Skin Color – Much Ado About Nothing

Those who believe themselves to be White. Full stop. What did I just read?

In the three decades or so that I’ve been conscious about race and skin color, there have been a handful of seminal artists and writers that have shook my world to the core, thus changing my mindset, and even the course of my actions. Sequentially:

Run DMC
N.W.A.
Public Enemy
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Between the World and Me.

It was the latest of these influences, Ta-Nehesi Coates’ new auto biopic, where the believe themselves to be White passage presented itself—he uses the phrase whenever referring to Whites.

Identity formation begins with self-labeling, including how we classify ourselves according to skin color. But our identity is also shaped by how those around us—family, friends, colleagues—view us. Furthermore, society labels us, and skin color is a too-easy place to start. America has a special propensity to race its inhabitants, whether they want it or not. In fact, America is obsessed with skin color.

I know that larger society as well as my inner circle of contacts identify me as White. Coates’ challenge of Whiteness burst my own self-identifying bubble of Whiteness. I have been taking this label for granted, and realizing yet another invisible privilege can be sobering indeed.

I see this in my fair-skinned, red-haired daughter, who is distinctly Asian in appearance due to her one-quarter Filipina heritage. She often refers to herself as White. Our son, who has a darker skin tone and dark brown hair, talks much less about skin color. In fact, he has never called himself White (or Asian, for that matter). I’m wondering if this is noteworthy.

A white-skinned colleague of mine, who has a black father and calls himself “incognegro”, once told me that he only seems to talk about skin color in mixed race settings, meaning that in a group entirely of people of color, skin color, and especially Whiteness, rarely enters the conversation. So not only is America obsessed with skin color and race, it is distinct to White Americans.

Can humans be separated into distinct biological subspecies, based on hues and hair differences, limb and nose shapes? This question is the elephant-in-the-room that has swirled around the race science debate for centuries. While it is no longer politically correct to ask this out loud, the question nevertheless remains.

Our breakthroughs with understanding DNA and human variation shed irrefutable light on this debate. There is no biological justification that separates humans into subspecies. Period. It is impossible to ignore the science, but still too counterintuitive to learned attitudes and stereotyping for most people to accept.

To start unpacking the biology of race, let us start with the fact that for 95% of the time homo sapiens have walked the Earth (approx. 3m years), that roaming has been in Africa. Migration beyond Africa is a very recent chapter in our story. This time in Africa allowed for vast genetic variations to develop among humans. Anyone who has been to north, central, and southern Africa can attest to these differences.

When humans began to migrate out of Africa, they encountered very different environmental conditions: harsh winds, cold temperatures, etc. Evolution took over and we adapted, for survival. Yet the differences that developed—lighter skin, different eye shapes—represent a tiny fraction of the genetic code. Just as these visible differences are on our surface, so too are the genetics that cause these variations. Biologically, our differences are superficial.

Skin Color Map 1.jpg

Let us look specifically at skin color. The figure above shows skin pattern variations based on biogeographical ancestry. The patterns are easy to pick up. So what explains these differences, and how you can connect skin color variation across continents?

The sun. Solis. Sol. Al-Shams. Why might one need darker skin where sunlight is more direct? No, not to protect from skin cancer (this is the number one reason students give to this question, when I’ve asked it); only recently have humans survived past early adulthood. It has to do with that most significant of biological functions: reproduction. Sunlight provides vitamin D and other nutrients. However, ultraviolet rays break down folic acids, key to a developing fetus. Dark skin: problem solved.

When humans migrated away from the equator, toward less direct sunlight, we needed to let more sunlight in. This took care of our need for vitamin D. (Today, those with dark skin tones struggle with vitamin deficiencies when living in cold climates.) Keep in mind that all humans have enough melanin in us to make our skin and hair very, very dark. An enzyme, tyrosinase, regulates melanin, allowing skin to lighten or darken.

