Friday, May 25, 2007


For many members of the black/African American community, complexion is often an integral part of identity. We use many different words to describe complexion, from the edible - caramel, chocolate, coffee - to the natural - mahogany, sunshine, Georgia clay - to the location on a spectrum - high yellow, light-skinned, brown-skinned - and even sometimes the offensive and intentionally hurtful. These descriptions often relate beauty and color, and color-linked standards of beauty change with time and community. So, for example, a person in NYC that might be described as being the color of coffee might also be described as being the color of dirt. The former implies a rich, strong color and the latter, an ugly, dirty color.
My best friend, who has a medium-brown complexion, and I were talking about this the other day. She mentioned that recently she's heard people describe her as being "light". This is amazing to her, because growing up she thought she was the color of charcoal. She grew up in a community where light skin was often associated with beauty, and brown skin was often referred to in less than positive terms. As a child, she would never have imagined that anyone would consider her "light". Her skin color hasn't changed, but her community and the associations with that color have.
As for me, my complexion was never anything spectacular or extraordinary. Although I was subjected to the usual slurs and compliments given to people of my complexion, there are enough people in US media with similar complexions that I was by no means isolated. In China however, my color is more unique. And not only to the Chinese, but also to many of the Africans. In fact, recently (now that summer is here and you can see the skin on more than my face) when African guys meet me for the first time, they talk endlessly about my color. They talk about it in terms of beauty and love, and it is so interesting to me. There are light skinned blacks in many African countries, and so it is not the fact that I am lighter that makes my color intriguing. Apparently, it is just my particular color that they find attractive. And all of this talk about color, although flattering, causes me to think further than the words they are expressing. Although in many communities complexion is important - every day I see Chinese women running in fear of the sun, afraid to get "black", and European women lying in the sun, trying to get "brown" - as complexion is an indicator of health, fitness, occupation or socio-economic status, I am not sure how many communities have a similar range of complexions or the sordid history related to complexion as the African diaspora. And this history, from yesterday all the way back to the time the first slave was forced to embark on the middle passage, allows me to smile and say thank you on the outside, and reason with the part of myself that is cringing on the inside.

On a similar note, this semester brought with it new students, and new students means more introductions. Now, I am 100% black American all the way back to slavery. Now, I know that this is a lie, but it is for the greater good. Let me tell you why.
A while ago, I went and ate lunch with a few of my classmates and friends. On the way back from lunch, a guy from Turkey, who is the friend of my friend MM, and I were talking, the usual introductions.
"So, where are you from?," he asks.
"America," I reply.
Completely dumbfounded, he responds "America?".
"America?," he responds quizzically.
"Yes, America. The United States of America."
"Yes, why are you so surprised?"
"Oh, usually people from America don't say America. America is what we say in Turkish."
"What do people from America usually say?"
"Ok, sometimes we say I'm from the U.S. But we also say "the States", and sometimes 'America'."
"Really, you're from America?"
"You're a citizen?"
I am annoyed. "Yeeeess. Why is that so hard for you to believe?"
"You don't look American."
"Really? What do I look like?"
"African? What about me looks 'African'?"
He is at a loss for words. He looks at the other people around us.
"You look like you and MM are from the same country."
MM is from Niger. He is tall, lanky, very dark skinned, and our eyes, noses, mouths and cheekbones are markedly different.
"MM! We look nothing alike. Absolutely nothing alike. What you really mean is that because I am black, you don't think I am American."
"No, it is just that most of MM's friends are African."
"You're Turkish."
"You look like the African girls."
At this time, there were two (of the three on campus) African girls in front of us. And now, I am completely confrontational.
"I look like them? How? Tell me how, exactly, I look like them. Because I know you are not looking closely, I will tell you that at first glance I am considerably lighter and have completely different hair. If you were just going on appearance, you wouldn't think I was from the same country as either of those girls. Why is it so hard for you to believe that I am American? There are black people in America, you know."
"Of course I know that there are black people in America, everyone knows that."
"Really. You don't seem to know."
The conversation got progressively worse after this, but I will spare you the details. It should suffice to say hat he was quite adamant that I don't look "American", and I was adamant that he had no idea what he was talking about and that not only is he ignorant, but that he was making a fool of himself. This continued until he noted that he "should stop before he gets himself in more trouble". After that, for the next two weeks, every time I saw him I said "Hello my friend who doesn't believe that there are black people in America," childish, perhaps, but absolutely hilarious.
So, why am I 100% American? Because I am TIRED of people who act like they know differnt and feel like they have the authority to question my citizenship. Because I REFUSE to feed into their stereotypes. Because I WANT THEM TO KNOW that there have been black people in America, not just the country, but the Americas, for centuries. Because there are black people that have NEVER been to Africa. Because there are black people that have NO IDEA where in African their ancestors are from. Because they would be ANGRY if anyone questioned their CITIZENSHIP or GENEALOGY, and so they have no right to question ours. And so, because I am not going to give anyone the "I was born in, my father was born in, his father was born in..." story so that they can attempt to link me back to Africa, I tell them that my family is American back to the time of the slaves. I am not ashamed of my ancestry, or my own personal history, but this is too much. Anyone who needs to know anything else already knows, and if they don't know and need to find out in the future, I'm sure they will.
A Chinese friend of mine got quite a history lesson a few nights ago, when he said to me, "I think you immigrated to America." I asked him why he thought that, and he responded, honestly, that when he watches American TV he only sees white people. So, I told him about the Middle Passage, slavery, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and current discrimination. When I was done, he said, with all sincerity, "I am so sorry to ask." I told him that he doesn't need to be sorry, it is what is done, but I am glad he asked because now he can correct his friends when they assume that all Americans are white. He even knows now that there are lots of non-white Americans, including some Chinese-Americans that immigrated over a century a ago! Each one reach one...

No comments: