Dear Lily June,
The mother in me takes so much pride in you.
We’re currently working on colors. “Geen” I heard you say once as I beamed. More often, “boo.”
The other day, as I was watching you on campus while your dad had a work meeting, a coworker pointed to your autumn jacket. “What color is your coat?” she inquired, waiting a beat for your toddler brain to furiously compute. When you didn’t venture a guess, she proffered, “Pink?”
“Pink!” you shouted back, as if the answer had been yours all along. The coworker and I clapped. “Pink! pink! pink!” you kept on mumbling excitedly that morning, long after the coworker had walked away.
I was proud of you for repeating a word I know you’ve rarely heard, even if you don’t (quite yet) grasp what it really means. Later, I labeled other things I saw by color for you: orange ball, black coat, white clock, purple chair. This is how the sighted come to understand the world, Lily June: in its simplest terms, by what we see, by how we can categorize and divide, this thing here, that thing there.
It is a deeply troubling and highly limited way to live. But it is how we’re taught.
The scientist in me says skin color is genetic, the result of varying amounts of particular varieties of a chemical called melanin. So simple.
You take a transparent glass, and you fill it with milk. Or, you take the same transparent glass, and you fill it, instead, with soda. In the first scenario, the glass appears to be cream in color. In the second scenario, the glass appears to be brown. But nothing, nothing whatsoever in the fundamental nature of the glass and what it can do has changed.
The glass is still a container. The glass is still a shell.
The glass is still so easily broken.
The glass metaphor is still deeply troubling and highly limited. But I have no idea how to teach this to you.
The human in me pulls from memory.
In high school, I dated a guy (Brett) who wore punk jean jackets with hand-stitched patches all over them. (Yes, he sewed them himself.) By and large, they were band names I’ve lost, but there’s one patch I can’t forget. It was of a stick figure tossing a swastika in the garbage, with the lines “Keep Your Country Nice and Clean.”
Punk is, by and large, angry white guy music. (So simple.)
While there’s nothing that predisposes those with more or less pheomelanin or eumelanin to be drawn to particular types of music, a scan of the crowds at most of the concerts will reveal a lot of shaved heads, the color scalps of which appear more pink and cream than any other color. Brett himself frequently shaved his head, and this patch, I think, was his way of publicly announcing to the world that he wasn’t a skinhead, that he didn’t agree with the Nazi-punk scene, that he didn’t want to see the world separated into colors so easily.
He also introduced me to the song “Don’t Call Me White” by NOFX. It’s juvenile and privileged as hell, but also passionate and earnest in its plea that the singer not just be written off as one of “those” white guys, rejecting the hegemony of homogeny if you want it in ten-cent words. Or you can put it as simplistically as the singer does:
“Don’t call me white, don’t call me white / Represents everything I hate / The soap shoved in the mouth to cleanse the mind / The vast majority of sheep / A buttoned collar, starched and bleached /… / Don’t call me white.”
While I’m not a big fan of stereotyping in any direction, I echo the shame of guilt by association. I don’t want to be seen as “white” either, not in a culture or country where white seems to equal oppressor.
But I can’t take off my skin color like a coat. It doesn’t work like that. For anybody.
The historian in me traces our ancestry.
You’ll find on your father’s side, links to the Cherokee nation; on your mother’s side, the Blackfeet. Or at least this is what we’ve been told by our family members, as though the potential European rape of indigenous mothers makes us all family. In fact, you’ll find a lot of white people cling to fantasy Native roots because they want to believe they belong here in America, that they have both the power of the colonizer and the righteousness of the oppressed group.
I want to tell you that under the skin, it doesn’t matter: Everyone’s organs are pink (pink! pink! pink!). We all bleed red. We all have the same frailties.
But that’s privilege talking, Lily June, and it’s not entirely true. On the level of culture? Identity does matter. It calls into question the difference between celebration and appropriation, maybe even full-on exploitation. With no proof, our family members’ claims mean little to our day-to-day reality. I found myself thinking–as I read a Native woman blogger’s story of navigating the waters between reclaiming a symbol of oppression (Tiger Lily) and not reigniting the fires of exploitation–that there is no easy way to live for anyone, though obviously, certain struggles are harder for some than others.
