DionRabouin.com (sort of)

The Color of your skin don’t matter to me…

Posted in Essays by dionrabouin on January 10, 2009

The idea of the individual doesn’t exist in greater American society. In our society everyone is something and that something affects how we view them and what we believe they’re capable of. The color of our skin is such a strange thing. It’s something that defines and explains and can also modify us.

It’s not just about black and white; it seems like every skin color comes with an expected set of behaviors and ideas. Whether it’s something as simple as being more afraid of a black man than a white man of the same size, or expecting more of a Korean student than an Arabic student with the same educational background, there’s something instinctive and undeniable about having expectations about people based on the color of their skin. And when someone defies this set of standard issue ideas they become an anomaly and we feel the need to modify what we thought of them, in contrast to their skin color instead of changing what we believe about the skin color.

The color of our skin is really so scientifically minute it’s almost nonexistent. The difference between a black man and a white woman or a Mexican man and a Chinese woman, atomically speaking, is really microscopic. It’s all just an excess or shortage of melanin, when you really think about it. Yet our skin color represents who we are and where we come from. It represents our homeland and our ancestors and tells a story of the struggle our people have endured. Whether your skin is pale with freckles because your ancestors emigrated from Ireland, or it’s a deep coffee brown because you’re a descendent of the ancient Inca warriors, it tells a story.

Our skin delineates and subjugates us, yet it also has the power to bring us together. A person’s skin color can identify them immediately and subconsciously as a brother or an adversary. It’s something we use to judge each other, to decide where someone’s from or where they’re headed.

The color of our skin sets standards for our behavior and expectations for our deeds. It can solidify who we are or provoke questions about our authenticity.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. For the book Griffin ostensibly dyed his skin brown and jaunted around the South in a manner no different than usual. The book was an account of his day-to-day activities. Griffin found that people treated him as if he were black, despite the fact that he still had the same “white” features he was born with.

Our skin color will always define us. This is not to say that we are limited in what we can do with our lives because of it, but that the success or failure we have will always be accompanied by it.

I’ll always remember the first time I was defined and judged because of my skin color. It wasn’t really the first time, now that I look back on my life, but this time sticks out because it was the first time my skin color really became palpable. My mother and I had moved from Denver, CO, my home, sweet, home to the dark fortress of melancholy that was Topeka, KS, and from there to Fort Worth, TX. It was in the South – or the pseudo South at least – that I first had to deal with the fact that I was black.

I had to deal with being black in the sense that for the first time in my life being black meant something. It meant a dress code and a lifestyle code and a code of ethics and a code of who your friends were and who your friends weren’t. Being black meant that your white friends weren’t your friends, they were your “white friends.”

Back in Denver I’d lived around black people, in a black neighborhood, where I had black friends and black neighbors. I went to a white school with white classmates and white teachers, but none of that ever dawned on me before. In Denver, my friends from school were just my friends from school and my friends from the neighborhood were just my friends from the neighborhood. I never saw them as being distinct and exclusive.

In Kansas the only people around were white, which was fine with me because it meant that I just had more of my school friends to hang out with. Sure it was God awful living in Topeka (or Topuka as we often called it), but not because of polarizing racial tension or any sort of isolating racial ideology leveled at me by my classmates. I hated it because there was nothing to do, there was nowhere to go and the people, like the place, were just so boring. I didn’t really get along with people at my new school but I never chalked it up to race.

When we moved to Fort Worth, I thanked God himself even though I wasn’t a religious young man. I never even thought about it being the South or that I might not fit in because I was a Northerner or that I might be overwhelmed by the racist ideologies of a group of people who live every day as if the Civil War just ended, I was just glad to be out of Kansas.

When we first moved to Fort Worth, I had just recently become aware of my blackness. My mother had reproached me on a couple of occasions about not hanging out with enough black kids and not being interested in the black girls she introduced me to. Truth be told there were only about 100 of us black folks in all of Topeka and who was she to force friends of any race down my throat.

In Kansas, like in Denver, there was never racial conflict, at least none that I was aware of. In Kansas, no one ever talked about “the blacks” or “the Mexicans” or problems with anybody because of their race.

