Skin color matters because people attach false stereotypes and prejudice. As a nation, we can do better, but we need more understanding.
Revelations that a white woman, Rachel Dolezal, lied about being black shocked many Americans. “Passing” for another race has been going on for centuries, but it’s usually the other way around as people have tried to come off as white.
This is the second recent instance in which outrage erupted over a blonde-haired, white woman trying to portray someone of a mixed background. The other involved the movie “Aloha” that included a fictional character who is part Asian played by Emma Stone, whose looks are anything but Asian.
Skin color is profoundly intertwined with identity in ways that mainstream America often fails to recognize or understand. Physical appearance factors into how people define themselves and how people define each other. In a society that prizes white skin, the stakes are huge: Skin color can be an asset or impediment to someone’s self-esteem, success and even safety.
American society exalts white identity, even though the United States is home to a mix of cultures and skin colors. You definitely know when you are not part of the mainstream.
I refer to myself as a person of color, as in, “I’m not white.” My family’s roots are in Mexico, where my ancestors were a mix of Spanish and indigenous people. My identity is firmly planted in my Mexican heritage and the values, traditions and culture my parents instilled in me.
When I was a child, I identified as “Mexican,” and later on as “Mexican-American” to make it clear I was born and raised in the United States. I’ve been told, by bigots, to go back to my country because of how I look. I’ve been asked why my parents gave me a name that means “white” though I’m not white. I’m also regularly asked where I was born (Kennewick, in case you were wondering) — how many white Americans are asked the same thing as often?
In high school and college, I took classes in which I was the only person who was not white. At first I felt out of place. Then I realized that if I were not there to break up the uniformity, who else would? This continued when I went to college in the South at a time when many people categorized race as either black or white. I made greater efforts to discuss my background, prompting my friends to joke that I often started sentences with, “Well, I’m Mexican, so …”
Looking different isn’t enough — it’s important to talk about and feel proud of who you are and what makes you stand out.
Coming to terms with your identity, however, is a lifelong process. Every day, people deal with questions of privilege, belonging and social hierarchy based on skin color. In Mexico and other parts of Latin America, most people are of mixed race. People of varying shades treat each other differently, with lighter skin faring best. The same is true in mainstream America: Whiter is better. Most of America’s power structures — whether it’s in politics, business, entertainment or academia — are dominated by white leaders.
Back to the Hollywood controversy: Director Cameron Crowe was blasted for “whitewashing” a character in “Aloha,” which could have been played by an Asian or mixed-race actor. Crowe apologized, saying that the casting was intentional; the character was written to look white despite being one-quarter Native Hawaiian and one-quarter Chinese. People were upset not because they were “misled,” as Crowe stated, but because this is perhaps the millionth example of Hollywood ignoring people of color. Story lines about white people seem more palatable even when a movie is set in a place like Hawaii that is overwhelmingly not white.
Dolezal’s offenses were far more serious. Not only did she call herself black when she isn’t, she apparently contrived a personal history that includes racism, discrimination and unsubstantiated hate crimes. Trying to decipher her logic or intentions is pointless.
The Nobel Prize-winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz wrote, “To know your history is to know your singularity.” Our personal histories are part genetic, part culture, part life experiences. Dolezal took the liberty of fabricating all of that. In doing so, she disrespected and degraded the true experiences of a race and culture she clearly has tremendous affinity for.
American society has a long history of preferring or discriminating based on certain skin colors, hair types, manners of speech, habits of dress — the list goes on. As a nation, we claim to be a melting pot. In reality, we divvy up people based on physical characteristics. Some people suffer for how they look while others get ahead because of it.
We don’t need to be monochromatic to have a healthy society. We should be a nation that fosters pride and self-love based on individual histories and physical attributes. The first step is to understand those histories and be honest about them.