Rejecting Compliments, Resisting White Privilege: A Call for Help

1 Nov

I first realized just how disgustingly prized and privileged being light-skinned is here when we lived in Juquila. When people commented about my appearance, I could never quite separate out how much of their impression was just because I was foreign. A gringa living amongst us! Can you imagine! Men would congratulate Conan in the street for bringing home this rare, first-class acquisition. (I know. Patriarchy on top of it all. Sigh.) That was bad enough, but at least I could blame some of my ill-gotten fame on the small town, we’ve-never-seen-foreigners factor.

When people complimented baby Lucia, though, it made me particularly uncomfortable and embarrassed. “Look at her!” They’d say, “Just like the Gerber Baby! So adorable!” Which might seem innocuous enough, until you saw the larger trend of comments. “She looks just like her mama,” they’d say, totally negating all the obvious facial features that she inherited from her Papi, which to us were plain as day. “She got the light-skin from her mama; how beautiful!” and even things like, “Look how white she is! It’s a shame she didn’t get her mama’s eye color, though!”

Just look at these two. There’s no way you could deny their resemblance. Except people did!

I couldn’t say thank you, because it felt awful. It was like they were negating my husband. Like they were lessening themselves. Like they were denying part of Lucia- specifically the Mexican part of her. Like they or their child’s brown skin, brown eyes, black hair wasn’t as beautiful. How could I say thank you for that? I needed to respond, and I didn’t know how.

I still don’t know how. “Look at that precious guerito!” people gush over Khalil. When it’s another parent and they’re with their child, I am quick to pay some adoring compliment to their child, but beyond that I’m not sure what to do. I second-guess every compliment aimed at my kids. Obviously, I think they are adorable, because they’re my kids and I adore them, but I don’t want them to be taught that they’re good-looking because they’re “white.”

If it sounds like I’m over-reacting, let me give you a clearer example of the problem:

“I wish I were guerita (light-skinned) like Lucia,” Evelyn, one of the kids’ cousins, told me one day. It wasn’t the first time our 8 year old niece had mentioned skin color to me, but it was the moment that it was painfully obvious to me just how deeply society’s systemic racism had penetrated her little-girl psyche already. Just in case I didn’t get it, she bemoaned herself further, complaining, “I don’t want to be morena (dark-skinned). It’s ugly.”

The ambulance in my head switched on the siren and roared into gear. Help! Emergency! Pre-pubescent girl already hating herself! Code red! All hands on deck! (Okay, obviously I’ve never worked in health care and I know zero emergency slang. Forgive me. This is totally the kind of blubbering idiot that I am when in a panic. Which I was.) “What?!” I asked her, trying not to yell and shake her.

I took a breath and tried to talk and look normal. “You don’t need to be guera,” I started. “You’re already beautiful, just like you are.” Cliché, I know. But it’s true, it’s so true- Evelyn with her friendly, extroverted spirit. She’s who always comes and takes the hand of whatever family member of mine is visiting, to lead them around, to show them all they need to know, entrusting them with her wide open heart. Evelyn who’s curious and unapologetically opinionated. Evelyn who also has gorgeous wide eyes and a lovely smirk, among other radiant attributes. Evelyn who is brown-skinned and beautiful.

“Yeah?” she asked, sounding as hopeful as I felt disheartened by her remark. “I’m beautiful?” I reiterated that she was, and that I love her. She smiled and swept me away to show me something her parents had bought her.

I wanted to sit her down to talk about all the shades of beautiful. I wanted to talk about beauty’s source, about how it’s what’s on the inside, and how you feel about yourself that makes or breaks beauty. I wanted to say that society’s views on beauty are a total load of horseshit anyway. I wanted to sit down and have a long, age-appropriate talk about racism and prejudice and discrimination. I wanted to find time to walk around together, surf the internet together, and point out all the beautiful women with skin like hers. I wanted to find princesses and doctors and fairy godmothers and warriors and presidents and other Wonderful Women with brown skin like hers, and talk about how beautiful they are, to discuss the different forms of beauty. I wanted to rant and rave about the system and how fucked up it is that an 8 year old girl has already gotten the message that she’s not worth as much as another little girl. I started to say a whole lot of stuff to her, but I was so overwhelmed with how to go about it all, and she had already changed the subject.

Race in Mexico is fairly homogenous, in the sense that the grand majority of Mexicans are a mix of indigenous genes and European genes, with some African and some Asian genes in a few places. Despite this theoretical “sameness” there is a huge variation in skin tones and other aspects of appearance that people attribute to race. And there is absolutely a racism problem in Mexico. This is what racism looks like here. It has a different history than in the US, but the resulting prizing and privileging of all that is white is the same. It’s deeply rooted and entrenched in the culture, just like in the US.

So what does it matter, that I, the exotic foreign white girl auntie, am trying to tell Evelyn that she’s beautiful and valued? It’s so far from sufficient. She’s already learned and internalized the message that she’s not beautiful, because of her lovely brown eyes, because of her shiny black hair, because of her very own skin, the blanket enveloping her beautiful existence, that’s already betraying her, making her other, less-than beautiful. And if here in Mexico, where some shade or another of brown skin is the majority and the norm, if even here her brown skin is not valued, what must it be like in the U.S., in England, in Ireland, in all the places where brown skin is “other?” The injustice of it is maddening.

I’m not worrying about her beauty in terms of how many people might ask her out to dance, but I am worried about her feeling as valued and worthy as anybody. Even if it were “just” about a little girl’s body image, it still wouldn’t be okay to teach a girl to hate herself in the body that she lives in. But it’s so far beyond that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, talks about how it’s absolutely that kind of prejudice that is part of what leads us down the path to the devaluing and dehumanizing of a whole people. It really struck a chord with me when I read that he realized that “…the larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies.”

This has severe consequences. It’s why people of color are constantly being killed by police officers in the US. It’s why there are so many cases of indigenous women here giving birth on the lawn or in the bathroom of the hospital, because no one could be bothered to receive their precious baby, who’s already being valued and cared for less, starting at birth. It’s why Conan got stopped by the police for walking with his own daughter (read about it here). It’s the kind of thing that they talk about in this study, where they found that teachers expect more bad behavior from African American boys in preschool. The effects of prejudice are so far-reaching, so consequential.

And prejudice starts with precisely this kind of attitude: that the lighter your skin is, the better-looking you are. I’m not blaming the entire institution of racism on friends’ and family’s comments, but I do think that what we say- especially in front of children- makes a difference. These seemingly well-intentioned compliments about my kids’ light skin perpetuates racism. I still don’t know exactly what to say when I hear it, but I know it’s imperative that I say something. Help me, please! I need suggestions! I realize now that it’s not enough to have conversations with my kids about it in private; I need to confront this racism in the moment- in a nice way, but in a way that expresses that I don’t agree, for example, that they’re cute because of their skin color. This is important not just for my children, but also for Evelyn, and all the other beautiful, valued, worthy people of all shades of skin, who need to get the message that they ARE beautiful.

There are lots of other ways I think we can make a difference. Please leave comments with suggestions!

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