Skin deep – Well, I’m back. At least until the next crisis. This morning I sent out the final version of a project that kept me extremely busy this month. You would think that finishing a project would give my spirits a boost, but I find that this is usually not the case. That’s not to say that I don’t feel good about finishing a project, especially when I feel I’ve done a good job, but the good feeling doesn’t quite balance out the pain and suffering of the project itself. Then again, for this project, the good feeling would have had to have been some sort of cosmic euphoria for everything to even out in the end.
But enough of that. I feel good enough, and it’s about time I brought Liminality back to life and wrote something. I’m not sure how long I will carry on today, and if I will end up saying anything of value, but I have a specific subject in mind that I’d like to discuss. I received a brief but interesting email during the recent downtime, and it got me thinking. It was all of two sentences, so I will just quote the entire email here: “Hi, I was just wondering what your race was. I can't tell and i feel that it is pertinent to your writings.”
Now I had to think long and hard about my reaction to this email—not my response, my reaction. I wasn’t really sure how I was supposed to feel about this. I wondered if I should be offended, but then concluded that if you have to think about it, you probably shouldn’t be offended. Then I thought that maybe I should be taken aback, but that didn’t seem right either. To be honest, I could see why someone might ask this question, but it perturbed me at the same time. I did reply to the email (I reply to every email I get), linking to a photo of myself that pretty much gave away my skin color and asking him what prompted him to ask the question. I have not gotten a reply back, so all I’ve got to work with is this brief missive.
The email is odd in a number of ways. For starters, he (I’m assuming it’s a he by the name) just comes right out and asks me what my race is. No preamble, no lead-in, no introduction, just “hey, what’s your skin color?” I also found the “I can’t tell” part amusing. I’m an idealist, and I’d like to think that skin color has no bearing on how someone writes, just like gender or religion or sexual preference. Granted, all of these factors influence what sort of topics we will write about, but I don’t think they influence the way we write. What is more amusing about it, though, is that anyone that curious about my race could have browsed through the Imagery section for a quick answer. It’s not like I’m trying to hide my skin color here.
I don’t know. I tossed this around in my head for a while, trying to figure out why this email bugged me, and I came up with two reasons, both rather more complex than I had first imagined. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, anyone that curious could have easily found out my race with a little work. What bothered me, though, was not that the reader didn’t bother doing that little work, it was that someone who apparently stumbled across my site and had little more than a passing interest in it thought it so important to know my skin color that he emailed me about it. I mean, he’s obviously not that interested in my site, otherwise he would have done a little sniffing around—so why does he need to know my skin color?
I could very well be accused of over-analyzing this, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the issues touched on were anything but simple. Why does he need to know my skin color? Because “it is pertinent to my writings.” OK. In a way, I can see why he might say that, and I have a feeling I know what he means. I talk a lot about life in Korea as a foreigner (which, I would think, should be a pretty big hint right there), and I suppose it does make a difference if I am white or black as opposed to Asian—that is, I will have different experiences depending on my skin color.
But that’s not the reason for the question here. It’s not a matter of what bearing my skin color has on my experiences, it’s a matter of what bearing my skin color has on his experiences as a reader. To boil it all down, he is telling me that he doesn’t know how to interpret what I am saying because he doesn’t know my race. Does this mean that my words are less valid if I am white, or less valid if I am Asian?
Before I go any further, I will say that I am pretty sure this reader meant no offense by this email. The tone is not hostile, and although it is brief it is not clipped. But I can’t help wondering at his motivations. I suppose it would help to know which entry he was reading when the issue of my skin color came into play. I’m guessing that it was my recent (okay, not that recent) post on nationality and ethnicity, but it could have been anything, really. You wouldn’t believe how many people arrive at old entries here through searches like “Wesley Snipes Korean wife.”
I just fail to see how me being either white or Asian would make my words less valid, no matter what the subject. Ah, heck. I’ve been dancing around this for paragraphs now... I might as well just come out and say it. The fact is that there is prejudice in this world, and some people believe that certain people don’t have the right to say or do things because they are not the right skin color, or the right religion, or the right whatever. Take my “Wesley Snipes Korean wife” entry—one of the things that sparked that whole rant was prejudice based on skin color.
I’ve noticed that I keep using the word “skin color” instead of “race.” I guess that’s because I’ve never really liked the word “race.” It has way too many negative connotations. Negative connotations aside, though, I think “skin color” is a more accurate term. At least with “skin color” we know we’re dealing with something that is superficial. With “race” we might be fooled into thinking that this is some characteristic that make people who they are—that, in other words, we can judge someone by the color of their skin and be justified in doing so. The idea of “race” as being anything other than a physiological characteristic is a complete fallacy.
That is not to say that our skin color doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, it does. I believe that most of us are who we are because of what we have experienced in life, and that means how our parents raised us, what culture we grew up in, what sort of friends we had, where we went to school, etc. Unfortunately, it also means how other people treated us based on our skin color.
I grew up as a white boy (there, I said it—I’m white!) in a predominantly white neighborhood. There actually was a Korean family that lived down the street from us, but we were so ignorant that we just assumed they were Chinese (it didn’t occur to me until very recently that they were Korean—I was mentioning them to my wife and when I said their family name aloud I realized, “Hey, that’s a Korean name”). Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the local population was white, though, my friends and I treated our few Asian friends like we would treat anyone else. It never occurred to us to treat them any differently.
That doesn’t mean that everyone thought that way, though, and I never once stopped to think about what it must have been like for them to grow up as members of a minority. They grew up in the same American culture that I did (albeit with probably a different home culture, at least in some respects), but because of their skin color they most likely had a different life experience.
That’s the catch, I suppose. In an ideal world, skin color wouldn’t matter, and judging someone based on their skin color would be a completely fruitless endeavor. I still think that judging someone based on skin color is wrong, but I can’t deny one simple truth: if someone has spent a significant portion of their life as an ethnic minority, you can pretty much guarantee that they have been the victim of discrimination at one point or another. This goes beyond just skin color, of course, to any trait that might make someone a minority: gender, religion, political beliefs, sexual preference, etc.
So where does that leave me? I’ve written a good bit here, but somehow I feel like I’ve been going around in circles. In fact, I think I go around in circles here most of the time. Maybe that’s because there are no easy answers to the questions I’m asking. I haven’t said everything there is to say on this subject, of course. I think I’ve only touched the surface of it, to be honest, but I also think that’s enough for today. This all started with an email, though, and I suppose I should address that in closing. In the final analysis, I think what really bothered me about the email is that it touched on a truth that I wish weren’t true—that skin color does matter because people judge other people based on things like that.
So, to the sender of that email: Yeah, I’m a white guy, although you probably already figured that out from the photo. How does that inform your perception of my world view? No matter what I may have said above, I’ve got nothing against you personally, and I’m pretty sure you’ve got nothing against me. I’m just curious. Your failure to respond to my last email tells me that you’ve probably moved on by now to some other corner of cyberspace. But if you’re still around, I’d be glad to hear from you. After all, I can only amuse myself for so long by batting words back and forth here.