Look, as a Caucasian, I cannot possibly relate to the struggles and discrimination and violence encountered by other races. The physical and emotional oppression of an entire race of people makes my getting picked up by the ears by a freakishly tall bully in grade school look like petty griping. But I do know how it feels to be judged by one’s skin colour.
I never had any of my basic freedoms stripped away based on the colour of my skin. I was only made to feel uncomfortable within it. And even then, only by insensitive bastard Caucasian children. Insensitive bastard children know no boundaries in the crude art of ridicule. Actually, ridicule is a tad harsh in this instance. We’ll call it criticism. As someone involved in commercial creativity, I am open to honest feedback and constructive criticism. And, my position on procreation aside, I’ll grant that sometimes those darndest things out of the mouths of wide-eyed babes can be amusing. I still have no idea how to react when someone exclaims, “You’re so white!” at me. Similarly, I struggle with crafting a clever response to “But you look so young!” Are these insults? Compliments? Insults wrapped in compliments and dipped in jealousy? I can tell you that my youthful appearance and skin tone are direct results from staying out of the sun and wearing my sunglasses more than Anna Wintour.
During my tweenage years, the occasional bitchy beige girl took the opportunity to ask snidely, “Why aren’t you tan?” and “Don’t you ever go outside?” They were being rhetorical. They didn’t care. They just needed to make me aware that they were judging me just as harshly as I might’ve been judging myself. If I responded with, “Is that rhetorical?” The girls would snort about my use of a big word and go compare tan lines with her toasted friends.
As I got older I would encounter people—heavily made-up middle-aged women, mostly—who went into rapture over my “gorgeous porcelain skin.” “Oh, she’s just like a little doll!” they would exclaim to my mother. Of course they were meeting me under the flattering fluorescence of mall lighting. People at the beach or at poolside were less enchanted with my blindingly flawless complexion. They were just blinded.
I don’t have to tell you how I achieved my Ultra 00 (according to the Merle Norman make-up packaging) skin tone. The 60-watt incandescent bulbs that lit my childhood homes don’t have the same impact on skin colour that the UV rays of good ol’ American sunshine does.
I was the pigment-challenged sheep of the family. My father had a mechanic’s tan. Years of being in the sun and doing manual labor had turned his fingernails black and his skin a nice burnt sienna. My mother told me I would call him “my fat brown daddy.” He did not accept this term of endearment warmly, I was also told. My sister spent the bulk of her late teens through early thirties in pursuit of the perfect tan. She split her free time between tanning beds and sunbathing by the pool. I dedicated my free time to watching Kids in the Hall marathons in bed and bathing in Cheetos crumbs. Her skin would glow like a lightly glazed Thanksgiving turkey. Um, well, my fingers were orange.
I would be lying if I said I was always content with being near translucent. While I haven’t followed in my sister’s tan lines to the tanning beds, I have experimented with tan-in-a-tube. Um, well, my fingers were orange. My legs never changed beyond a milky white. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to believing in God’s will.
Since escaping the Deep South, no one in my new life wastes a thought on my skin colour. Canadians are not bothered if your skin is lighter than beige. With nearly five months of winter each year, there’s little motivation to run around in the good ol’ Canadian sunshine.
South of the border, my skin tone still elicits polarized reactions. Sometimes I get a compliment. Occasionally someone feels compelled to ask if I’m a goth chick. But being paleface doesn’t have the same stigma from 15-20 years ago. Thanks to skin cancer and science, it’s actually fashionable to forego the extra pigment. My peers are no longer concerned with my outdoor activities. I take pride in never worrying about tan lines. I can wear as many or as few straps as I’d like, though the latter might lead to public indecency charges. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I am not pure as the driven snow. That’s probably fodder for a different essay.