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  • Writer's pictureJayma Anne Montgomery

The Different Skin We Are All In: Race vs Ethnicity

This is a topic that I love to hate. Race is so ill-defined and nebulous that it requires all kinds of explanatory acrobatics. The issue for me is not one of political correctness (that’s almost never my goal) but just the fact that it's an extremely inaccurate means of categorizing people. It’s primarily based on skin color ranges, particular facial features, hair texture, and ancestry. Basing anything entirely on physical features is a set-up for failure because, as most of us know, gene expression is extremely variable. Two dark-skinned black people can make a light-skinned child (case and point, my son). Then there’s the fact that there is a pretty wide range of physical features within the same ethnic group. Visit Asia, Africa, or South America and you will see a broad range of skin types from extremely fair to extremely dark. These days, we are all about redefining terms into more confusing terms. I am never going to use the term Latinx other than in this sentence (so that I can vow never to use it again). We have thankfully stopped referring to the heterogeneous groups of Native American tribal people in this country as the red-skins and Indians, the first term being offensive and the second, entirely inaccurate. How has the term “race” not been rendered obsolete at this point in history? And why do we continue to pretend that there are only two “races” in America most of the time? Or that there aren’t vast differences even within these two races? For instance, there is a world of difference between a German Jew who lives in New York and an Irish Catholic who lives in New Jersey. People like me from any of the Caribbean islands will be quick to correct you that we are not African-American. There are a lot of layers to this thing.

I get that it's difficult to construct a word that fully encompasses the political, socioeconomic, and historical facets of the word “race.” I also get that it's cumbersome to refer to people by their ethnic and/or ancestral heritage and you’re definitely going to screw up if you insist on going by appearances. But can the reasonable among us just agree that the word “race” is a dumb word and enlist a few hundred of the smartest people in the world representing every country on the planet to come up with something better? This term once united science, religion, and the US government in a common cause at one point in history: proving the inferiority of people of non-European ancestry. Slaveholders pulled passages out of the Bible that seemingly supported slavery as a means of teaching submission to their slaves. In case you don’t already know, the Bible does not support slavery nor is it referring to race-based chattel slavery as it was conducted in the United States for over 300 years. There is an excellent book called How Not to Read the Bible that brilliantly addresses this as well as a number of other concerns about the Bible. It’s a great read. This historical basis is a large part of why churches remain largely segregated into white and black churches even today. It's why African-Americans are demanding the removal of Confederate statues and calling out how this country’s roots in white supremacy have cast a shadow over many of our largest institutions, perpetuating disadvantage towards black people even to this day. Long story short, you can’t just cut down the tree and say it’s gone. There is a whole system of roots spread out in every direction underground that need to be dug up as well. If that tree happens to be 300+ years old, those roots will be miles long. Hopefully, my point is clear.

The framers of the Constitution were divided over the issue of racism. The Declaration of Independence, largely penned by Thomas Jefferson, explicitly stated that all people are created equal before GOD and had inalienable rights. How could we justify continuing slavery and taking land from the Native Americans if this was truly the case? In the end, the wealthy south bankrolled our fledgling country with their slave-driven economy. This was how Alexander Hamilton was able to establish our national banking and currency system. Wealthy plantation owners were then able to secure wealth for their family line for generations to come. Meanwhile, efforts to ‘civilize’ the Indian people and incorporate them into our society were not going as planned. In the end, even Thomas Jefferson wrote letters to the tribes posing as one of their Gods and commanding them to move westward with military escorts. To this day, Native Americans are among the most impoverished and illness-stricken people in the United States. The fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the ruling class elite who have been governing this country from the very beginning. Have you noticed that hardly anyone ever talks about that?

