White Face, Brown Past: How Living With Vitiligo Helped Me Come To Terms With Race

“Introducing someone as a ‘Negro poet with a University degree’ or again, quite simply, the expression, ‘a great black poet.’ These ready-made phrases, which seem in a common-sense way to fill a need-or have a hidden subtlety, a permanent rub.” ― Frantz Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks”

The problem with social constructs is their ability to, in the mind of the masses, transform from conceptual entities, subject to the vicissitudes of social evolution, to impermeable truths that dictate and control daily life. The construction, and de/reconstruction of identities are quasi-dependent on these constructs which are, in turn, dependent on perpetuated norms and ideologies despite any possible antiquity or need. That’s a whole lot to swallow. Living, in general, is a difficult enough task without the added constructs and institutions within which we must navigate. It’s clear that we’re living in a time of confusion, hatred, love, passion, uprising, education, pain, suffering, beauty, and ignorance. Much of this stems from a deep-rooted problem that is plaguing the world: racism. 

If social media has taught us anything it’s that there are psychological, cognitive, social, and philosophical elements composing the base for myriad structures and constructs. There is not one individual immune to the strength of the shackles of racism though the shackles need not be a permanent fixture in society. Positive change is possible on a national and global scale if every global citizen actualizes the fact that “we need new ways of thinking about these issues, new ways of talking about race’s subtler dynamic, new ways of spying racial conflict in the twenty-first century,” (John L. Jackson, Racial Paranoia, pg. 67). For me, personally, race (as a concept) has been a life-long battle during which I’ve failed to find genuine piece of mind. 

My fondest memories as a child and adolescent revolve around the years I spent living with my grandparents a few blocks away from Lake Michigan in a town called Union Pier. We were one of two black families for miles but that was never a fact to with I have any serious consideration or thought. I was a reader, an explorer, a chess player, and grew to identify myself as those, and similar, types of things. I never experienced racism and I didn’t know what racism was. The stories my grandparents would tell me would always, ultimately, lead to the same conclusion: you’re smart and capable and you can achieve anything you want to.

It wasn’t until I was plucked from my home and planted in South Florida. Still brown, and still naive, an identity crisis soon began. Florida remains, to me, a breeding ground for racial paranoia and a brilliantly disgusting blend of both blatant and clandestine racism. When I was fifteen and diagnosed with vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes the cells that produce pigment to die, one of the first comments one bully, of many, said to me was, “You’re so white that God decided to make you white.” It wasn’t soon before people, of all races, began to ask me if I was bleaching my skin on purpose. I’d never had a racial identity and suddenly I was being thrown between a Scylla and Charybdis of racial proportions.

I was a poet, a violinist, a bibliophile. It took me years to acknowledge the fact that though I can construct a personal identity in any matter or form of my choosing, I live in a country that, despite my efforts, will push and poke and prod me into an identity that suits their heteronormative, gender binary, color-based racial spectrum. I’d read too much Nietzsche to care, though. It wasn’t until I was nineteen and finally able to run away from my own personal Sunshine State of hell to Brooklyn where my real identity reconstruction would take place. Long story short, I’m a quarter-of-a-century years old and I still feel like I’m drowning in culture while hanging on, for dear life, to my disembodied identity.

While my experience is my own and I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, every single person on the planet is affected by the web of racism. As the web continues to be spun by fearful people far too comfortable with the status quo, it is our duty as global citizens to take as many steps in the right direction as possible. A fundamental step in the right direction, however, involves awareness and self-actualization that culminates in being able to start uncomfortable conversations and educate others on the experiences of every unique individual. We all have a voice to add to the conversation and the time is now. As each confederate flag is torn down, every racist reveals him/herself, and social media roars with the rage of people in a state of fear and heartbreak, we have the opportunity to learn and grow together as a united people. 

The individual in society deserves the opportunity to exist in the world with a self-designed identity that need not fear for superfluous resentment, racial-bias, or blatant hatred. The color-based institution of race stems from many a century-long progression that is cloaked in prejudice and hinged on fear. It is necessary for a multifarious array of affected voices to join in the uncomfortable conversation and make the case for much needed change to a crumbling, damaging, backwards system of oppression and race-based biases. As a once-brown-soon-to-be-white-pigmented inhabitant of earth, I see that color really shouldn’t be a basis for, well, anything. It’s beautiful to embrace one’s culture and history but continuing to use skin color as a method of division, we’re causing much more harm than good.

In a nation of checked-boxes, one drops, and racial paranoia, there are a plethora of variables affecting the construction of millions of identity that fail to take into account the dynamism and power of the self, the will, and the future. Being qua being is a complicated enough existence sans the added pressures and stress that come with living in a racially torn culture that mutes, rather than crescendos, the voices of change, progress, and solidarity.    

It starts with looking beyond color, beyond race, even beyond identity to the core of what makes us human. What keeps us alive. What fills us with the power and desire to bring about positive change. Stripped of our skin we’re all made of the same stuff and all have an unknown expiration date. What are you? What am I? We’re human and we can all take a look in the mirror (and towards our fellow earthlings) and think of a way to promote solidarity in the face of unbelievable divisions. TC mark

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