When Our Skin Speaks Louder Than Our Words: The Elephant in Our American Living Room

"Shut Up, take 2" via Daniela Vladimirova's Flickr feed via CC by 2.0.
“Shut Up, take 2” via Daniela Vladimirova’s Flickr feed via CC by 2.0.

I’m writing from a place of pretty raw anger right now.  It’s been a couple of weeks in the making. I sat silent when the now viral, comment-disabled Cheerios commercial conversation was hot.  And then HGTV got skewered for it’s alleged flag decor faux pas.  And now it’s Lil’ Wayne.

Let me be clear.  I’m not discussing flags or cereals or home decor.  What I want to talk about is what happened when a  fellow military spouse, colleague, and friend of mine, Krystel Spell of ArmyWife101.com,  chose to open up the conversation about all of the American flag related web-chatter and her spin on how most of us, even the most fervent patriot, can easily unintentionally violate the United States Flag Code.

She referenced Lil’ Wayne’s now viral “dance” on the flag flap and the HGTV flag decor flop, talked about how she’d inadvertently violated flag code herself when trying to show a her American pride during her husband’s deployment, and passed on some interesting tidbits concerning American flag dos-and-don’ts.  She defended no one…just presented the events.

But, when did it go wrong?  Oh, I’d say within moments of her sharing her post entitled, “How Many Times Have You Disrespected The Flag Unintentionally? The Lil Wayne Debacle” on Facebook.  This is an excerpt from the very first comment on the post:

…This is MY personal opinion but I have a strong feeling you are defending Lil Wayne because he is black. If he was a white rapper and everyone in the video wasn’t black would you be defending him?

Woah.  Not once in the post did Krystel discuss race or skin color or any other physical attributes of any other person involved in either flag snafu. But there it is.  That is what this person chose to focus on.  Skin color.  And it’s clear that she really didn’t bother reading Krystel’s post either.

When I read that comment, I went through the roof for so many reasons, but these two stick out the most:

1. It’s amazing what people will say when armed with a keyboard and internet access.

Webmobs.  We’ve all seen them.  Maybe we’ve each been apart of one.  I know I have, but after the events of this week, I definitely will find myself acting much more cautiously.  The mob mentality is so much scarier online because you know that half the people who join up would never have the audacity to express themselves like that in person.

These webmobs give people relative anonymity insofar as they can hide behind a screen.  It’s the dark side of social media and, I think, the one of the biggest social ills of social networks as whole.  It also lends itself to ill-informed and downright wrong viral messages that nobody takes the time to verify or fact check or, in this case, read past the headline.

2. That’s a blatantly racist comment. 

Which is fine.  But the problem is, I am sure this person doesn’t believe themselves to be a racist…which is a problem.  If you’re a racist just accept it and own it.  And let’s be honest, everybody is little racist.  Yeah, I said it.  The dangerous people are the people who think they are not racist and then say crap like that.

According to this person she’s internalized this truth: black people just prop up other black people because that’s what “they” do.

She’s not alone in thinking that. There are people of all backgrounds who do the same thing.  It’s the assuming that is the problem.

So let’s talk elephants…

After living in the South for over twenty years, I haven’t been able to escape the mammoth sized elephant in the room that racism is in America.  I am painfully aware of its existence and I am personally vested in having an open dialogue about racial tensions in our country.

Racism isn’t as blatant as it was twenty or thirty or forty years ago.  It’s gone underground.  It hides in the corner of our minds waiting to pounce on our doubt, fear, and ignorance.  It’s not just this crazy mob of people in white sheets out terrorize and lynch and subjugate.

No, it’s different now.  It’s harder to put your finger on in many cases.  Very rarely is it as blatant as the the comment above or the comments on the Cheerios commercial.

Right now I want to tell you that I’m a person of color.  But that’s part of the problem.  No, not the color.  But that when we say “person of color” what we truly mean to say is that we’re not talking about white people.  But isn’t white a color?  Why am I “of color”, aren’t we all of some color or another?  The language we use is so alienating.  We divide ourselves.

You see, that’s how tricky this whole racism behemoth is.

By taking white people and setting them over here and then taking everyone else who is “of color” (whatever the hell that means), and putting them over there, we’ve drawn a battle line that is nearly impossible to erase, much less cross.

We don’t like talking about racism…and by “we” I mean all of us, because it’s dirty part of our history.  We’d just rather  not.  It’s uncomfortable.  But like most problems you don’t talk about, it just keeps coming up over and over and over again.  It never gets better.

