Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V052-08_whiteadswThree posters in shop windows in a mall in Hong Kong. Getting white is a big business in Hong Kong, and products abound to get that bleached look. Laneige is supposed to produce that “Snow White” appearance. These three shops, where shop assistants are often chosen for their whiteness, are within thirty meters of one another. One almost feels the melanin being sucked from your epidermis just walking past them.

Although it was many years ago, an incident in my classroom still remains fresh in my mind. A young African-American student was in my class in Urban Government. During a class discussion there was a difference of opinion on urban finance between him and an Anglo student. When I addressed the African-American’s opinion he dismissed my words by saying that I was looking at the question “through the eyes of a White man.”   I replied that that my remarks were about economics per se and asked him for the “racial” inference in what I said.   He basically replied I would not understand, because I was White.”

After class he came to me and said he wanted to drop the class. When I asked why, he implied that because of what he said I would not give him a good grade. I said I would give him what he earned, as I did with every student, but he was un-deterred. I didn’t like the implication that I was a racist, but I signed his drop card for him. But I also told him that he needed to deal with his racist attitude. He turned from leaving and said, as I suspected he might, “what,” my racist attitude. I also suspected he hadn’t heard that applied to him before.

“Yes,” I said, “your racist attitude is going to ruin your education.” He looked somewhere between astonishment and proficide. Before he could respond I added, “You must realize that you are playing right into the hands of true White racists when you say that people cannot see things the same way who are from different races. That’s exactly what the racists say, and why they oppose integration.”

He turned and left without saying another word, either believing sill that the White guy didn’t get it because he was White, or maybe I had given him something to think about. I wanted to have a conversation about what things are influenced by our sub-cultures, but also those things, the many of them, that transcend our color and culture. I wanted to tell him that two bucks plus two bucks equals four bucks whatever color you are. Yes, four bucks might mean more to a Black guy who is poorer, but the math is the math. But I never encountered him again.

I don’t define myself as “White.” To the extent that I care at all about human chromatics I color myself as a “swarthy” guy. Racially, I’m not from the Caucuses, I’m from Swarthia, that place of tawny-tone in which most of the world falls, and the rest is, by interbreeding, inclined. So, someday we will arrive at a point where bigots will have to find some other reason to act superior to people shaded diffrerently than themselves. However, members of the American White People’s Party and the KKK will continue to breed exclusively with their sisters to ensure the continuance of both whiteness and double-digit IQs.

These thoughts are inspired by the fact that America might have its first president who is at least (though hardly mentioned) half African American—a century and a half after we had to fight a war to just allow African-Americans freedom from slavery. But racial prejudice is not a de jure matter; it lurks in the mental recesses just above red necks and below blue perms and in the wink-wink, nudge-nudge universe where exclusion and inferiority complexes find snide and sneaky comfort.

I frankly don’t get what the hang-up with whiteness is all about. It is not restricted to American bigots. As the above ads (and these three are just a sample) indicate, Asian women must be obsessed with getting any color at all out of their skin. Star actresses, newsreaders and, naturally, the women in television commercials and print ads for whitening creams, are so white (or photographically bleached) that only eyes, lips and an occasional nostril appear against a blindingly-blanched background. Indian woman seem no less obsessed. Check out a Bollywood film and the lead actress will be several tones lighter than any women you might encounter on the streets of Mumbai or Delhi. And, as if to hammer the point home, the villains in these films are quite dark-skinned.

The female obsession with epidermal whiteness may owe something to association with social class. Numerous statues of couples in ancient Egypt, for example, show females with very white skin, contrasting with their husbands’ brown skin. This is sometimes misinterpreted at evidence of racial intermarriage between women from Lower Egypt and men from Upper Egypt (Nubia); but it reflects that high class women did not have to work (if at all) out of doors, where their skin would become darkened, whereas men were expected to do (manly) out of door activities like overseeing the fields, hunting and such, hence their brown skin. The “trophy wife” thing apparently started early in human experience.

Speaking of which: it must rankle white racists when they hear paleontological theories like “the out of Africa” thesis that humans originated in south-east Africa, and where re-creations of hominids and early man are dark-skinned (of course, they were out of doors all the time). This would imply that we are all descended from the same source, a double-whammy for the racist who also happens to be a Christian Fundamentalist with a literal belief in Genesis.

Being (sort of) White has both advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that one is confined to the experience one’s color dictates. I was, for example, surprised to observe how surprised that African-Americans were that Barrak Obama got as far politically as he has. Their surprise was far greater than mine because I had come to assume that there was more integration and interracial acceptance than apparently there has been. Moreover, what also surprised me was that it seems a higher percentage of African-Americans mentioned their concern for the “safety” of Obama should he become president.

This leads to the worry that a substantial number of Americans might just not be able to see past Senator Obama’s skin color (even slightly modified by his having a White mother). Judging by the enthusiasm shown for his candidacy by foreigners, including nearly a quarter million (white) Germans at his appearance in Berlin, there appears to be more racial maturity in Western Europe (although tolerance does not extend to ethnic and religious differences). Americans are still hung up to the extent that a mixed-raced man, highly-educated at the best schools, who has done community work as well as university teaching, who is a Christian (that’s right, he’s not a Muslim), is still married to his first (and only) intelligent and eloquent wife, and has two delightful children, cannot be accepted by many Americans because, although he has,they just can’t get past his skin.

This is a shameful and appalling fact of American life, until one reflects that we had legal enslavement of other human beings just 143 years ago—and, it took a war to end it. Still, slavery is something that can be dealt with de jure; racism is another matter.

So, I ask myself is that the reason for my discomfort with being called “White?”   Partly, because our history of slavery and racism in America is a constant reminder of what is not great about my country. But, being a “Whitey” is also a reminder that racism goes many ways. Some African-Americans posed the question of whether Barrak Obama was “Black enough”; is this some perverse twist of the notion of “uppityness” that has been suggested about Obama because of his eloquence and confident demeanor?
  First and foremost we are all human.

We deserve neither credit nor blame for what race we were born. It is what we make of the racial hand (and what goes with it) that we are dealt—and the respect we accord other to do the same—that determines, for me, how we should judge people. Skin color is an accident of birth derived from a long evolutionary heritage that includes us all. (Or, it’s some divine joke or test, or just a diversion, if you are inclined to metaphysical explanations. See also, DCJ Archives, 27. 4: Swarthy Guy in a Polychrome World 12.20.2005.)

It is because of that student from long ago that I resist being called “White.” He didn’t know it but he was prejudging me. Moreover, he was unwittingly acting in a racist manner by implying I was racially incapable of seeing things his through is African-American eyes. Had I turned around and said, “You should not be in a class taught by a White man because you are incapable of seeing things in the White way,” he would have had a just case of racial discrimination against me.

There is far more we can see the same way—as fellow humans—than there is that is inflected with sub-cultural differences that come from racial differences. We can’t change race, but we can change the culture. It will take open and facile minds to lead us further in the direction that the candidacy of Barrak Obama has lead us. In fact, I hope Barak Obama’s mind is just such a mind.
© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.27.2008)