Sunday, May 15, 2011

Colour-free skin? (Celebrate all pigments!)

I know we call Caucasian people 'white', but that's not accurate. Unless we're talking about albinos, who are very pale, but not exactly devoid of all pigment, human beings of Caucasian origin come in a wide range of epidermis colours. Beige, cream, sand or apricot might be more fitting descriptors. So who are we to exclude ourselves from the term 'coloured'? 'Coloured' skin should be a meaningless signification because it accurately describes every single person on earth.

It is telling that the term has more currency in the States than it does in Australia, where there are more non-Caucasian people everywhere. And that there is even a prominent institution called 'NAACP' - National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

'Coloured' implies 'whites' are 'race-free'. They are the race (to be) (read: triumphant, superior) from which all others are different. They are the culturally, economically and politically dominant peoples, and though it is socially acceptable to mean well, it's also socially acceptable to be discriminatory against non-Caucasians deep inside. They don't make it a point to interact with the 'other', so they remain unaware of how deeply they could connect - a connection that would make superficial differences count for very little. I find that Caucasian people simply don't know enough about other races to realise that they are being racially discriminatory.

So, please let's stop using the word 'coloured' to make generalisations about race...

I have a narrative fragment or two to share about my experience of being Slavic in Sydney... I don't know many other Bulgarians in this town; I don't even know many other dark-haired Europeans, but the Greek and Italian communities in Australia are voluble and so (I believe it was while reading 'Looking for Alibrandi') I discovered the pejorative 'wog' (for Southern Europeans or people who look like them) in high school. Thankfully I had never been called that, so I dismissed it as a term exposing prejudice, and forgot all about it.

From time to time, I have heard of people using or reacting to the term 'wog' again, mostly through the internet. I became aware that some people affected actually used the term themselves, to 'reclaim' it, as has been done with 'queer', or more recently, with 'slut' (see the SlutWalk movement). Then, one week, I heard the word out loud twice, and once it was directed at me! I was walking up Bondi Beach at the end of a walk with my mum, when a old man who was clearly mentally unstable came up to me and simpered something to the effect of 'f--- off, wog'. I walked briskly away and the man started harassing a group of diners nearby, leaving me alone. I had never experienced this type of ethnicity-based discrimination before and it put me in a despondent mood, with a bit of anger thrown in. 

I remembered the stories I had listened to with surprise in a park, as my Asian school friends shared story after story of not being accepted by Caucasian Australians. "Where are you really from?" was the most often unintentionally racist comment, when they responded they were Australian to severely misguided strangers. I hadn't been aware of that kind of racism before, but now I could count myself as one of the many people who had experienced negative discrimination due to my background.

But I haven't let it get me down. I believe things are getting better all the time. People of my generation often travel frequently, and as the years grow by, their chances of getting better acquainted with people of a different background increase exponentially. I know that I, too, have benefited tremendously from my travels, and my willingness to ask questions that lead me to get closer to people my parents might not approve of me getting closer to.

And so it goes... let's open our minds as far as we can, because that produces the most effective look.

I say, dispense with the 'skin lightening' creams and lotions. I say, stop trying to look more tan. I say, being a native African doesn't make you more potent than another race. I say, explore beyond the racial boundaries you were brought up to respect. Disrespect the nay-sayers. Battle against the frowns with a sweet, sweet, smile. Don't accept randomly trust everyone you meet, but be open to everyone being someone amazing that you can learn from in some way. Even if a person of a different race acts in a way that doesn't resonate with your values, make a point to inspect exactly what it is you don't like. Culture is not the same thing as race. They are, as an empiricist might say, 'negatively correlated'.

I have really enjoyed challenging my perceptions of race through the many courageous and charming people who have mobilised themselves to cast ripples all around the multiple communities they influence, communities which themselves shift and rearrange in every moment.

It is a beautiful thing to have a skin that you can press to that of someone else. Don't let your kisses be reserved only for people who approximately share your pigment. Spread your love far and wide (says she, who hasn't had a partner for two years). :)

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