Skin color & the power of words
This time last week, I was anxious about posting my blog, “Our baby is going to experience racism someday.”
In addition to being deeply personal, it used a word I hate hearing, seeing or knowing exists. I used the word in quotation, but actually using it myself—within or outside of quotation—made me feel ashamed.
“I’ve been called a ‘nigger.’ Lots of times.”
I didn’t use the word lightly. Indeed, by the time I opened the question of its use to a small group of friends, I’d already discussed the matter at length with my honey (whose Yale degree is in American Studies, and who assessed my questions both personally and academically) and a friend whose vocal opposition to the word in any context meant I was surprised when he agreed I should use it as quoted.
In the end, something I agonized over received exactly zero comments. None.
I’m glad I used the word as spoken. I believe that using a euphemism such as “n-bomb” would have detracted from the shock of being confronted with hateful use of that hateful word today.
Despite the total lack of reader reaction to its use, I’m glad I agonized over it. It’s a word full of hate, and hateful history, and thus not one I feel should be used lightly.
By contrast, use of the words “black,” “brown” and “white” don’t faze me.
Anymore, that is.
They did four years ago.
I clearly recall Ba.D. asking me to describe one of my neighbors, in case he encountered the neighbor later. I faltered after I threw out a few descriptive words. Should I mention his skin at all? Despite nervousness about doing so, I added, “Also, he had gorgeous latte-colored skin.”
“Thank you!” Ba.D. boomed victoriously. “Thank you for saying that!”
“Um?” I faltered. I didn’t know what response I’d expected, but that wasn’t it.
“Thank you for describing his skin color! You wouldn’t hesitate to say someone was ‘blond,’ or ‘short,’ right? So why withhold a piece of descriptive information that distinguishes one person from another? If you’ve got two short-haired guys wearing tweed and glasses standing side-by-side, does it really make more sense to start describing shoe color before skin color?”
My memory’s not good enough to recall what Ba.D. said to me about our weekend plans this morning, so you have my 100% guarantee the above quote isn’t verbatim. Yet this was its content, and it’s been content that’s impossible to forget. It’s been the subject of a lot of discussion and consideration since, and marked a turning point in how I thought about descriptions of skin color. As I wrote here last April:
Help [your kids] see, as you do, that color is descriptive, not determinative, guiding them not to be “color blind”–impossible for the categories kids sort the world into–but instead to be color impervious.
In the four years since I had the above conversation with Ba.D., hyperawareness of loose color-based descriptors and an aversion to their use has come to feel to me like another barrier between people. Touching, in passing, upon a superficial distinction between two people and giving it neither further thought nor weight emphasizes that it is merely that: a superficial distinction. Pretending there is no difference whatsoever, by contrast, serves only to emphasize the “white elephant” in the room about which we’re unwilling to speak, and thus perpetuate the idea that something is so important and so divisive that it must never be discussed. This is the heart of fear.
I don’t believe we’re defined by our skin, or that skin color provides any useful information whatsoever about a person’s heart, soul or proclivities. The only thing it tells me, in very broad strokes, is roughly how much melanin a person has.
In other words, it tells me very, very little.
In practical terms, it tells me just enough to let someone know, with one added, neutrally spoken word, to precisely which short-haired, tweed- and glasses-wearing dude I’m referring.
Using these words isn’t a problem to me anymore. It’s active avoidance of them that makes me uncomfortable now, reflecting as it seems to a conscious effort to not see something that is absolutely seen, and thus leading to questions not about what we see but about why we feel we must see it differently.
It’s not what we see that’s the problem. It’s what we ascribe to it.
So I’ll use those descriptors, and listen to the ones others use, or don’t. What I won’t use—without great care, consideration and a context that benefits by invoking them—are words like “the n-bomb,” which are by their very creation and use meant to describe not only a facet of someone’s appearance but imply unkindly (and incorrectly) who they are beneath their skin.
Words are powerful. This is true not only of the ones we use, but of the ones we avoid at all costs.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
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