Letter: The history and complexity of skin color

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Editor of the Reformer,

David Crawford raises some complex questions in his Letter to The Editor of May 1 with his discussion and inquiry of the term People of Color. The term People of Color was adopted by People of Color in the late 20th Century; it was not made by a white person as Crawford suggests. Before this term, People of Color were called non-white and People of Color found it offensive to be defined in this negating way. They wanted a term that would include all those groups who were marginalized or discriminated against by white interpersonal and institutional racist practices; it includes African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans and indigenous people or Native Americans. Earlier in the century the terms white and colored were used, then Negro and white, then African Americans chose to name themselves black. Naming is always interesting because, of course, not everyone will identify similarly, but an important concept is who is doing the naming, and what the significance behind it is. In Brattleboro, we have the POC caucus. Having taught at the School for international Training, I can say that students from Asia, Latin America and Africa do not identify with this term.

The point isn't so much about actual color, and no categorization could catch the physical continuum of skin color that exists on the planet. As "Race: The Power of an Illusion" points out, race has no genetic basis, and no one characteristic, trait or even one gene distinguishes all members of one so-called race from all members of another so-called race.

Race and whiteness are socio-political terms. The concept of race was created in the United Sates. In 1676 in what is called Bacon's Rebellion, a group of European indentured servants and Africans (many enslaved until death or freed) rebelled against the establishment, the ruling class, to address their conditions. To avoid further rebellions, the ruling class then grouped all Europeans - formerly known as Dutchman, Germanman, Frenchman, Englishman, into one category, white, and gave them privileges the Africans did not have. That is how white came about. The concept race was furthered by the Declaration of Independence stating that all men are created equal, which created a dilemma as slavery could be challenged as immoral. The concept of race, and an inferior race not fully human, helped explain why slaves from Africa could be denied their rights and freedoms. So-called scientists continued to support the concept of race.

People of Color does not mean, as Crawford claims, not white men. In fact, historically, it was the other way around. People of color were called nonwhite and seen as the other.

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So these artificial categories of racial categorization by the identification of color continued, which as Crawford points out, doesn't really describe color. I am identified as white, but my skin color is not white. Bandages resemble my skin color more than that of a person who is identified as brown or black. And there used to be flesh colored crayons, more like my skin color.

I have been intrigued by the way I have heard African Americans describe skin color with a beautiful array of tones. Alice Walker does this in "Possessing the Secret of Joy" and here is an excerpt from a book, "The Time of Our Singing" by Richard Powers:

"The faces shone in all gradation this way mahogany, that way walnut or pine. Clumps of bronze and copper, pools of peach, ivory and pearl Bleached paste from out of a flour bin, or a midnight cinder All imaginable traces and tinges of brown, taupe turning evidence of ambers, tan showing up tawny, pinks and gingers and teaks All ratios of honey to tea, coffee to cream, fawn, fox, ebony, buff, beige, bay Brown like pine needles, brown like cured tobacco, chestnut, sorrel, roan chestnut, sorrel, roan."

Claire Halverson

Dummerston, May 13


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