Saturday, January 21, 2017

Brown Bread, Pink Skin

When I was a kid, my parents were into whole grains - brown rice, brown bread, even really weird grains like bulghur and triticale and millet. Now it’s mainstream, but that “healthy-eating whole foods” mindset  was pretty radical in the 1970s. I got teased at school for my brown bread, to the point where I didn’t want sandwiches in my lunch. I fantasized about fluffernutter sandwiches on Wonder bread. My mom would say “That’s dessert, not lunch; it’s worse than candy.” When we were older, she started calling such things “food porn.” I say that to my kids!

By way of explanation, my parents told a story about how in their parents’ childhoods, the ‘oughts’ to the 20s, whiteness was closely associated with purity, with cleanliness, with goodness. Anything brown was dirty, simple as that. So producers went to great lengths to remove all traces of color (and, unwittingly, all the healthiest parts of the food) from wheat, rice, and sugar. My mom said all the nutrition was in the molasses, the by-product of sugar refining. She would scoff as she said that word “refining.” For my parents, youthful rebellion included making and eating their own bread, brown bread, full of the whole brown nutrition they missed in their childhoods.

Monday morning last week, Martin Luther King day, Ann and I stood in the bathroom facing the mirror together, and the difference in our skin colors was truly striking. My skin is nothing like white, at least compared to Ann’s. My skin is blatantly, obviously, dangerously pink, with lots of red moles; anyone can see that. Ann’s isn’t white, either. Her skin leans a bit towards a light green, at least compared to mine. I understand that it is polite to call her skin-tone “olive” rather than green. Why is that? Why ARE we called White, when even the palest among us is far from white, the color? 

Recently, I have oh-so-tentatively begun to include skin tones in my descriptions of people, saying "She is tall, with long braids, and light brown skin" or "He is medium build, with very short tightly-curled hair, and very black skin" or "He is pretty short, has yellow-brown skin, and rich black wavy hair, cut short but not buzzed." If this is acceptable (please use the comments to correct me), I darn well better not limit it to people of color, right? So how would I want my skin described? Pale? That's a start, but in my gut it feels like a euphemism for "white." There is a vast range of skin tones among people of color. I'm well aware that some White people are lighter-skinned than many Black people. I thought I was stuck with "pale" for White people. Until Monday morning. 

I think my parents’ story about food processing has something to do with this. Of course, my parents were right about food refinement, but I don’t recall anyone in my family ever connecting any of that to race or skin color. 

The turn of the last century, my grandparents’ childhoods, brought a wave of Italian immigrants, who were described as “swarthy.” What a word that is, “swarthy”! It means dark-skinned, especially with olive tones, but the usage example that goes with Google’s definition of “swarthy” reveals a connotation of vague threat, of intimidation: “she looked frail standing next to her strong and swarthy brother.” If you digested your share of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries in your childhood, you know exactly what I mean: swarthy equals threatening. 

There is a book titled "How the Irish Became White." It and other studies make clear that the boundaries of whiteness have more to do with history, immigration, language, and power than with skin color. 

I think the reason we call pink skin and light green skin and lots of other colors of pale skin “white” is because we are subconsciously choosing Purity over Wholesomeness. Safety and comfort over health and strength. The fences around that false purity move and shift as the decades and the waves of immigration come and go, but there’s always white and non-white, because the myth of white purity demands it. Never mind that no human skin is actually white. 

I bear all the privileges and responsibilities of being “white.” I’m not trying to distance myself from my race. But if you want to describe me to somebody, then yeah “He’s a white guy,” but don’t say JD has white skin. It ain’t. It’s pink. With red polka-dots. And it’s made out of nutritious, whole-wheat, dark, brown, bread.

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