flesh-colored glasses

“If President Barack Obama wins, he will be the popular choice of Hispanics, African-Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites. That’s what the polling has consistently shown in the final days of the campaign. It looks more likely than not that he will lose independents, and it’s possible he will get a lower percentage of white voters than George W. Bush got of Hispanic voters in 2000.
A broad mandate this is not.”  
-from: politico news

It was in college that I first learned about the ‘scandal’ of Crayola crayons – something, prior to that, I associated with happy, innocent, playful childhood. I mean, crayons are like puppies, right? Who can not like crayons?

self-portrait, Seoul Korea
© 2012 erin dunigan

The incident was around a particular crayola in the box – the one with the name ‘flesh.’ I remember looking at the particular crayon in question and being confused. What was all the fuss about? Why the drama? What was wrong with the name? The crayon was called flesh, and when I looked at my own white skin, I could confirm that, though this particular color was a bit peachier than mine, more or less it looked basically the same.

That is, of course, the problem, isn’t it?

That my being born, through no act of my own obviously, into the dominant group of my particular country at this particular point in time, completely blinded me from being able to see the world through the eyes of someone not just like me, whose ‘flesh’ might happen to be a somewhat deeper hue than the color on that particular peachy crayon.

There are those, I’m sure, who would be quick to point out – it is just a crayon. Why are you getting so worked up about a crayon? What’s the big deal? Isn’t this a bit of an overreaction?

But, of course, as the article from today’s politico news points out – it is not just a crayon.

That one small crayon is a microcosm of a much larger, more pervasive, more pernicious and ugly secret that threatens the very fabric of this ‘great nation’ that we claim is based upon the equality of all people, that welcomes the tired, the poor, the weary, the… It is the fact that, when it comes to issues of race, as Slate Magazine recently put it,

The defining part of being white in America is the assumption that, as a white person, you are a regular, individual human being. Other demographic groups set themselves apart, to pursue their distinctive identities and interests and agendas. Whiteness, to white people, is the American default.

It is precisely that belief that can lead Politico’s Vandehei and Allen to claim in an article that President Barack Obama has support from “Hispanics, African Americans, single women and highly educated urban whites” and yet claim, as though it is plain to see, that there is no ‘mandate’ in that – thus, apparently insinuating that for there to be a ‘mandate’ it must also include, presumably, white men, married (white?) women, and white people of, apparently, ‘average’ education.

I am not saying that if you are voting for Mitt Romney that makes you a racist.

I’m not claiming that those voting for Obama are morally superior, somehow.

But what is troubling is the assumption that multiple people groups, in their entirety, do not ‘count’ simply because they are not the ‘dominant’ group. That some ‘Americans’ are more ‘American’ than others.

Only a few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to see a phenomenal musical called Allegiance. Set during WWII, it is the story of the Japanese Internment camps, as told through one Japanese American family from Salinas, California. As musical theater does so well, it is troubling, funny, insightful, educational and deeply disturbing all at the same time. It’s a must see.

After the musical was over, as I allowed myself to ponder it, what came to the surface was the only memory I have of learning about the Japanese Internment camps at home. The comment came from my father, now deceased.

I don’t remember what he said word for word, but it was basically that, as a teenager during WWII, his family had some Japanese (American) neighbors – and no one was ever sure whether or not they might have had a ham radio in the basement… Meaning, I realized, in its not so veiled reference, that the internment was a necessary precaution for the safety of ‘Americans.’ The fact that the US was also at war with Germany and Italy seemed to go unnoticed, somehow. Or, in the words of one character in Allegiance, as the Japanese Americans are being evicted from their homes forced to leave most everything behind: “What about Joe DiMaggio? He’s Italian…”

It is easy to point fingers when we see racism rear its ugly head in others – other groups than my own, other people than myself, other religions than the one I cling to – but it is less eager a pointing when the finger pointed is at one’s own self.

Recently I visited the Chinese embassy in Los Angeles to obtain a visa for a brief stopover I will have soon in Beijing. After finding a parking place, putting my belongings through the X-ray machine, and taking a number, I waited along with a roomful of others for my opportunity to present my paperwork and hope that my request would be granted.

A few days later, recounting the details to my mom as we sat together at her kitchen table, she asked, “Were they all Americans waiting there?” to which I, without thinking, replied, “No.”

As soon as the word was out of my mouth, I realized, and tried to take it back. But it was too late. Not that my mom cared – she didn’t realize what I had just revealed, with my answer, as she was not there at the embassy to know. I am not sure what she meant, asking if they were all Americans waiting at the embassy that day.

But I do know what I meant, when I answered. I meant that they were not all white.

Not all with blond hair and green eyes, like me. Granted, I assumed that the two black men in charge of security as we entered were Americans. But the waiting room itself? It was full of ‘Asian’ people – people whose citizenship, other than the man next to me whose US passport I saw, was completely unknown to me.

As I tried to recover from my revealing misstatement I began to think, logically, through the likelihood – of course they were, most likely, all American, or mostly. What else would they be doing at the Chinese embassy in Los Angeles?

But, unfortunately, the logic was not what was troubling. It was the gut level answer of no – the realization that, as much as I’ve done in my life to try to learn from those different from me, to listen, to examine my own privilege of growing up white in a society that still values whiteness as the ‘norm’ and anything else as an aberration, in a moment of candor I showed my flesh-colored bias for what it was – that answer of no left me reeling.

It’s easy to point the finger at others. It’s easy to see the fault in them. Our culture is full of name calling of all sorts.

What’s the most shocking, though, is when the name you call turns out to be your own.

6 responses to “flesh-colored glasses

  1. Erin thank you for this. This beautiful and honest reflection is another reason why I consider you such a dear colleague and friend. I have been sharing widely, so if any haters start showing up, let me know . . . I got your back 😉

  2. Thank you. I am the white pastor of a bi-ethnic church (African-American and euro-American, and a few others I’m sure…but not enough to truly say “multi-ethnic”.) I could not do this if I were not hyper-sensitive to the ways in which some of us express white as normative, and try gently to guide others see something from a different perspective. But I’m also often appalled and find myself apologizing for the ways in which I completely gloss over the normative experiences of some of my parishioners. Not everyone can point to the “American myth” that we all came here for religious freedom; not everyone hears stories of the Exodus in the same way; the web of relationships in one community is very much tighter, making the lighting of candles for All Saints “only for family members” a minefield! I’m still learning even as I try to teach…it’s humbling and joyous work, and sadly, I know it won’t be done in my lifetime.

  3. Pingback: What Historically White Denominations Can Learn From the Republican Party

  4. Pingback: Bruce Reyes-Chow: What Historically White Denominations Can Learn From The Republican Party |

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