So, if our biological differences are superficial, then what explains our terrible history and ongoing tensions around race? It goes far beyond cultural differences. America’s founding fathers had a dilemma to solve shortly after the Revolution. The fledgling country needed to build itself around its economy. It needed cheap and controllable labor, in the millions. It already had that in place from nearly two centuries of slave trade. The dilemma came from the contradiction of the “All men are created equal” clause so central to its Declaration of Independence. Offering a social construct that Blacks were biologically inferior to Whites, and likely a different subspecies altogether, was too convenient to discard. This concept was already strongly embedded in the American psyche, slave-holder or not, and needed little justification.

The short of it is that America’s wealth was built on the exploitation and murder of millions with darker hues and different hair (Coates). (The One Drop Rule made it even easier for those with fair skin and blue eyes to be enslaved.) Think of this history when celebrating our country’s wealth and international standing, and in judging the scary trend of income inequality. On July 4th, read Frederick Douglas’ The Meaning of July 4th to the Negro.

Having already accepted the biology of skin color as intuitive (an adaptation to the environment), Coates has allowed me to now push further against my identification as White. I am simply human, with a small space to fill.

 Citations
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Kirchweger. “The Biology of Skin Color.” Discover n.d.: n. pag. Web.
Willis. “The Skin We’re in.” Discover n.d.: n. pag. Print.

Owning White Privilege

Last week, while waiting in front of the Hyatt for his transport to the U.S. Open to fulfill corporate commitments, retired American tennis star James Blake was tackled to the ground and handcuffed by an undercover NYC police officer. The police chief (somewhat) quickly issued an apology to Mr. Blake, and called the incident a case of mistaken identity.

The incident surfaced many issues, but rarely mentioned in the press was the issue of white privilege. I don’t know about you, but never have my white friends, nor I, ever been tackled to the ground while being mistaken for a white criminal. The Blake incident brought to mind the Dee Brown incident near the suburb where I once worked. I can only imagine the countless cases of such acts that go unreported across the country each year because the recipients are not famous. To his credit, Mr. Blake, a former Harvard student, handled the incident with class.

Professor Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, contends that white males are rarely aware of the advantages they cash in each day. It’s not that others are disadvantaged, according to McIntosh, but that white males are overprivileged. These benefits remain invisible to those who enjoy them. Many white males refute this concept, not accepting the invisible system conferring dominance onto their group. They cite meritocracy–that the best and hardest working rise to the top–for their status. Pure meritocracy is a myth, even in the land of the American dream.

Here are a few (of countless) unearned privileges to contemplate, taken from McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”:

  1. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

  2. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

  3. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

  4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

  5. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

  6. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

  7. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

  8. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

I don’t mean any disrespect to those embroiled in the well-publicized race issues in the U.S. this past year, but I feel that privilege is perhaps more germane to our society these days. While we are clearly not yet post-racial, the wealth gap continues to grow wider. The haves have more, and the have nots go deeper into the financial abyss.  Despite the disastrous long-term and intergenerational effects that failing to accumulate wealth has on the individual, the effects on society can be widespread and profound. The greater the wealth gap grows, the more likely the haves will live in gated communities, withdraw support for public services, and send their children to private schools. We go back to a segregated, separate but not equal society (and still, mostly white). Full circle for the Land of the Free.

What can we do to address white privilege? Quite a bit, actually. Start by looking in the mirror. Am I cashing in privileges at the expense of others, such as networking my way to get what I want? If so, allow others to gain access to your network. Get over the guilt you may have for these privileges. It’s self-serving and lacks utility. Don’t make invisible those who lack power or strength, due to their stigmatized position in society. Accept white as a racial identity (race as social, not biological), and stop acting colorblind. Face and acknowledge Robert Jenson’s The Fears of White People

Finally, consider doing this white privilege activity, developed by Professor McIntosh. The exercise never fails to produce the predicted results, and astound and confound its participants. They will come to see the glass ceilings that hold back a true meritocracy. Educate. Enlighten. Grow.

