Whiteness Without Complex?

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event called ‘Color Without Complex‘, featuring a public conversation between image activist Michaela Angela Davis and ethnographer and publisher Dr. Yaba Blay. The discussion revolved around Blay’s recent book and accompanying exhibition, (1)ne Drop, which looks at the faces and stories of individuals who identify as black, but do not necessarily fit with common prototypes of blackness in the US. By focusing on light-skinned individuals existing at the very outer periphery of blackness, the project tests the perceptual limitations and the social implications of the one drop rule in today’s post-segregation America – a country in which contemporary notions and benchmarks of ‘race’ are still rooted in cultural and legal traditions established under slavery, colonialism and Jim Crow segregation.

The theme up for debate was colourism, a hot internet topic over the past nine months in particular, and the object of a number of recent documentaries, chat shows and news articles in the US. While social prejudice against people ‘of colour’ – as well as the pathological tendency of the Western media to showcase whiteness not only as the norm, but also as virtually the sole domain of beauty – are perhaps two of the most visible social legacies of colonialism throughout the Atlantic world and beyond, these recent debates are bringing to light skin colour prejudices within the black community. Whereas, historically, light coloured skin was prized and aspired to throughout the Americas as a path to social ascension and a means of escaping the stigma of blackness, in recent decades pan-Africanism and a multitude of black pride initiatives have caused a shift towards celebrating and embracing blackness as embodied by a dark-skinned, African ideal. Meanwhile, in some cases light-skinned blacks have become the target of double-edged prejudice: stigmatised by whites for being black, and ostracised by blacks for apparently aspiring to be white.

‘Color Without Complex’ was set up by Davis and Blay as a healing encounter: an honest discussion that would contrast the assumptions that are made about individuals (in particular, women), based on their skin colour, with the lived experiences of blackness that can only be understood by getting to know people, by hearing and discussing their stories in an environment of trust and love. It was, implicitly and explicitly, a conversation about blackness, for and by ‘sisters’ – women of a range of hues who identify as black.

And yet, I think it is worth mentioning that there was also a significant minority of white women among the audience who turned up to listen to the debate. Looking around the room, I wondered what had brought them there, like me, to listen from the sidelines into a conversation to which we were not party. In the Q&A session at the end, the (white) woman sat in front of me, holding hands tightly with her (black) husband, asked a question about healing through empathy. Some minutes later, a young (white) woman a few rows further down asked the following question:

“How would you defend, or maybe not necessarily defend, but how would you address a woman who is of colour, but appears to look as white as I do? How would you talk to her or address to her what her place is in relation to colourism, for example? How does colourism apply to her, because she looks white but she is a person of colour, and identifies with that?”

The question contains both an insistence (‘I am of colour’) and a plea (‘talk to me; defend me’), which stand contradicted by the speaker’s skin colour. What is a white woman’s place in relation to colourism? In what does being ‘of colour’ consist, if that colour leaves no recognisable physical trace? What can a woman who happens to look white know about the experience of de facto nonwhiteness – which, surely, is the true test of colour?

Underlying the question is a statement of solidarity: I choose to identify with you, even though I cannot prove I am one of you. The speaker is asking for permission to cross the colour line and enter the night’s discussion, although she fears rejection based on the evidence given against her by her own skin. It seems striking to me that she asks these (black) women, apparently so used to talking about issues of colour, for advice on how she should be addressed: what words can be used to explain and alleviate her predicament?

Rather than being particular to the speaker’s situation, I see this question as symptomatic of the lack of vocabulary available to ‘people of whiteness’ who wish to join in debates about colour, race and prejudice in a personal, nonacademic way, after having been so silent, for so long. More importantly, it speaks to the difficulty of talking about these issues ‘while white’, in any forum, without first feeling the need to validate your non-racist credentials while proving the sincerity of your interest and the relevance of your experience. In part, this has been due to the widespread belief by light-skinned individuals and others that whiteness is without complex: white = privilege, end of story. In part, it is the result of a well-meaning adherence to strict standards of political correctness, which culminates in self-censorship as a means of not offending anybody.

Unfortunately, the longer you remain isolated from conversations about race, identity and prejudice, the more likely you are to unwittingly offend the other interlocutors when you rejoin the discussion, through your inability to articulate your own experiences or engage others regarding theirs. Yet, as Blay and Davis have demonstrated, the only way towards reconciliation is through discussion. The great strongpoint of the (1)ne Drop project has been the effort made by Blay to listen to, understand and spread the stories told by the participants in an effort to explain their identity, rather than merely compiling a showcase of the superficial diversity of black experiences. Skin colour does not speak for itself, and so in order to commit to working towards a post-racial society, we must find a way of striking up a conversation, based on trust and compassion, between speakers on both sides of the colour line, in which whiteness, blackness, and everything in between is up for discussion.

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2 thoughts on “Whiteness Without Complex?

  1. Pingback: Mixed Race Studies » Scholarly Perspectives on Mixed-Race » Whiteness Without Complex?

  2. “Give me the process”

    I’ve always wondered what is the intellectual relevance of these storytelling sessions, apart from the cathartic element for those interviewed. After watching the “Color Without Complex” video, I ended with a similar feeling of dissatisfaction, comparable at certain point to what Dr. Blay expressed regarding Oprah’s approach to colorism: give me the sociological process, the system, the relevant institutions! What would sound too much for a talk-show sounds fair for a NYU conference.

    Well, aside from some geographical remarks, the presenters barely scratch the surface of the ethnographic dense description that would make Blay’s interviews interesting for a broader discussion. I agree with Blay that, after sharing their stories and comparing their pain and traumas (presenters included), the interesting questions remain: “where are you now?” and “how did you get there?” – not in personal or psychological terms, but rather in structural ones. That’s to say, in order for the specific cases to transcend the merely anecdotal, one has to start looking for all those elements (education, income, political preference, family background, neighborhood, age, religion, profession, etc.) that would, I’m sure, help us to understand their own definitions of identity by going, paradoxically, beyond the dominant layer stressed in the conference: visibility.

    Finally, I would like to point out that despite the remarks on the importance of conversation and dialogue for healing, in my opinion the conference was more a “side by side” monologue, because since the beginning there was no substantial disagreement between Davis and Blay. In that sense there was no dialectic, no auto-reflexive voice that could introduce a different perspective – perhaps a critical one – when questioning the implications of phrases such as: “It is war and we have to arm our babies… with love”.
    True dialogue requires modesty, moderation and, above all, the intellectual need for an alternative point of view (even a white one), understanding that their very disagreement proves they need one another in order to better understand the problem. Although the (1)ne Drop motto calls for “shifting the lens on race”, it seems to me that the hosts’ attitude could be summed up in the phrase used by Davis in response to those who object to her “Black Girls Rock” T-shirt: “It’s got nothing to do with you…Just let me rock!”

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