On the very first week of school in Fort Worth my homeroom teacher – this homeroom thing was a new concept to me at the time – motioned for me to come to his desk. I was new in school and didn’t know anybody, which was unusual in eighth grade, when most everybody had formed their own cliques. My teacher – Mr. Meredith Philips, I’ll never forget the name – brought me to his desk and asked me what I thought of the Confederate flag that waved proudly on the corner of his desk. I shrugged my shoulders.

The confederate flag wasn’t something that mattered to anyone I’d ever known, in fact the first time I ever even found out what the Confederate flag was had been the year before in my friend Cody’s basement.
“Blacks and Hispanics seem to think the Dixie flag is all about slavery and inequality,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s not.”
“OK,” I responded, a little unsure of what this was all about.
“You can go back to your seat now,” he said.

And that was it.

Mr. Phillips hated me for the rest of the year. I can’t think of a single thing I ever did or said or didn’t do or say that could possibly have made him upset with me, but he was. I concluded, after the incessant assertions of my (white) friends that Mr. Phillips simply didn’t like me because I was black. It was a sensible conclusion, considering I was the only black person in our class and that I was pretty much the only person he hated. And I really hadn’t done anything to piss him off.

I couldn’t understand why he hated me for being black. The thought that someone could actually dislike another person simply because of their skin color was new to me in reality. In theory, I was certainly familiar with the idea. I’d watched enough television and had enough sit-downs with old folks to know that racism existed, but I’d never actually seen it exhibited.

But I took solace in the fact that I could just write Mr. Phillips off as an aberration. He was just a sour, old, racist man who was retiring at the end of the year. What I couldn’t write off were the people around me. It seemed like the closer they got to me the more open about race they were. One night I remember my friend Trent and I invited a couple girls over to his place to hang out. After they’d left I mentioned off-handedly that I thought one of the girls was kinda cute. Of course, being the eighth grade playboys that we were we decided he would call her and I would listen in. They spoke for a little while. Did she have a good time? Would she be interested in coming by again? The usual drivel that leads up to a question of the magnitude that he was going to ask, and then he asked it: “So, what do you think about Dion?”
“He’s alright,” was her response.
“Well, do you think he’s cute?” he asked and our eyes locked, the way 14-year-old boys eyes do in this very delicate situation.
“Well…I dunno,” she stammered. “I mean, he’s…black.”

And there it was.

It didn’t hurt that she’d rejected me purely and solely because I was black. What really put that hackneyed old hole in my soul was that Trent was OK with it. My best friend, with whom I’d shared so much of myself, didn’t think anything of this girl’s blatant racism. In Denver we would have dismissed her and disavowed any knowledge of ever having spoken to her. We would have told everyone in school exactly what she’d said and no one would ever so much as look at her with a kind eye without fear of being an associated racist, but here it was just peachy.

It was after taking a good, long look at that situation I realized my friends – my white friends – didn’t just see me as a person, they saw me as a black person and that the jokes they made, they didn’t make about me because we were buddies, they made because they thought less of me. It was then that I realized what it meant to be black.

Living in Fort Worth, TX, changed my entire perspective on the world. I came to the conclusion that most everyone in the world thought about skin color and race the way people in Fort Worth did, but everyone else just kept it to themselves. I started thinking back on the time I’d spent in Kansas and certain experiences that I’d written off as nothing and started wondering if really they were something. Had I been judged all my life based on the color of my skin? If everyone was as honest about their feelings on people’s skin color as Mr. Phillips had been would the world be a better place or would it be worse? Would this sort of unremitting candor help people overcome their pre-conceived notions about skin color or further reinforce them?

These questions and others like them ran through my head for days – if not weeks or years – and eventually I came to the conclusion that the color of our skin does make us who we are.

Two people from identical surroundings, with identical home lives and identical educations but happen to have different skin colors will inevitably grow up to be two distinctly dissimilar people. Not because of how they see themselves, but because of the way they’re viewed by the whole of society. It is society and our response to that society that socializes us and ultimately makes us into the people we become. Because society puts such great importance on the color of a person’s skin, that very trait, however molecularly inconsequential, will shape, mold and change that person for the rest of their lives. And so it is that skin color does define, divide and detach us, and sadly there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

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