By Lise Funderburg
For better and worse, I have inherited my father’s skin. A downside: My hands, like his, are so sensitive and willing to slough off layers that I have permanently lost fingerprints. An upside: I have an edge in the battle against time. My face may have begun to know gravity and admit fatigue, but its surface is still a stranger to wrinkles. My father doesn’t look 73; I don’t look 40. Ten years ago, I didn’t look 30. And 10 years before that, who cared to ask? My mother would be the first to concede that this skin I wear is not hers.
In spirit, she couldn’t be more age-defiant: At 75, she runs a bed and breakfast, cruises up the Volga one month, bicycles through Tucson another. But her Dutch/British Isles/Illinois skin is creased. So is her sister’s; so was their mother’s (yet since she lived to be 100, she was entitled to any kind of skin she wanted, as far as I’m concerned).
I have inherited my father’s hue but not his color, which is black. Not literally — no one’s skin is black. But my father is among the group of people variously labeled colored, black, African-American. He was born a Negro in a rural Georgia town, inside Jim Crow’s choking maw. I understand that history. But while he and I have the same light complexion — whiter than some whites — our shared color means one thing for him, another for me. Geography and generation and gender set us worlds apart.
For much of my father’s life, the pervasiveness of segregation and the know-everyone nature of small-town life made his actual skin color irrelevant. So what if he was bright; everyone knew who he was, where he came from, where he belonged. A misplaced comment could land him on the chain gang or worse — the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 was no surprise on his side of the tracks. His greatest hope, when my sisters and I were born a few years later, was that we would lead lives free of the limits he’d faced.
By and large, we have.
And yet, ironically for me, skin color — its absence — has increased buying power in the marketplace of race. I travel more widely, in larger circles, and so I am often initially judged, accepted, and rejected on the presumption that my pale skin says who I am. Black people wonder at my presence; whites assume I belong. Without a doubt, I have benefited from what’s been called “white skin privilege,” and yet, ever since I was small, I have not been happy with the color of my skin.
As a child, I wanted to be like my best friend Lauren, another mixed race girl who had more melanin — who was light but never mistaken for white. I secretly envied her olive hue; she secretly wished for the whiteness of straight hair and — I love this — hair on her forearms.
Of course Lauren’s color meant she was rejected by some — I’m not naïve — but it also saved her from the presumed allegiance so many white people have foisted on me, expecting me to buy into fears and offhand comments that denigrate half of the people I consider to be my loved ones. To be darker would have been to trade one window into prejudice for another, I know, but I was willing. I didn’t go the route that some of my similarly pigment-challenged brethren took: I didn’t visit tanning salons or perm a kink into my hair or wear dashikis. But I understood the impulse.
My secret dream of darkness was not just about silencing potential offenders. More than any other physical attribute, skin color refracts this society’s beliefs about race; it invites acceptance and alienation, signals comfort and threat. I wanted to wear, with pride, all the culture- and globe-spanning branches of my family tree. I wanted my insides to match my outsides.
That never happened. Even as the number of interracial marriages continues to soar and the types of mixes cross many more geographic and cultural lines — defying everything from casual assumptions to longstanding census categories — the drive to differentiate and subjugate based on appearance endures.
Because it is impossible for me to reconcile inside and outside, I’ve been forced to choose which one I’ll value more. I choose the inside, which comes from both parents. It shapes the way I walk through the world and look at other peoples’ skin, knowing enough — at least most of the time (I’m only human) — to register both the importance and insignificance of their color. And so it turns out that this skin I wear, my father’s and my mother’s, has as its most important gift the one that no one can see.