Skin. We all have it. It’s one of the things you see right away about someone when you meet them. It is, by common sense and according to various books on the human body, a very significant organ. It has also been the excuse for racism, for many hundreds of years now, and oddly, and heartbreakingly, we are, in this world, quite strangely and rigidly organized in certain ways, around skin.
I have fair skin– as a child I burned but didn’t tan much, I got freckles, and stayed freckled all summer. Now I don’t really do sunbathing anymore, even with sunscreen. I am a white woman; an Ashkenazi Jew with origins in Hungary, Russia. As a younger woman my hair was dark brown and now it is, well, brown with a lot of gray in it. Or maybe you would say, gray with some dark brown remaining. Or maybe you would just say that I have gray hair– I don’t know exactly what you would say. But my skin is– well beige or pinkish or some color that we call white. A little over two weeks ago, at the very beginning of January 2010, I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. A skin cancer. This is not very serious in the scheme of things, but it is, after all, a cancer and I got on the phone and called some of my friends and sent emails back and forth and found a wonderful woman dermatologist who spent what seemed a long time looking over every spot, freckle, mole and blotch on my skin, noting them, measuring them, studying and pondering them. She will see me again in three months to check on my skin. She sent me to a surgeon to cut out (they say excise) the skin around the spot that was diagnosed as cancer and now I have roughly a 2 and 1/2 inch incision on my forearm and some stitches and I expect that will be the end of it when this all heals.
I have a daughter, well we have a daughter who came to our family by adoption and who is by birth heritage and appearance, Chicana. She is beautiful. Really, she just is– in every possible way– inside and out. Her skin is definitely brown and our adoption of her made us a transracial family. She is brown and we are both white. I thought a lot about race and racism before she was born and before she came into our family, but I sure think about it a whole lot now. We all do. We talk about it quite a bit and I think about it a lot.
I think about racism in her school, in our neighborhood, on tv and just so much everywhere. I think about how racism has done terrible things to people of color. I have also been thinking for quite a few years now about what it has done to us white people to have been set up to play the role we play in this system that divides people by skin/ race (as well as class and many other divisions). My life, my perspective on race and racism is certainly different — and more acute since I became my daughter’s mom.
I knew that adopting her meant that I never could and never would turn back on challenging racism, looking as honestly as I could figure out how to at what it is, and where it lodged in me and in white people I love. This is not only a human responsibility, but now, it is even more clearly my responsibility as a mother.
I am ever watchful, but I know she experiences things every day that I am still stretching to understand and to pay attention to.
And then there is this incision, so I am really thinking about skin.
It is also the weekend of the holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. We went to two wonderful MLK events this weekend.
One, a Shabbat service at our synagogue– where two predominantly black choirs came and joined with our adult synagogue choir and our synagogue youth choir and the whole service was just beautiful, beautiful music sung by young people of color and young Jews of color (our synagogue has quite a few Jewish young people of color– many adopted into their families–though fewer adults of color) as well as the adult Jewish choir. It was very hopeful to be there in a synagogue with so many people of color with my beautiful daughter by my side. Our rabbi said the theme was “standing up for ourselves and standing up for others”– he said it over and over.
And then yesterday we went to hear the amazing Sweet Honey in the Rock perform their annual MLK weekend youth concert which was gorgeous and hopeful. Listening to them sing is glorious but there is something else, more, deeper, bigger about who they are and what they give to an audience. I don’t know what to say about the women and the work of Sweet Honey in the Rock, but they create a powerful glimpse of a world without racism.