Let’s Move Beyond the Five “F’s” of Culture

“Culture is our greatest legacy.” (Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer in Residence)

Walk through the halls of most any school these days and you’ll likely run into some colorful, well-constructed poster boards displaying a “culture project”. One that comes to mind was in a well-regarded high school, in which a diligent student represented Latina culture through Shakira, Latin American cuisine (tortillas, tamales, and tacos), and a display of national flags. Yes. Shakira has taught us that hips don’t lie, and who doesn’t like a good fajita with black beans and rice? But what did this display tell me about Latin American culture? Absolutely nothing.

Today in schools, as it has always seemed to be, we celebrate culture through the Five F’s: food, fashion, famous people, festivals, and flags. This is perhaps because it’s so easy to put such a display together. More likely, however, we just don’t study in school, and thus understand and appreciate, the deeper aspects of culture. In fact, it is these deeper aspects of culture–such as the influence of religion, social norms, the role of elders, etc.–that most drive our day-to-day behaviors and decisions.

The most apt metaphor to describe deep culture is the cultural iceberg. Gary Weaver (1986) introduced this model, which identifies the visible aspects of culture–the Five F’s!–at the tip of the iceberg, or the “surface culture”. As we know about icebergs, the surface is only 10% of the total picture, and not the essence of the mass.

Moving near or below the surface, which represents our basic awareness level, gets us to the “folk culture”, aspects such as the role of education, work, and family values. Going even deeper gets us to the rich cultural characteristics of language, gender and age roles, and family dynamics. See this link for a crude (mea culpa) graphic of this iceberg. Here are two more refined versions: this and this.

Shakira, burritos, and the national flag of Venezuela told me nothing of Latin American culture. What I really want to know is the following: 1. What sparked the massive student protest in Chile in 2006? 2. What did it take for Argentina to legalize gay marriage in 2010? 3. What value do the several dozen uncontacted indigenous tribes of Brazil provide to humanity? 4. Why did Macdonalds go bankrup in Bolivia? and 5. Why is Columbia rated as the “happiest country in the world” (2014)?

Teachers. Go beyond the easy and the superficial that we know as the Five F’s (the “five effs” to those who care deeply about cultural competence). For your next culture project, start with the iceberg, and deduct points for any student operating above the surface of the water.


Sources

Weaver. Gary R.(1986). Understanding and coping with cross-cultural adjustment Stress. In R.M. Paige (Ed). Cross-cultural orientation. New conceptualizations and applications. Lanham MD: University Press of America.

http://xpatnation.co/interesting-facts-about-latin-america-that-you-might-not-know/#.B28j86W1M

Do I Use the N-word?

No.

(Or, at least I try very hard not to, if we’re being honest.)

I refrain from using the “nuclear bomb of racial epithets”, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. This whole topic, of which I walk a tightrope just writing about, brings up the classic question: Who can use the N-word?

The N-word has become ubiquitous in today’s lexicon, not so much as in print (see the word’s results in Google’s Ngram), but certainly in pop culture, and in the occasional self-destructive slip by non-Black, well-meaning or not, politicians, celebrities, athletes, or others who find themselves at the center of a firestorm of backlash. I have little sympathy for these folks, for they should know the destructive power and historical baggage of the word, even if many (i.e. White) have become desensitized to the word. Ignorance is no excuse.

I have recently needed to come up with a concerted stance on the word, prompted by my teenage children, who have undoubtedly heard it outside of the home, and are already questioning its meaning. (Plus, there is a whole genre of hip-hop I want to expose them to!)

I think it’s best to start with a scholarly briefing of the N-word, including its history. Go promptly to Randall Kennedy’s seminal article: “Who Can Say Nigger? And Other Considerations”. Suffice to say, this article changed my thinking. In fact, it hit me with a brick. Dr. Kennedy does not paint a clear path forward to a “yes” or “no” platform. Rather, he gives the reader a history of the word, illustrates its power to dehumanize and destroy, but also legitimizes a case for its use for artistic pursuits (for some, not all people). The responsibility comes back squarely onto the reader to determine his or her own stance.

