Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Skin Tone Markers

I'm a white guy. I've expressed that before (for a certain value of guy). And while I come from an area that's poorer than shit, and I myself am poorer than shit, that doesn't mitigate the privilege society awards to me for being the color that I am.

I've come along way in acknowledging that privilege, but I probably still have miles to go before I sleep. Today, I was reminded of just how far I've come, and just how blind some people are to the concept of privilege (and how insidious racism actually is capable of being). I was reading this narrative, and there was a little part of it that struck me:
Decades ago, in graduate school, a professor and I chatted as we prepared for a holiday party in the English department. I made decorations, digging around in a box that was loaded with miscellaneous art supplies – colored pencils, dried out markers, and broken old crayons 
“Nice crayon,” my professor said as I colored a poster.
“What color is it?”
I turned the crayon around in my hand and read: “Flesh.”
“Got a problem with that?”
I was stumped. “With what?”
“Miss Grant, I think you’ve had just about enough gender studies courses,” he said. “How about giving a little more thought to race?”
I am an amateur artist. I used to have a lot more artistic talent than I do today; I've squandered it, but drawing is still something that I occasionally do for fun. I was drawing before I was writing; I stopped drawing sometime in early college, which was about the time that I started to pick up in my writing. I traded one talent for another, you might say. Today, a lot of my art is done in Daz Studio, and with 3d rendering. 3d rendering, with some help from photoshop, has its advantages. At the same time, though, I'm restricted in what I can and can't do (because I can't design my own models, and the selection of primitives, or basic shapes, isn't very broad) in a way that I'm not when I draw.

I still have a pile of primsacolor markers. I actually have several boxes of them; I still use them. I love primsacolor; they're my favorite type of marker, because they make smooth strokes and I can "layer" progressively darker colors, to create the illusion of shadow and depth in a picture. If you've followed that link, you probably see the prismacolor markers are expensive; one marker sells for 3 dollars. I probably have over 200 dollars worth of markers that I've collected over 5 or 6 yeas of art work, including Christmas gifts. Eventually, it just got too expensive. That's another reason I don't have many hobbies other than writing anymore: writing is free. Everything else costs money I don't have, and time I can't waste.

Reading the narrative above reminded me of a time when I was relatively young - I want to say this happened about 6 or 7 years ago, maybe even 8. I was sitting in my mom's room, and I was organizing the markers according to color type (so, these were greens, these were oranges, these were reds, etc). I had them all nicely organized, and I was going through the various color groups with my mom. I even had a group I called "skin tones." Unfortunately, that "skin tones" group was a rather restricted group - just like the "flesh" crayon in the narrative above, my "skin tones" were all various shades of pale. Blondwood (not peach; prismacolor peach is a lighter shade of this very vivid pink and only works if you're coloring the skin on a pig), Tan, Creme, Brick Beige; the one thing they all had in common is that they were all pale (with, as the case with some, yellow underscoring them). Browns had their own category, which I called "earth tones". 

I did not even register that. I just didn't. I erased an entire group of people and replaced them with dirt.

I recognize it today. I no longer separate my markers like that. I don't have a "skin tone" category, since I can use just about any marker ranging from creme to my dark browns* to represent skin tones (if I did break it up properly, that category would be about 75% of my maker total). I don't even break them up; they're all lumped in two boxes sitting in the corner of my room, but when I did after that, they were done strictly by color: blues, oranges, yellows (which included blondwood, creme, and brick beige), browns, blacks, whites, grays, reds (which included the umbers) and so on and so forth.

It took my mom pointing it out to me that how I was dividing the markers back then was racist. And the irony of that is my mom is not an egalitarian; she will admit she is a racist individual who does not like Black people**. It's never been very prominent, and I've only seen it on display once or twice. So I'm still not entirely sure, reflecting back on that story, how it turned out the way it did, and why, of all people, she was the one to point that out.

But yes, this is what people mean when they say you have privilege. It was nothing malicious on my part. It was not me intending to erase an entire population, completely and utterly, and prioritize "Earth colors" over them (which is stupid in retrospect; "earth colors" are everything from brown to blue, with green, orange, yellow, and everything else thrown in the mix). It wasn't me intentionally expressing some unconscious dislike for individuals with dark skin (which include more than just Africans; this includes Dravidians, some Pacific Islanders, Australian Natives, and some Southeast Asian populations, among others).

It was ignorance. That's all it was. And it doesn't excuse it at all; but it's like any mistake. You pick up and you learn from it. And that's what I did, and that's what I'm still doing.

* Dark brown is as dark as I can get when I'm using markers. If I wanted to create a darker skin tone (I know they exist) then I would do something like "Dark brown, dark umber, black", but I'd never use black as a solid, base color for a picture (because I rely on going from "light to dark" to create the illusion of depth, and there's not many colors darker than black. Also because I ink my pictures using black ink, which complicates it just a touch).

** My mom, and a few people that I know, makes a distinction between "good" black people and "bad" black people. It's a distinction that, growing up, I never understood. I point it out every time it gets brought up: If they're lazy good for nothings, why not just call them lazy good for nothings, since that's what we call whites who are like that (and don't get me started on passing judgement on people like that; until you understand their circumstances, you cannot morally make these judgement calls about people), instead of calling them niggers? And guess what? They don't have an answer, and it's because they don't know why, other than it being blind habit.

Maybe I'm the reverse. Rather than blaming the poor black people for the collapse of my neighborhood, and the collapse of my city, I'm more apt to blame the rich white people, since they're the ones with the money, the power, and the capability to come in and help us fix it - but they actively chose not to, and instead, continue to exploit poor people, black, white, Asian, Native, and any other group. Somehow, I feel the reverse is less acceptable socially, even though it's definitely the more moral of the two. And it's definitely not, like I heard some brain-dead libertarian tell me, "economic discrimination" because they have more money. Nobody chose to be black. You chose to be rich. You have all of the responsibility that comes along with it; the first thing Spiderman teaches is us that with great power comes great responsibility; money is power in this society. You don't want that responsibility? Give up the power, and the money with it. Stop being rich. It's a lot easier to stop being rich than it is to stop being black.

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