Saturday, July 25, 2009
If you're a "white" person, what color are you really?
When I hold up my hand, or look into a mirror, I have to think beyond my fictional "whiteness" to see what color I really am.
My skin is not the color -- or lack of color -- of a piece of paper. I am not, literally, "white."
When I try to discern and label accurately the color of my skin, I come up with "pink, but then, kind of beige, too."
I'm a little darker in some places, a little lighter in others, but nowhere am I really "white."
I remember being in a used bookstore once and flipping through a book by Clarence Major called Black Slang: A Dictionary of Afro-American Talk. I was struck by the definition for the word "pink."
Now I can find this dictionary again on Google Books and easily look up that entry. So here it is:
Pink: (1900-40s) white person.
Major also included this, as the next definition:
Pink chasers: (1900-40s) black people who deliberately cultivate friendships with white people.
For several centuries now, "black" people have been pressed into daily contact with "white" people. As I've gradually come to understand, this proximity has afforded black people all sorts of secret knowledge about their supposed betters. That's obviously true of other groups excluded from whiteness as well, and I sometimes wonder whether different groups have gathered and shared among themselves differing examples of such subordinated knowledge.
Surely this usage of "pink" was something that black people carefully avoided uttering aloud whenever a white person might hear it. So what did its covert usage signal, or imply?
Maybe to call a white person a "pink" meant, in a deceptively simple way, "They may call themselves 'white,' but that's not what they are."
I like to think -- without actually knowing whether it's true -- that this common black term for white Americans signaled an oppressed people's collectively private recognition. This would have been the recognition of a singular, unwarranted, and really rather ridiculous arrogance among their self-appointed betters.
If the term "pink" was used to point out that those so-called white people are not actually "white," but closer instead to "pink," then racial whiteness itself was exposed as a fiction. And then, so were the presumptions of a people who had arrogated to themselves -- and thereby implied the opposite about others -- the pure, clean, unblemished, and uninfected connotations of the word "white." A word that falsely denotes a lack of something that the skin of so-called white people actually does not lack: color.
In other words, maybe black people called white people "pinks" because they knew that white people are delusional. I know that I am, because when I look in my bathroom mirror, I don't see my actual color as any particular, actual color. As I said above, I have to think about it, and then I'll think, and see, colors like "pink," or "beige," or during the summer, "tan."
And then when I step out into the world, if someone were to ask me what "color" or "race" I am, as various authority figures and official forms have asked me before, a false reality to which I normally subscribe would reassert itself.
I would say, in the usual, deluded manner of my tribe, "I'm white."