Actually, let’s call a spade a spade, Lily June: We all bleed red, yes, but some groups (especially whites) have made other groups (especially non-whites) bleed more than others. And even the reclamation of harmful symbols or words is a burden not imposed on everyone equally, certainly not those who created the symbols in the first place or fired the derogatory words at others voluntarily. As a white person, I feel like I both inherit history I don’t want and have few cultural heroes I can take pride in.
And yet, the world is presented to me like a culture buffet that I can pick and choose my interests from. Be all about that bass, Meghan Trainor sings, even while un-self-consciously employing people of color as ornamental back up dancers. Paint with all the colors of the wind, suggests an anglicized Pocahontas created by the legacy animation studio of a white, possibly racist, possibly anti-Semitic Walt Disney. The world is presented to me like I own everyone else’s oysters.
But it gets worse.
For the scholar in me, that nagging feeling–that I have no authentic, acceptable culture–came back in reading contemporary poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ academic essay, “Blues for Tar Baby: The Problem of Contemporary Black Hip Hop Poetry.” In the piece, amongst other things, she traces how the blues and jazz paved the way for hip hop to enter into contemporary African American vernacular poetry. She talks about the uneasy alliance of genres, especially in how women are treated (or discounted).
I found myself wondering–in admiration of both Misty Ellingburg’s and Honorée Jeffers’ assessments of their own cultures’ problematics–what am I supposed to claim and analyze of my own? Am I Wendy Darling’s little sister (or would I even want to be?), the daughter of John Wayne, purveyor of Howdy Doody? Am I kith to Ronald McDonald, kin to Wendy’s Wendy? When it comes to music’s influence in poetry, do I lay claim to the rock and roll or country music of my country (from Elvis Prestley to Keith Urban), which I know historically was appropriated and warped from other cultures’ music first (and which I don’t, just personally, happen to even like)?
For what it’s worth, no one on either your dad’s nor my sides of extended family claim links to African-American ancestry (which shows a troubling divide under the surface, where Caucasian families might believe some cultures are okay to claim and/or even fetishize, where with others, the supposed historical “one-drop rule” still, horrifically, applies).
We have poor Irish and poor Polish immigrants in our pasts, respectively. We have been exploited as Northern factory workers and as Southern sharecroppers.
Once, my grandmother told my mother, after tracing the trail on Ancestry.com, the fact that sits in my stomach like a stone whenever I think about race and my identity. We have links, Lily June, to slave owners. How anyone in America feels a sense of nationalistic white pride is beyond me. I am ashamed of so many actions, including slavery, associated with others who share my amount of melanin in America and globally. I find “white power” both pitifully weak and personally nauseating.
The mentally ill me makes unfair associations.
When asked (even by myself), I say (even in my mind), I am Polish, an ancestry which means next to nothing to me. I can (likely mis-)pronounce Do widzenia. I have eaten pierogi. That is the extent of a history I otherwise know nothing about.
But I cry like someone has taken a melon-baller to my insides whenever I watch a Holocaust film. Early in our relationship, your father and I watched a screening of Life is Beautiful for a grad class we were in together. I spent the next several hours ugly crying, gasping to restore oxygen to my lungs. I was so extreme about it, I thought he was going to leave me, but he didn’t.
Years later, not realizing its subject matter, your father bought me The Reader, and even that movie caused me to spend days in an existential crisis, losing my faith in humanity. I can’t so much as catch a History channel documentary on the guns of World War II without sinking into a breathless despair. Millions of Polish citizens (both Jewish and non-) were “exterminated,” murdered during the Holocaust. Do I inherit my grief? Is there some particular pain locked into a past life? Is it written in my genetic code?
To see me react, anyone might think I am a freak. But here’s the thing: I don’t understand how anyone doesn’t break down, viscerally, near screaming anytime they think of that terrifying genocide. And that the current President-elect of the United States has been compared, almost ubiquitously, with Hitler? It’s almost more than I can take. And I have no right, no right, I know it, to my despair. Just as I have no right to grieve the ignominious cruelties of my peoples’ past–what we’ve taken and continue to take from indigenous tribes; what we’ve taken and continue to take from all POC.
