A Different Experience

In one of the first conversations I had with a friend about the experience of being darkly pigmented in America, he helped me see how easy it is for white (my words) people to spend time in the presence of other white people. Since that conversation, I have seen that theme recur. I had never thought about it, but I realized I have almost never been anywhere I was the only white person.

Before coming abroad, the few times I have been part of a significant minority of white people, I was acutely aware of it. I am not saying that I felt threatened or nervous, just aware. Actually, I remember 2 times: one was a birthday party for my friend, his extended family was there and he had invited our mutual group of friends (about 15 of us); the other time my friends Greg and Jerrod took me to Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles for an amazing soul food dinner.

The birthday party sticks out in my mind because it was my first exposure to his communities’ culture. They sang a different birthday song than I knew, ate foods I had not eaten before, listened to music and did line dances I was unfamiliar with, and they taught me a card game named ‘bid whist’ I had never played (and I Love card games!). I am too ignorant to tell you where their cultural rituals came from, but I am no longer so ignorant to automatically label them with a stereotype or generality simply because they had a darker skin pigment than me.

In middle-class America, there are few places I know of where I could find depigmented (white) people to be a significant minority. In contrast, this experience is commonly encountered multiple times per day by many people with black or brown skin pigment: in school classrooms, at restaurants, middle-class jobs, suburban towns, rural towns, bars, Chicago neighborhoods, and on the train.

Not only is it common for people with dark skin pigment to have this experience, it is common for them to be reacted to negatively on the grounds of skin pigment (head back to Part 2: Slightly more Scrutinized for more). Since the 1980’s, the War on Drugs was indelibly anchored to a media campaign that furthered negative stereotypes in America. As discussed in countless books such as The New Jim Crow and Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color, the war on drugs entered our subconscious and created a stereotype of the violent, crack-addled criminal without ever using overtly racist verbiage or sentiments. 

The same war, coupled with politicians' relentless pursuit of electability, created the mold for the single mother living as a Welfare Queen. For clarity, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) is the name of the federal food stamps program. Many of us don’t even know that “TANF imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, as well as a permanent, lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense – including simple possession of marijuana” (The New Jim Crow, 2010, p57). The more I have read, the more I have come to recognize the dizzying amount of confusion, disinformation, ignorance, and deception that have surrounded these issues for far too long.

"Crackhead" and "Welfare Queen" are just 2 of the overt examples of stereotyping based on dark skin pigment in our recent history. I think Nina Jablonski nails the issue when she writes:

Most of the information we receive today is from indirect reports and is not value neutral. Consider how we are affected by the many images of “attractive,” “famous,” “poor,” “affluent,” “homeless,” or other variously described people from around the world that are electronically captured and propagated globally by the media, cell phone, social media, and advertising. The narratives that accompany these images are rarely simple descriptions: they tend to cast the attributes of a person in a positive or negative light. This highly dynamic and ever-growing reservoir of visual imagery affects how people translate perceptions of appearance into judgment. From these processes they develop preferences, aversions, and personal aspirations of appearance, without conscious thought. (Living Color, 2012, loc1683 ).

The problems in our society are significant and complex, and this post doesn’t even scratch the surface. I hope these posts are, at the very least, helping you understand a perspective I likely couldn’t have seen without coming half-way across the world. 

Bryan Stevenson wrote an accessible, fascinating, and yet somewhat upsetting book about being a death row lawyer in the south,  Just Mercy. In it he states, “We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation” (2014, p18). 

Social justice advocates from all disciplines are coming to understand the problems, support their suppositions with research, develop strategies for improvement, and learn to communicate all of this to the public. We are a country in crisis, and my hope is that soon we can come together as a unified community, respecting and embracing our differences, as we work to undo the injustices ingrained in all aspects of our society.

Subscribe Now