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Racialytics #1: Under Our Skin

Note from Dominique:  This is the first in a series of posts I am calling Racialytics:

  • definition: an analysis of the racism that underlies a past or current event.  Here, “racism” not only refers to an individual’s deliberate bigotry or prejudice towards people of colour.  It also refers to the ways in which discrimination based on skin colour is reinforced in our society, regardless of an individual’s actual intent.

This definition is subject to change upon further reflection and deliberation.

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Racialytics #1: Under Our Skin

The latest blog post by Tim Wise (a.k.a. My Secret Boyfriend*), opens with the following statement:

“Prominent white conservatives are angry about racism.”

He then provides a long list of highly disturbing, well-researched examples of systemic and overt racism in the USA, and points out that not one of these has raised the ire of white conservatives.  Rather, what has really gotten under their skin is tanning.  More specifically, the use of tanning salons.  Even more specifically, President Obama’s proposal to place a tax on tanning salons.  According to these conservatives, this is a “race-based tax” against white people, because “dark-skinned people” don’t use tanning salons.

Well no, we don’t.  We have no need to, obviously.  But, that doesn’t mean that tanning – as a culturally-valued aesthetic practice in Western society – has nothing to do with us “dark-skinned” folk.  On the contrary, it has everything to do with us, perhaps even more so than with white people.  This point is best illustrated by a conversation in which white people (friends, colleagues, peers, acquaintances) have engaged me every summer for as long as I can remember.  This conversation may begin and end differently, but there are few constant elements:

1) how lucky I am that I don’t need “to tan”, either artificially or naturally
2) how surprised they are that I do, indeed, “get tanned” when I’m out in the sun
3) how they wish they could be as dark as I am

I don’t know if I can adequately describe my feelings of discomfort, anger, and resentment every time a white person (even the ones I love) has this conversation with me.  Discomfort because, as soon as anyone raises the issue of tanning, my guard goes up and I switch into RSM (Racism Survival Mode), because I know that at least one of those three constant elements is going to rear its ugly head.  Anger because, once again, I’m being reminded that, according to this society, I am – and always will be – different (where “different” = alien, foreign, abnormal).  Resentment because few white people ever seem to realize that having brown skin is only culturally valuable when your skin isn’t already brown to begin with.  To illustrate:

1) I’m lucky because I don’t need “to tan” – While it’s true I’m lucky in the sense that I don’t need to deliberately participate in a cancer-causing activity, being brown-skinned is not the same thing as having brown skin.  As a white person, having brown skin automatically makes you more admirable, attractive and desirable.  Conversely, as a PoC (“Person of Colour”), being brown-skinned automatically makes you less admirable, attractive and desirable.  There’s nothing “lucky” about that.

2) I actually do “get tanned” – This comment has always baffled me.  I mean, come on, people… skin is skin.  It changes colour when exposed to the sun.  Some people get kind of reddish, while others get kind of brownish.  It’s a chemical reaction that takes place in all human beings.  So, expressing surprise that dark-skinned people can tan actually serves to keep alive the (mostly) outmoded belief that we’re not quite like “other humans” (read:  white people), and that maybe, we’re really not human at all.

3) Wishing to be as dark as I am – I encourage any white person who has ever said something like this to a PoC to take sixty seconds to think about what being dark-skinned would mean for how you are perceived and treated by the world.  Now… do you really want to be brown like me?

3a) I understand that this comment is meant to be a compliment:  you like the warm caramel-y, hot cocoa-y goodness of my skin tone so much, you want to have it for yourself.  It’s also possible that this comment is meant to show me that you’re not a racist.  However, at best, this compliment is a back-handed one, because it’s understood (if only subconsciously) that being brown is only desirable if it’s temporary.  You would never choose to be all brown, all the time, because you understand (again, if only subconsciously) that it would mean giving up the “skin privilege” that comes from being white.

So, back to the white American conservatives’ outrage over the tanning tax.  It is not, as they claim, a “race-based tax”.  Rather, it is a tax on what is ultimately a race-based practice.  Which is why I’m really hoping that this tax is approved.  Not only might it make people think twice about tanning’s associated health risks (which I’m assuming is the actual purpose of the tax), but it might spark some discussion (and maybe some outrage) about its inherent racism.

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* Seriously.  I’ve had an intellectual crush on him for years, and I don’t foresee that changing any time soon.  If I ever meet him in person, I will very likely squeeeee! like a pre-adolescent fangirl at a Justin Bieber concert, before dissolving into a quivering mass of goo.

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2 comments on “Racialytics #1: Under Our Skin

  1. Great post, Dom. How do you not lose your patience after the 4th, 5th, 6th time this happens?

  2. What an interesting analysis! I’ve never thought about the act of tanning having inherent racism but I suppose it does. This goes along with the “you’re better/more attractive if you’ve done something unnatural to your body” theory, so in addition to what you mentioned above, it reinforces the belief that we’re never good enough in our natural state.

    I find the practice to be unhealthy and completely unnecessary. I went once at my then-roommate’s insistence but didn’t care for the uncomfortable, triangle-shaped sunburn in my cleavage. This led to the conclusion that maybe that area doesn’t see the light of day for a reason…

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