Skin Color: A Reflective Piece

I’m lying on a dock, arm flung over my eyes, soaking up the last of the warm summer sunshine. There’s not a chance in hell I’ll get a tan for my efforts, but at the very least I am comfortable and warm.

I hear footsteps behind me and sit up, startled, since I thought I was alone on the dock. It’s a boy, we’ll call him Jonathon. Jonathon is harmless and fun. He is Latino, his skin darker than most, and slightly overweight. He always has a joke at the ready, but he is also very studious. On the other occasions when I’ve talked to him he’s mentioned he has a double major and a double minor, spanning three major fields between them all. He perpetually overloads his semesters in order to get everything done, but maintains high grades through it all.

He grins at me, a lazy sort of smile to match a lazy sort of day, and says, “Tanning?”

“Sure,” I say, smiling back. My skin is pasty white, obnoxiously pale by anybody’s standards, and clearly incapable of tanning or even making freckles. I’ve been face-up on the dock for so long my eyes aren’t detecting color at the moment, turning the world black-and-white. He is all shades of grey and darker grey, a dark object against the pale sky and beach behind him.

“You guys,” he says, waving a hand in my general direction. “You just want our skin color when it suits you, nothing else.”

It’s a joke, but it is also not a joke. I know his personality enough to realize he means no harm by the phrase, but I am on edge since a (presumably white) student was heard shouting racial slurs. In the dorm where the shouting originated from, swastikas were found spray-painted in an elevator. I know myself, my parents, and the way I was raised well enough to realize I have subconscious racial biases, ones I am constantly trying to fight and get rid of. Comments like Jonathon’s can have me clamming up fast, retreating back to the safety of what I know, the safety and familiarity of what I was raised in, which in all honesty was low-key racism.

I have a gut-level reaction to push back out of fear, push back at Jonathon and argue race with him, but I ignore that instinct. I choose his tactics instead.

I smile and roll my eyes in faked exasperation. “Oh, please. I’ll have you know that I come from a very long line of very pale white people, none of whom could tan. All I’m getting out here is skin cancer.”

He laughs, full-blown this time, not the halfhearted chuckle that accompanied his previous statement. He hangs around for a few more minutes, telling me about his next class in the boathouse nearby and how he doesn’t like the teacher but loves the subject, and then gives a friendly wave as he walks away.

I am left lying on the dock, thinking about the exchange. It only took a few seconds, yet in those seconds I was once again confronted with my deep set attitudes and reactions. It was a joke to Jonathon, as far as I can tell. I made it a joke, too, or at least tried to. Tried to make fun of my own race while simultaneously attempting to acknowledge the harsh truth wrapped in Jonathon’s smiling comment. I have heard enough of Jonathon’s political beliefs to know he takes Trump’s comments on exportation very, very deeply. He is more sensitive to his skin color than I will ever be.

I am not skilled at this yet. I am lucky Jonathon is easy-going and patient with me as I struggle to find my own prejudices, my own fears and biases. I cringe at the thought of telling him that he is my first friend “of color”. If I asked him too, I think he would outright tell me my problem areas. He might even be gracious enough to help me work them out, but that is more than I can ask of anybody but myself. My flaws are mine to fix, not his, especially not these ones. I have spent a long time learning to overcome myself, learning to be sensitive. I am not good at this yet, not by a long shot. I am deeply uncomfortable in these situations, but I recognize their necessity. I wonder how Jonathon must feel, attending this school that is nearly completely white in color. I wonder if he read as deeply into his comment as I did, or if it was just a joke to him.

I’m staring up at the sky, which remains grey in tone to my sun-blinded eyes. I can see in shades of grey, only shades of grey.

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