor left the client she was working on to greet me. The client in the chair lost her mind. She yelled "don't you stop working on me to talk to that yellow white bitch". I was used to being called white, but yellow? While the proprietor was nice and waited on me and gave me information, i was humiliated, and I left rejected and never went back. That afternoon one of our tenants was leaving her apartment and I relayed the experience to her. After laughing about how white I was, a regular occurrence for my neighbor, she explained the situation to me. She told me I was yellow, but not high yellow, and proceeded to map out the skin color landscape in the black community. Amazing. I asked if she would go to the hair stylist with me and she said "I'm not going to speak nigger for you". It was two years until I had my hair, at 29, professionally done for the first time in my life. What I had learned was that I didn't belong to the black community any more than I did the white community. I realized that day that there was a language and codes, like skin gradation, that I not only didn't understand but really had no access too. I was an outsider; yellowed in my brownness and isolated in my blackness by my whiteness.

I am sexy caramel, according to one of my favorite students. I like it far more than yellow. My daughter is white, according to her brother. And, John Boehner is orange according to our president. What I am most interested in are the politics connected to these external assignments of skin gradation. Outside of my student, who is obsessed with locating skin color as if it were her job, I haven't encountered anyone who has assigned their own skin color unless externally provoked. Reflecting on my own racial identity and its relationship to skin color, I am aware of both of those things - racial identity and skin color - as having been in contrast to another identity and skin color. I was black to my family and communities whiteness and I became brown in response to the black community. Okay I became yellow but I REFUSE to accept that. So sexy caramel it is...

A final thought for today on skin color. I am sure I will revisit it many times. Heck, its summer, I can explain to people for the 39th year in a row that YES, I DO tan... That aside, skin color, or the way one identifies with a racial identity that is possibly linked to or derived from a skin color can be useful when one chooses to use it politically. I found that once I started to identify as brown, a choice that was simultaneous with identifying as mixed race, my community started to include more people of color. My brownness cannot be challenged based on the simple fact that I am in fact brown. Brownness also connects me to others who are brown, South Asians, African-Americans, Latinas, Africans, indigenous people, and Texans... You get the picture. After a speech I gave this semester several students and faculty approached me and revealed that they also identified as brown and that they were also mixed race.

When my middle son was in kindergarten at a catholic school, I got a phone call. I don't think I realized the significance of the moment until right now. The art teacher called to report that my son had been insubordinate. Quite a feat at five. She had asked them to draw a self portrait. She was livid that my son refused to color his self portrait with the crayon she provided for him, the brown crayon. He put his head down on his desk and refused to color at all. I asked her what color he wanted to use. She said "I don't know why that matters but peach, he wanted to color his picture peach".

So, maybe my children ARE orange. You learn something new everyday.

More soon...

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