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Black and White

January 22, 2013

“I think your identity should come from something you take pride in. It shouldn’t be something that just sets you apart from other people, it should be one of those things that people generally understand is a good thing, something we all share, rather than what separates us. I mean, the things that make up our identity are deeper things than skin color…Things…like character or our faith or how we treat other people. And if we talked instead about that stuff, I’m sure we could agree on what was good or, at least, on the way we ought to be.” – A Hope in the Unseen: Ron Suskind


I strongly believe that race is a human construct and that the color of one’s skin does no implicitly dictate or limit one’s ability and potential. However, society somewhere along the way started to use skin tone as a measuring stick, and I think that legacy has heavy ramifications despite our desire to deny it. I understand the whole in group / out group dynamic, the comfort of sticking with people who look like you and who grew up like you. I can even imagine how fear of the outsider, the other, is born. Yet, living in Benin as a clear minority and outsider has given me a glimmer of perspective for how it feels to be on the other side.

It’s a heady thing to be instantly recognized – and judged – for your skin color. I am literally called white girl (yovo) once if not multiple times a day. Often, it’s just a way of getting my attention, my identifiable feature in a culture that names people by profession or physical characteristics: at the clinic, the nurse is always called infirmiere; in the market, you call people with the cry of coconu, bissapnu – literally the person who sells that object. Other times, the times more likely to irritate, it’s more of a repetitive chant that stems from an urge to amuse or the childlike excitement for the new exotic animal at the zoo. And even then, sometimes it’s in a nice way while others it’s much more mocking. You can always tell the difference, although my tolerance does vary depending on my mood. On my worst days, I refuse to answer to Yovo. Instead, I feel a sudden urge to start yelling blue or orange or purple or some other arbitrary color at people, labels that have little to do with who we are or what we want to become.

Yet, the fact that I am a white continues to create expectations even before the start of a conversation or relationship. For me, those restrictions remain mostly benign, at worst an assumption that I have heaps of money and both an endless supply and desire to hand out gifts and / or visas. I can only imagine what it must be like to start with more sinister parameters, when everyone sees you only to immediately edge away thinking illegal immigrant or gang member or terrorist or thug. What in the world would that do to your psyche? Especially if you’re still trying to figure out for yourself who you are.

I think it gets even more complicated when you factor in historical discrepancies in the distribution of resources and capital. The world, unfortunately, is not an equal place, and many people must face a consistent limitation in the opportunities available to them. What happens when faced with those constraints? When it seems more difficult – if not impossible – to take a different path and prove all of the prejudices wrong? Would you eventually resign yourself to living in the box constructed by someone else’s designation of the lines? To unconsciously accepting those stereotypes as the realities of your world?

I’m probably getting a little too philosophical – a result of my latest string of books (The Immortal Life of Herietta Lacks, Tattoos on the Heart, and An Unseen Hope). I guess my end point is that we should strive to make skin color only part of our visual palate and less a part of our identity or how we judge. So with that, happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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