After a family trip to the beach, I, and those I’m related to, have been on the receiving end of comments like this:
“You’re so tan! You’re like, black!”
How to unpack this… I could write an essay about cultural appropriation, but that would probably fall on deaf ears. I feel like I should start by confessing that I’ve taken comments like that as a compliment. After that, I suppose all I can do is tell a story from my experience and try to place it into our current reality.
I was talking to someone about race roughly a year ago, another white dude. It was mid-September, which is typically when my skin is the darkest after spending time in the summer sun, and I had just met this man. He asked me,
“What are you? You look like you might’ve been stopped by TSA once or twice.”
And it wasn’t the first time I’ve received a comment like that. I get pretty tan, and I’ve had people ask me if I was Middle Eastern or Indian before. I trusted that this guy was asking me in earnest.
I just told him frankly, “no, I’m white… Italian, but sometimes if I get a really good tan I get questions like that”
For the record, if there are any paisanos reading: Italians are white. Just need to make that claim before moving on.
I thought about it, though, and I’ve never actually been stopped by TSA because of the color of my skin. I did get stopped once, but it was because I had random Italian shit in my carry-on.
They held my bag and brought me aside.
“Sir, is there anything valuable or sharp in your bag?”
“Valuable? Yes, there’s a tray of homemade lasagna in there… and sharp? Yes again, there’s some aged provolone.”
I wish I was enough of a wise guy to make a crack like that in the moment… but nevertheless I was stopped because of the random-ass contents of my bag, not the color of my skin.
I’m a descendant of southern Italians and Sicilians. There’s a good amount of melanin in my gene pool. After enough time in the sun, my skin tone can very well get darker than some fair-skinned black people!
So what’s this about? I guess my point is that race and racism have everything and nothing to do with skin color at the same time. Today, whiteness, blackness, and brown-ness are mostly social constructs. They are rooted in skin color, but they aren’t only about skin color.
Q: How is it that I can have darker skin than some black people, but still don the privilege of being white?
A: It’s a social construct.
I don’t say that to negate the potency of race in our society. If anything I am arguing the contrary. I used to subscribe to the belief that it was only about skin color. Things like,
“Look, I’m dark too… it’s just skin color, we’re all the same on the inside.”
Claims like that discredit the reality of the fabricated social aspect. It’s paradoxical… how something based in such nonsense could still be so very real. Yet it is.
Yeah, my skin gets dark after hours in the sun, but at the end of the day, I still get to be white. People aren’t scared of me when I’m tan, they compliment me.
Just doesn’t make sense to me that being dark is good and desirable for a white person, but being dark is to be feared when the person is black.
What pisses me off is my ignorance of that for quite some time. Now that I’m conscious of it, I’m confused and pretty angry…. And processing that is an ongoing work in progress.
I’ve found that part of that processing is talking about the subtle things that go unspoken. Here’s a perfect example of a subtlety I’d like to rat myself out for… whenever fielding a question like “Are you from India?” or “Are you Middle Eastern?” I’d always feel a tinge of anger. Not enough to lash out, but enough to feel the need to politely correct the person asking.
But when on the receiving end of “You look black!” I’d kind of just smile and take it as a compliment. What the hell is that about? I’m still digging into why I behave in that manner, and that’s where I’m at in my process right now.
I’m grateful for the privileges my whiteness has provided, and I’m proud of my Italian heritage. I enjoy being able to spend time in the sun without burning.
What I’m guilty of is the fact that I’ve been taking that all for granted and squandering it. That’s what I’m committed to changing.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You.
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Photo credit: Michael Fundaro