I don’t want consolation, Lily June, for the guilt of being white. But I don’t know where to put it. And I don’t know what to do with it. It’s there, as surely as my skin coat. I can’t take it off or dispose of it.
The poet in me turns to art and music and metaphor.
I understand why other white people claim to be colorblind, to not see other races. I understand the impetus to proclaim “I am above this” just as surely as I always break down weeping in response to Adam Duritz’s song, “Colorblind”:
“I am colorblind. / Coffee black and egg white. / Pull me out from inside…”
The song, which may or may not have anything to do with race, does have to do with the frailty of humanity. It is about how vulnerable we all are, even if just on the level of the body, of the heart:
“I am covered in skin. / No one gets to come in.”
The poet in me thinks the metaphor of skin coats is horrifyingly accurate, and it’s one I think of every time I hear that line in the song.
Imagine, Lily June, a zipper over your chest you could pull down, baring all of your bones and organs to the wind–the sameness you carry inside you like everyone else’s. Imagine the pain you might feel as that wind rushed into you, the chance of infection as all of your vital organs were exposed. You would be so damn vulnerable, you wouldn’t be able to live. You would freeze or burn or melt or break.
That’s what we’re all made of. The skin is the body’s largest organ, a pitiful armor offering differing degrees of protection from the death that will eventually catch up to all of us. Why are we so caught up by its color?
The introvert in me tries talking.
I have started a group on my campus to talk about discrimination of all kinds, make actionable plans for reducing the hate crimes already occurring in my state, plans to paint away swastikas, ways to address the ways we see color. An introvert, I have invited the people I regularly talk to in my very small world in a generally white community. Out of a dozen or so I asked, only two are black women, only one of which took up my invitation. I am honored and terrified that she will be there, afraid of putting her on the spot to educate the poor, misinformed, privileged whites.
She doesn’t deserve to have that obligation thrust upon her based on her color. She is a person, not a token. But in some ways, I confess, even if it won’t be her, I need a human teacher because I need to know how to teach you to be better.
It occurs to me that between you and I, Lily June, I am sometimes more like a child, just opening my eyes and learning a new language, a new way of seeing the colors again after I’ve claimed for so long they weren’t there, they weren’t really real to me.
In a restaurant the other day, I found myself scanning the scene nervously, assessing whether the people of all colors all around me might be in any danger. I’ve been wearing a safety pin in my mind lately. I’ve been waiting for the moment to step up, be of service, diffuse a situation, refuse to allow escalation. I was so on edge at just the thought of preventing danger, I snapped at our white waitress when she delivered the wrong order, something I never do. Then, I broke down crying at our table when I apologized to her, and she comforted me. Seriously.
Your mother is crazy.
But this isn’t about me.
It’s about you, Lily June, the little girl who ran up to all the strangers in that restaurant waiting area equally because you were bored and the food wasn’t ready. It’s about how you told my white colleague “pink,” but when my black colleague came up to you, you offered her the word “ball” because you like to share whatever you are currently holding with whomever might be near you. It’s about how you don’t know, yet, that colors are something we apply to people and not just to things.
Someday, Lily June, you’re going to learn that you’re white and that others are not. Even if I never say so explicitly, society will teach you things I’d rather you never learn. I want to scream that race doesn’t matter, to not let discrimination or hate color your perceptions, but that would be seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses that do not exist. In the real world, your race will matter.
It will matter that you might be able to ignore your skin color while others can’t. It will matter that you are granted opportunities others might not be. It will matter that you, yes you, can work to remedy these ills, even if they aren’t your inheritance, because that’s humanity, Lily June.
I’m responsible for your existence, and if I teach you nothing else right, please heed this lesson: We’re all of us responsible for what happens to one another. You are your brother’s (and sister’s and neighbor’s and friend’s and teacher’s and peer’s and lover’s and spouse’s and children’s and stranger’s) keeper. It is that simple. It is that hard. Really.
- CC SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102872