Then there is the pseudoscience of phrenology that became popular in the 1800s. It looked at differences in the shapes of skulls in people of different ethnic backgrounds to draw conclusions about their intelligence, capabilities, personality traits, and overall place in ‘civilized society.’ This was used to justify the African slave trade. It was actually believed that Africans were best suited to slavery and required masters in order to be useful, much like the relationship between horses/dogs and humans. It was also used as justification by Andrew Jackson to forcefully pursue westward expansion and the violent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. This overwhelmingly affected the Cherokee tribe. Amidst conclusions that they were uncivilized, a group of studious Cherokee started a newspaper in which they wrote articles to defend their claim to their land. They even appealed to the Supreme Court and won. Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court in pursuit of a maniacal quest for glory resulting in what we call today, ‘The Trail of Tears.’ People like Steven J Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man definitively refuted this theory. Mind you, this book was written in 1981, well after the abolishment of Jim Crow laws.

The overall gist is this: European colonizers from powerful empires like Great Britain and Spain were expanding their control into other countries by means of war and governmental control. Later on, the Bible was retroactively misquoted in support of all of this. The assertion was that given the significant differences in skin color and features of people who are not of European descent, then GOD must have made them an inferior species of human. Then, phrenology comes along to assert that it's a scientific fact that non-Europeans are superior in every way. All of this does not just magically undo itself in 40-70 years. While overtly racist ideas and practices are no longer socially acceptable in the US, this does not mean that the ideas behind them have not persisted in other shapes and forms.

What I mean is, if you don’t look like you are of European descent, you will constantly be underestimated and sometimes blatantly disrespected. I know this because it happens to me regularly. Of course, I'm well aware that I'm also regularly underestimated because I am a woman who looks rather young for my age but neither of those factors is the focus of this discussion. The idea that black people are unintelligent, immoral, lazy, hypersexual, and inherently more violent came out of this history. It's so effective that other black people are just as quick to underestimate me when they first meet me as well. It doesn’t help that the portrayal of black people in the news, entertainment, and other media is overwhelmingly negative; admittedly, some of that we do to ourselves (I’m looking at you, hip-hop culture, and BET). A young, unarmed boy in a hoodie is labeled as a threat and shot to death. Minorities are consistently given harsher sentencing for non-violent crimes and then labeled as convicts for the rest of their lives. Peaceful protesters are labeled as rioters and doused with firehoses and teargas. Whether African-American, African, West-Indian, or Afro-Hispanic, your skin is a definitive label in the eyes of many with many assumptions and presumptions attached to it.

This is a worldwide problem. The caste system is partially based on skin color. Apartheid involved the European colonizers in South Africa imposing segregation laws on Africans. Asians are revered for having paler skin. Colorism is rampant in the Caribbean islands, where favor is bestowed on people with lighter skin, silky hair, and features of mixed heritage. Something about having dark skin causes many to think less of us. It even causes some of us to think less of ourselves. Skin bleaching is more popular than most people think, driven mainly by societal norms. And yet, having darker skin is an almost daily test of character. Some of us fail because we cannot overcome our rage over the unfairness of it all, thus reinforcing the stereotype of inferiority. But many of us have learned to view our skin color as part of our calling. It’s an invitation to challenge expectations and invite those who misjudge and misread us to think better of us. It has taught some of us patience, perseverance, mental toughness, wisdom, and the art of being strategic. It takes grit and a lot of heart to not allow the hardships of having darker skin to cause you to give up or become embittered. Martin Luther King once talked about how we needed to free the oppressor just as much as the oppressed. Some people are imprisoned by ignorance, hatred, spite, or false beliefs about what it means to be a person of color. This mindset makes them an enemy of GOD whether they realize it or not. I like to think that I am part of the quiet yet powerful revolution that will open their eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to the fact that these differences are to be celebrated and respected. GOD makes distinctions out of creative expression; we should stop turning His artistic expression into excuses to form hierarchies.

Freedom Looks Good on You by Israel Houghton, Maverick City, & Tribl

Fraternal twin girls

Variations in African skin types (not fraternal twins)

Variations in Asian skin types (also not fraternal twins)

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