Friday, May 30, 2008

What is "White"?

Every night before I go to bed, I stand at my open window and breathe in my last scents of the night and give my thanks. I need to remember to start thanking the the spirits for not being a Dermatologist.

I went to mine yesterday and it was a very odd and somewhat unsettling experience. As if sitting in a little room on wax paper in a cotton "gown" (whoever gave it that euphemism should see what happens when a woman tries to wear a hospital "gown" down the red carpet), staring at all the pamphlets detailing the horrible things that will happen to your health if you're not careful, my dermatologist came in to look at my acne and instead freaked out about my back. "This... well, it's hard to judge... but this is the amount of sun damage I'd expect to see on someone older than you." Okay, so it's not the equivalent of going to the gynecologist and hearing "Oh this is interesting" once the doctor's down there, but being told you have old lady skin is enough to make any twenty-four year old scowl.

She stepped in front of me with slight shock. "What have you been doing?" she asked. She was probably hoping for me to chomp on some gum and say, "I tan at this place downtown every week." I told her the truth. "Uh... chores? I have horses so I'm out there cleaning horse stalls and stuff in a tank top..." She was still amazed. Why? Two reasons. One -- I have freckles. I don't find that very odd. I am part Irish and, well, I'm a freckly person on my arms and back where I get the most sun. As she stood there staring at me I even asked, "But none of my freckles look like they're planning anything, do they?" "No, they're fine," she responded. So what was the big deal? That leads me to my second reason: the sun had made me, a "white person," brown. *gasp*

From early March when I first showed up at school in a short skirt and tank top my classmates were gawking and saying "wow, someone's seen some sun" when in fact... um... yes, I had seen the sun (as opposed to not seeing it?) but no, I hadn't been intentionally tanning. I'll lie out in my swimsuit and read sometimes, but I'm always careful not to get burnt. And I haven't been burned yet this year. I just browned. Which led me to the extremely belated revelation that I have olive skin. I have arrested development, okay? These things sometimes take me a while to notice. But I notice the big things fast. Like when I was seven and put myself into a depression when I figured that all religions were wrong and when you die you cease to exist. But anyway, I'd gotten so used to my sister's fair complexion that I saw myself as the same way. And I am pretty white -- I mean, I have dark hair and eyes so I always look pale by contrast. But once in the sun I turn brown.

The only pic I could think of where you can see some of the color in my skin.

After a few weeks of warm weather one of my friends even announced that I "had to be part African American or Native American" to be brown as I am, though he's from the Seattle area so I'm not sure if he counts. To be fair, I was raised believing I was Mohawk, however then my grandma admitted to being a liar so who knows. She changes her story every time. Hey -- at least she didn't say we were Cherokee. No one will probably get that joke except for the one Indian who might stumble upon this blog... So it is possible that I'm part Indian, but if it were true, it would be several generations back and I don't think it would have really contributed to my phenotype.

The other odd thing is that, when I was about fifteen, I had a freckle/mole removed from my shoulder. It was tested and turned out to be just fine, though the derm I had back then wanted to share his surprising news that I actually don't have freckles. Given that this doctor also said "hey, who knows?" when I'd joked that some people thought the world was gonna end on 9/9/99 (yes, it was that long ago) I seriously suspected him of insanity. Especially when he told me to move to Alaska because my skin was fair or at the very least, wear a hat when I was standing on the sidelines of my soccer game to hide from the sun. As if. So it turned out that my freckles were really patches of melanin... in other words, patches of pigmentation, like... patches of skin from a darker-skinned person. Interesting.

Back to the present. The dermatologist I have now pulled up the sleeve of her white lab coat and held her arm up to mine to compare skin tones. Now, she's Asian. If I had to guess (yes, I'm racially profiling) I'd say she was Chinese given her name. But as we studied our forearms she said, "you should not be darker than me." At the time I was nervous since I was in a sack in a cold room with a stranger who was dictating to me the norms of my race without even bothering to ask why my race was, so I didn't say do much more than nervously laugh and say "my ancestors come from the North Atlantic and they didn't get much sun but here I am in California..." She advised me to "wear long sleeves as often as possible" and to "apply sunscreen every day, even when it's cloudy out, and reapply every 2 hours." I think she left out "live like a Vampire in the shadows."

Not feel the sun? Wear long sleeves all the time? She might as well have said "don't live!" I kept thinking along the lines of Donkey from Shrek: "Humans were born outside, we're meant to be outside." Yes, I understand the risks of sun exposure and yes, the people of Ireland are often sickeningly pale but... humans adapt. Our bodies are not stagnant. It seems to me that I should be able to handle a little sun now and then, or more often, especially if it doesn't burn at all.

Then I realized what she'd done during my visit. She'd compared her skin to mine and told me what I should look like... according to my "race." Whoa. Dude. Did she think I shouldn't be darker than her because "white" people are supposed to be... "white"? This is even more insane and insulting when you consider the fact that the creed of "proper skin tone" was being stated by a dermatologist who clearly believed in what she advised and most likely took every precaution in her life to try to simulate living in a cave void of UV rays.

I'm always puzzled by the idea of "white" as a race and the more opinions I hear from people of other races talking about "white people," as if an entire group of people are one homogeneous, single-minded mass, the more I wonder how much "white people" should be doing to define themselves. A few months back I looked up "Caucasian" since I was curious as to my "race" only to discover that I wasn't Caucasian at all. Caucasian, as a race, refers to Europeans or those of European origin. As far as I know, I only have a small bit of German but am predominantly a Celt. From now on when I fill out forms I'm checking "other" then filling in "North Atlantic Islander."

You mistakenly call an Irish person English and you'll get your ass kicked. I mean, WWI and WWII were all about different white people getting annoyed with each other and attacking each other. If "white people" are a homogeneous mass, then we're a damn volatile one. Then again, it is often the case that the moment one starts to discuss what it means to be "white" and mentions any other race in the discussion, one runs the risk of being labeled a "white supremacist" or "racist." Notice I felt compelled to use "one" in that sentence. Hmm.

What are your thoughts, anyone out there?

Chee Chee doesn't worry about his pale fluff.

Going back to dermatology, my cousins are ideal patients. They wear these swimsuit tops that look like wet suits and cover their chests and arms. Last year when we were camping I was watching them in their suits and asked "...don't you ever miss feeling the sun or the wind?" and neither missed a beat. Both said, "no" and looked at me funny. What's the world coming to?!

My visit ended with her waving off my acne as "a classic case of adult hormonal acne" with a brief treatment plan and many cautionings to cover up. I'm sorry, but I'll risk a little future sun damage (I mean, since my poser freckles aren't planning anything, they're not a threat) in the future. I mean, what's my back gonna do? Wrinke? Fine. At least I don't have to look at it. And it's worth feeling alive.

On an entirely different note, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has been out for a week now! I saw it last weekend and it was great fun. Indy is always an adventure! When my friends first started calling me "Bone" back in high school (hence the name "Bone Rice Productions") it was sometimes changed to "Indiana Bone." And I was Indy for countless Halloweens. Here's a picture from way back when I was a teen with braces!

1 comment:

Karmakameleon said...

What kind of a world is this, now that the sun has become a dangerous force to be hidden from?! I'm still a person who considers the sun a friend, despite all the cancer warnings.

As for the whole racial homogenization thing- I totally understand. I constantly have to explain to people that there are many different kinds of "black", and that they aren't all African or African American. I also fill in "other" on forms, then I put "Afro-European". It gets annoying. But ya, I'm right there with you.