Being White in Brown Skin

Cartoon by Jake Huffcutt
Cartoon by Jake Huffcutt

In spite of what box I might check on government forms, I do not identify as white. However, people who share my particular pigmentation, those of Middle-Eastern descent, are arbitrarily sorted as caucasian.

 

The real meaning of “whiteness” becomes distorted when one compares the cultural implications to the physical attributes — and then to the US Census Bureau’s criteria. I am culturally white and colored brown.

 

According to the 2012 US Census, 83% of Minnesotans identify as white. Furthermore, 71% of the people living in Hennepin County, the Minnesota county I call home, are white. I do not mean to imply anything except that in this particular Midwestern state, whiteness is not a rare characteristic.

 

Nor is it rare to identify as white on the campus of Minneapolis Community and Technical College, however the ethnic statistics change in our diverse little section of the state. A touch less than half of the students enrolled at MCTC are classified as white.

 

The population of MCTC is composed of a myriad of different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, age groups, marital statuses and religions. We have the unique day-to-day privilege of comingling with students and staff who are different from ourselves, receiving the opportunity to learn from a spectacular tapestry sewn from the splendorous fabric of multifaceted human cultures.

 

With a campus that is composed of richly diverse people in every imaginable way, it is unfortunate that the dialogue on diversity inevitably leads to a discussion on race. However, the attention that MCTC’s racial diversity has been receiving is relevant to all diverse colleges in the area.

 

One incessantly irritating question prevails as the standard confrontation of brownness: “Where are you from?” (and the many other forms this question takes), appears more ludicrous to me as time progresses.

 

I’m “from” Illinois. I was born in Missouri. The question behind the veil is, “How are you that color?” Once the source of my color is revealed, I’m bombarded with a new series of assumptions. For me, being half-Middle Eastern does not mean I speak Arabic or practice Islam.

 

When I was a child, I asked my white mother whether or not I was American. I was confused because of the racial identifications I heard used around me. Classmates were called African-American, but I went more or less unsorted.

 

I remember my 6-year-old logic involving my American Girl doll, who appeared to be of Asiatic descent. If the doll was American, but my classmate was African-American, where did I fit?

My mother told me I was American but that my dad was Palestinian. That sounded legitimate to me at the time. From my current vantage point, the race issue has become exhaustingly convoluted.

 

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My brownness has had three observable effects on me.

The first notable effect is how white people see and treat me. I have never felt discriminated against by white people, but I have felt the unfair opposite tendency in that vein. Maybe it’s just in my head, but I sense that the whitest people I know are relieved when brown people “act white.” The absence of cultural discrepancies allows for more fluid interactions.

 

The second effect I have noticed is how brown people see and treat me. Because of the unidentifiable mix I have going on, I have experienced acceptance in many brown cultures. That is, until it becomes apparent that I don’t speak their native language.

 

I survived only one week working at a Mexican restaurant because my co-workers failed to grasp that I did not understand their Spanish-issued instructions.

 

The third and most influential effect of being brown is that I tan well without burning in the summer. In all honesty, if I were the only person on the planet, this effect would be the only one worth noting.

 

Racial diversity is a gift because it allows the people involved to expose themselves to the reality of beautiful variations within our species. Race is a complex issue that really cannot be broken down into clear components. Are we talking about the melanin content in someone’s skin or are we talking about the culture that individual associates with?

 

Assumptions based on color and further assumptions based on known ethnicity tend to be inaccurate.

 

When people see you and their brains automatically categorize you based on your features, sorting you into known cultural groups to better predict your behavior, it is really about themselves. In an empathetic exchange between humans, there are going to be differences in values and opinions and in order not to ruffle feathers, we learn what behaviors are appropriate with what groups of people.

 

We are social animals who want and need connection for healthy functioning. Out of comfort, we tend to socialize and connect with people who are most like us, whether they share our interests, background or ethnicity. However, it can only be beneficial to us all not to limit ourselves to what is immediately comfortable. It is for this reason that the race conversation is so important for us to have at this point in history.

 

As a species, we have come a long way from enslaving our fellow man and treating one another barbarically — but we are nowhere near where we can be in terms of human potential. When some people are approached with the subject of race, they respond by claiming that they “don’t see color.”

 

I do not believe these people.

 

There is nothing inherently wrong with noticing differences between people. Without facial recognition, for example, we could enter into dangerous circumstances unknowingly. Our ability to discern differences is a valuable learning mechanism and a useful tool for those wishing to analyze market trends. The problem arises when the differences are hyper-focused on, or utilized to justify, discrimination and prejudice.

 

I “see color” and my head has been filled with racial stereotypes from a lifetime of living in this country. However, I can also see the importance of creating an increased collective understanding that regardless of our numerous differences, we have one thing in common: we are all humans existing on this planet.


Race is not going away. We need to deal with this now.

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