Sunday, July 31, 2011

Being Othered

I wrote the following as a comment to the blog post "On Being Othered in an Elevator" at Sepia Mutiny, and wanted to share my response here as well. I think this is a very important topic that needs to be considered and discussed more.

I grew up in Maine. No one that I encountered on a regular basis was anything but white. In elementary school I had a few friends who may not have been white, but actually I have no idea where their families were from, and I didn't label them by race at that age. I grew up never once discussing anything related to appearance with someone who wasn't white. I moved to the city to go to college. At some point I started dating a guy. His family was from India. He grew up in the U.S. When we first started dating, we were holding hands, our hands laced together, and he mentioned the cover for the film Jungle Fever. I didn't know what he was talking about, so he said "The cover shows a White woman's hand and Black guy's hand, with fingered interlaced-- just like us." My response? Relaxed and comfortable I said "But you're not black, you're brown!"

At that moment, my cheeks began to burn. I wondered in my head "Did I just say something terrible? Something stupid? Something ignorant? Did I insult him terribly?" It was the first time I mentioned skin tone when talking to a non-white person. Growing up, we would discuss our skin tone among friends-- who was darker, who tanned easily, who burned, who had freckles, my many "Croatian" moles. Among my white friends, I had the darkest skin. I liked my skin. I was proud of it's olive tone. Growing up, we could discuss these things. It was not awkward, or worrisome about insult. It was just discussions-- like about how to perk up my very straight hair, or calm down my friends curly hair.

I don't remember how my boyfriend at the time responded to my comment- except that he didn't get upset or offended. I remembered thinking "Oh my God. I must sound so stupid and awkward." I remember being relieved that I hadn't made him upset in my observation on his skin tone (which was what it was meant to be-- but also sounded like a pronouncement of which "category" he should identify himself as). I also remember this as a symbol of how awkward I was at 21. How much my world has changed since then.

When "Possibly" says that people don't need to mention race or skin color at all-- that we should be blinded by equality, I absolutely disagree. Why? Because it's not how we normally act. I know I grew up comparing skin tones, talking about hair types and our appearances with my friends-- not in a who's better way-- just chatting, comparing, etc. I have no doubt that other children, regardless of race, also grew up doing this.

Saying "I don't see race" doesn't make us more equal. Saying "I don't see race." makes us ignore that racism and discrimination still exist. It also makes people like my 21 year old self afraid to make innocent (and yes, awkward) comments with someone she feels close to-- I still remember the feeling of panic: "Did I say something terrible?". I think that as humans we all naturally want to look and compare-- not to decide who is better, but to become comfortable in ourselves, to learn how our body is unique, maybe to complain a bit-- or come to terms with some part of our self that used to bother us. And let's face it-- friends of mixed backgrounds shouldn't have to live in fear of saying something related to skin tone might be The End of friendship-- because mentioning these things is equated with being a racist.

On the other hand-- I agree with Anna that this woman was inappropriate. This woman was not her friend. Not even an acquaintance. Anyone randomly and awkwardly calling your skin "interesting" on an elevator is awkward and bizarre-- but even more so if, as a minority, you have being "othered" based on your appearance growing up. It reminds you that people might see you as different, strange-- rather than how they see some other (white?) stranger in the same elevator.

I experienced this feeling for a tiny period of time when I was in high school. I grew up in Maine (as I said before) and while basically everyone was white, there were variations in hair color, skin tone, eye color, etc. People had different backgrounds and religions. As someone with very dark brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, I didn't feel too weird (though I always got the impression that I was seen as "ethnic" in my majority irish/french catholic high school). But during one summer I was a counselor in training (CIT) at a summer camp in Virginia. I went with a friend who had gone there before.

I remember feeling awkward upon arrival. Practically everyone I met was blonde with blue eyes. People would stare at me. I felt othered-- I felt like a strange zoo specimen rather than just another CIT. To add to this-- random people I did not know would come up to me asking:

"Where are you from?" "Maine" "No, what country?" "uhhhh, the U.S.?"

"Are you French?" "No?" "Where is your accent from? Are you from Europe?" "I'm from Maine. The State." "Oh. You sound French. And you look French too. You're not French?" (confused look).

"Are you Filipino?" "No." "Oh, I just thought you were-- because Filipino people have dark dark hair and light skin-- like you." "Really? No I'm not. I'm from Maine." (I was under the impression that Filipino people were generally Asian looking). "But like, what country?" "Um, part of my family is from Croatia. My great-grandparents?"

I remember being miserable that summer. I felt very lonely. I didn't make any friends at camp. If one person had made a comment like that, it probably wouldn't have bothered me. In fact, the words they were saying themselves were not really insulting or upsetting. Sometimes I thought it was amusing. It was more the FEELING it created. The feeling of "other"ness-- the message "You don't belong here." Those comments were part of it-- but also with that was the way I was treated (or ignored). It was part of larger behavior-- behavior in which people didn't want to get to know me-- but were marginally interested in my differences.

The difference between my short stint at summer camp in Virginia and Anna's story is that I "escaped" after camp was over. I returned to Maine, were my origin was not subject to constant scrutiny. I had a place where I felt "regular"-- where I felt like a normal person doing normal stuff. I can't imagine the frustration and angst one must feel-- having this feeling of other thrust upon them for most (all?) of their life. My two weeks of being an "other" are an unpleasant memory-- but I feel like I can avoid being in such a situation again. I can imagine how frustrating it could be to have to face this every day.