It should not be surprising that comedians offer us a way to make sense of the word (and a safe place to do so). Try this famous SNL skit on the power of the N-word, from Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor. Or, this more contemporary analysis from Chris Rock.

In the end, I choose to not use the N-word, in print or verbally, because I do not want to perpetuate the use of the word in our language, and I most certainly do not want to unwittingly unleash the destructive, historical power of the word on anyone around me. Nor do I have the credibility to validate its use in artistic expression (I am highly inartistic)–I most certainly don’t want to become this White guy. So, while the N-word can never, and perhaps should never, be eradicated from the English language, I will play my part in not perpetuating it. What will you do?

Going boldly into the Blogosphere – “Why Teaching Race in Schools Matters More Than Ever Before”

As the first of what will be regular posts on interest topics of mine–race/culture, mindfulness, leadership (refraining from politics or religion)–I thought I’d start with an excerpt from a recently published article in The American School of Bombay‘s Intersections periodical. I wrote about schools’ neglected curriculum, that which goes deeply into race and culture issues (i.e. the differences among us). Most schools give superficial attention to the issues tearing apart peoples in the West (and the world, for that matter). The disturbing race-driven events taking place in my own country prompted me to call in from Saudi Arabia to On Point Radio’s show “Race and Violence in America.”


International schools are ideal laboratories to explore the myriad differences within our humanity. Our populations are diverse, our mindsets are global, and we are able to educate our motivated youth away from their ethnic comfort zones. This is a recipe for growth. Skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, communication, and critical thinking are getting appropriate attention as relevant for the 21st century. However, we cannot take full advantage of our privileged position if we cultivate these 21st century skills without also confronting the real-world context of applying these skills in an environment bursting with tension—stress caused by our difficulty in coming to terms with our racial and cultural differences. Unfortunately, most schools across the world are not delving deep enough into topics of race, culture, and active anti-racism. In avoiding the uncomfortable, or the difficult, we are doing our youth a disservice.

We have a moral imperative to prepare our youth for an interconnected world, where cultures intersperse (and sometimes collide) more easily than ever. Today’s young people think about race more often than we might believe. They turn to each other about what they see and think, and they would surely benefit from an adult interpretation of these issues. Through the media, they find numerous examples of injustice: racism in professional sports, mass evictions of Roma from settlements in Europe, and advertisements reinforcing negative stereotypes. They see public officials mistaking ethnic origins for national identities[1]. They see our communities getting more segregated. They see the wealth gap widening. Often treated as simply newsworthy items, each issue or incident is a teachable moment, an opportunity to expose and come to grips with underlying issues of race, culture, and human rights.

How we understand, appreciate, and act on the differences inherent in humanity continues to be of paramount importance to society—as evidenced by blurring racial lines, a flat world[2], and entrenched institutional bias—and it has become more difficult to do so because it is not politically correct to be completely honest about one’s own racial views. In fact, there are countless examples of people (well-meaning or not) losing their jobs or reputations when mishandling a racial issue[3]. As a result of this hypersensitive climate, a frank discussion on race has been forced out of the public sphere. Racism, once “in your face”, now operates under the surface, re-emerging at inopportune times. When an incident does occur, racism is quickly denounced, and perpetrators condemned. But this knee-jerk response rarely moves society closer to peace and harmony. Racism has been exposed, but not addressed. No learning has taken place. So, where better to unpack race issues than in the relative safety of the school setting?

For the full article, follow this link

[1] http://www.newsweek.com/freshman-congressman-florida-mistook-senior-govt-appointees-indian-officials-261432

[2] Friedman, Thomas L. (2005) The World is Flat. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York.

[3] See http://bit.ly/1AlOMIk for results from a simple Google search of “loses job because of racial comments”