Why Does Skin Color Matter?
Have you ever met a “black person”? I haven’t. Have you ever met a “white person”? I suppose I have, once. And what about a…oh wait…we really do not refer to people by other colors do we? How silly does it sound to ask if you saw that green guy at the store or if the orange lady delivered your mail? But if I did see a green guy or an orange lady, those would be colors worth mentioning. But black and white? Merely a derogatory way to define someone’s perceived ethnicity, in my humble opinion.
So back to my original questions. Have you ever met a black person? I highly doubt it? I suspect you may have seen someone who had really, really dark brown skin. But I guarantee it was not black. I even checked around various websites and could not find any race of people with true black skin pigmentation.
And what about that white person? The only “white” skin tones I know of belong to persons with albinism.
So why do we insist on using skin color to describe people and does the color of someone’s skin really need to be used anyway?
It was not until I met my husband that I even gave this topic any thought. My husband is a beautiful blend of cultures resulting in a very dark skin tone. Most everyone would assume that he is African American when in fact, he is less than half. Most people would call him black. I instinctively never did. But…
One day I was telling my husband a story about this guy and his crazy antics in an intersection. I will never forget our conversation:
Me: “This black guy was acting like a lunatic today as he was crossing the street.”
Husband: “Why did you mention that he was black?”
Husband: “Does the color of his skin matter?”
Me: “You’re right. Let me rephrase. This African American guy was…”
Husband: “Why does it matter if he is African American? Are you suggesting that only one ‘type’ of person acts loony while crossing a street?”
Touché! And with my tail tucked between my legs, I vowed to never include a person’s skin tone or possible ethnicity in my description of them unless it was critical. And by critical I am referring to describing someone for the purpose of identification (i.e. a victim, a suspected criminal, a missing person, etc…).
It is amazing how often we use skin tone in our casual conversations with each other. Specifically black or white. I personally never strayed outside of those two colors. I have never referred to someone as “brown” or “yellow” although I know people who do use those words. Anyone who I assumed to be something other than African American or Caucasian is labeled by their perceived ethnicity. But again, this label should not matter or be mentioned.
Once I stopped including skin tone or ethnicity in my descriptions, I was really able to hear what other people were saying. I was appalled at how often one or the other (and sometimes both) crept into innocent conversation.
My husband snapped my focus front and center when he called me on the carpet. When it comes down to it, adding in a person’s skin tone or ethnicity adds nothing to the story. This is why we do not add in qualifiers like height, eye color, and shoe size. Imagine how ridiculous this would sound? “This blue eyed lady was walking down the street and suddenly started acting really odd. She had size 8 shoes and started yelling really loudly about thunderstorms in her ears. At 5 foot 4 inches, she brought traffic to a halt with her antics.”
Sound ridiculous? So does saying “This black guy was walking down the street.”
Next time you are discussing a person, stop and listen to the adjectives you are choosing. Are you unaware of your tendency to throw in skin tone or ethnicity as a qualifier? Do you really believe that using that language adds something to the conversation? And why do you suspect we only use “black” and “white?” There is something very wrong with that picture.
I could get all political on you with this post but my intention here is to simply make you more aware of the words you use in everyday speech. I am sure we are all guilty of using this sort of language from time to time and it is time to take responsibility for our speech and bring about a change. Wouldn’t it be beautiful to only hear things like “this generous woman bought my coffee today” or “a young man was unfortunately expressing his dissatisfaction with his friend rather loudly at the park today?” Because really, does it matter if their skin is lighter or darker? Does it really make a difference if they are Indian, Iranian, Greek, or Canadian? My answer is no.
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