Sure we’ve got an awareness month here and there.  Sprinkle in a little Rosa Parks here and some Ricky Ricardo there and violà!  Instant diversity and Kumbayah, right?

Wrong.  You can’t just sprinkle and mix and say problem solved.  If we don’t talk about ‘the why’ and ‘the how’ it doesn’t matter how many days or months or seminars we have about diversity and multiculturalism…it’s just going through the motions.

This mistrust we’ve built up between ourselves is destroying us little by little under the surface.  Like cancer.  Because that’s what it is…mistrust.  That we are in competition with each other.  That we don’t have each other’s best interest at heart.  That we are incapable of thinking outside of the color of our skin.

And we can’t ignore the color of our skin.  I don’t want anyone to be colorblind. That’s just ridiculous and impractical.  Why would anybody strive to be colorblind?  To not see what is plainly in front of your face? We see in color and it is beautiful.

My skin is there and it is brown and it is part of how I have experienced my life as an individual.  My skin color changes the way people interact with me.  It makes me who I am.  But it does not make my decisions for me.

My skin color does not think or feel or act for me.  But it does speak for me, sometimes against my will and against my interests because that is  a consequence of what it means to live as an American today.

And your skin color does the same thing.  It speaks for you.  If we acknowledge that our skin is speaking and honor the experiences that come with that, we can make sure that our words speak louder than our skin.

At NextGen MilSpouse, we want to keep this dialogue open, respectful, and thoughtful.  It is very much a part of our mission to create safe space for conversation.  Please share any thoughts or feelings on this issue with us and each other below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages.   

Do you feel that racial tensions still continue to drive a wedge in our American social fabric?  Do you agree that it’s harder to identify incidents, events, or comments as blatantly racist or do you feel it is still very evident?  What steps can we take to speak openly and honestly about race and its impact on our society today?

5 COMMENTS

  1. It’s so true what you say. When my husband and I first got married, he is black and I am hispanic, we both got looks. He didn’t care, but I did. It bothered me. But then, as I got more used to our interracial relationship, I didn’t bother me as much. There is still racism out there, like you say, in the underground waiting for the right time. Sad as it may be.

  2. I agree with you 100%. I think that some peope live in a false universe where racism is dead…it’s truly not. In fact-I have found that reverse-racism (when minorities are disgruntled by the majority or anyone outside of their ethnicity) is now even more prevalent at the years go by. I am mixed (1/2 Hawaiian and 1/2 white) and my husband is black and you’d be amazed by the looks we get from ALL races. I think that the “You only did that because the person was yellowgreenpurpleorange” argument is tired and over-rated…how about your friend said that about Lil Wayne because it was the truth…and that has no color

  3. I will come out and say what I’ve been feeling for a very long time. I am a white female, and time after time, I see actions and decisions made to “protect” or “further” African-, Hispanic-, or Asian-Americans. For example, I lost my college scholarship to an African-American woman, because the college “miscalculated” its funds and “did not properly fund minority education” for that particular scholarship. Not only did I have a higher GPA and SAT score than this woman, but she apparently dropped out of college less than four months in. The scholarships are not re-awarded once they have been assigned, so all of that money was thrown away on someone who couldn’t even commit to two years of college. Why was I, as white woman, given something that I earned through hard work, then deprived of it to make certain affirmative action numbers look good?

    Similarly, I have noticed that most jobs in my area require applicants to speak Spanish. This is America! Most white people I know don’t speak Spanish! I am more than qualified for the position I’m seeking, but because I am not fluently bilingual, I am having a very hard time getting a job.

    I’m not insulting African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans. I value a hard-working, honest, and kind person no matter his or her outward appearance. But lately, it seems like more and more advantage is being taken with the “race card,” and it makes me feel conflicted. Is it right to take away from one person who works hard and earns it, just to make demographics even?

    • I’m sorry to hear that you lost your scholarship in that way. I can understand why you would be frustrated and rightly put-out by that whole situation. I hope that it didn’t keep you from being able to attend the college of your choice.

      Affirmative action is hardly a perfect solution. I believe that providing all of our young children with high quality education in K-12 will be that equalizer that affirmative action was trying to be.

      As far as bilingualism goes, I am Latina and I am not fluent in Spanish either, but I do acknowledge that in order to be competitive in our country, being able to speak Spanish is a must, so I’m working on it. Bilingualism, whether we want to accept that or not, is the way of the future.

      I’m not sure that I agree with you when it comes to seeing the “race card” more and more often…I actually think that with our up and coming generations we’re seeing it less and less, which I find is fabulous.

      Thank you for sharing your story so candidly.

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