It was one of the first sunny days of spring, and I was sitting by the river trying to catch some of those sweet, sweet rays. Not only was my winter pallor in desperate need of some toasting, but I was also mired in a deep depression and hoping for a brief reprieve via some natural Vitamin D.
While I sat exposing my white arms to the open sky, a truck of outdoor laborers drove up onto the bike path and creaked to a halt in front of me. The man at the wheel leaned out of the window and started shouting at me in Korean. The woman next to him peeked around to give me a wacky grin.
Although I had been in Korea for months, I hadn’t learned the language, and the meaning of the man’s tirade was lost on me until he started waving up at the sun and then gesturing toward my bare arms.
Ah, yes, I was committing a grievous sin by exposing the perfection of my pallor to the horrific browning effect of the sun.
I tried to laugh and wave them off. How to explain that white people culture demands a nice tan as a sign of good health and affluence?
They grumbled some more and then drove away in their gloves, long sleeves, and broad-brimmed hats. How terrible it would be to turn a shade darker.
I’ve seen this idolization of white skin all over the world. In places like Korea and Pakistan and Madagascar, the darker your skin the lower you slide on the social totem pole. People in these countries will even use whitening products like soap and lotion to lighten skin, just like white people use bronzers, tinted moisturizers, and tanning beds to darken theirs.
How silly humans are.
As I continue this personal story on race (check out Part 1 here), I realize that, while I’ve lived both as a racial minority and a majority, I have always lived as an elite. My parents, on their first trip to India in the 80’s, were asked if they were Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Why? Well, white skin. D’uh.
Growing up in Pakistan, a nation whose boundary with India was drawn by a white man only 50 years before my childhood, the effects of colonialism clung to the country all around me.
For many years, the seminary where my dad taught and presided as principal occupied a large compound built in 1922, when the British colonialists still ruled the Indian Subcontinent.
My family lived on the compound in a gigantic bungalow passed down through many iterations of American missionaries. It was a mammoth brick structure with walls 18 inches thick, surrounded by deep verandas and 15 (yes, 15) doors opening to the cavernous interior.
Our bungalow had a twin on the compound, only this one was divided up into classrooms and living quarters for other staff. My Pakistani friend, the daughter of the watchman, lived in a one-bedroom house by the gate with her parents and three siblings.
The students attending the seminary lived with their families in a long row of one-room “studio apartments” fronted by courtyards with outdoor toilets and fire pits for stoves. Once upon a time not long before, these had been the servants’ quarters.
A hedge divided their grounds from our grounds. On their side stood a pump to draw water from a well (because they had no indoor plumbing) and a rusty, peeling-paint kind of playground.
On our side grew orange trees and grapefruit trees and climbing trees. We had a carport for our station wagon, flower beds, a badminton court, and dirt roads circling the house where the white kids sped around on the bikes they got for Christmas.
Of course, this was all “normal.” We were the missionaries, the white saviors, the educated ones bringing enlightenment to the masses of underprivileged. I don’t recall ever questioning this arrangement, this glaring statement of class and race that all people who lived on that compound were not in fact equal.
Because we did play together after all. I just had a much bigger house.
The disparity is all rather cringe-worthy now.
There’s this hilarious Instagram account called Barbie Savior that mocks this very notion that white people are here to save the brown and black people. It’s funny because its message rings so true. It’s like, who do white people think they are?
But then I get yanked by giggling Asian women into their touristy selfies or have my picture surreptitiously taken on an airplane where I’m one of a handful of white people. Leave the white-populated areas of the world, and my skin makes me some kind of celebrity, a white token, a look-what-I-saw-on-vacation souvenir.
When you see the world envying your skin color, you have to work hard to fight the prejudice of colonialism, to hunt down every trace of superiority, to root out any notion that whiteness would make someone better than someone else. That’s why diversity is so precious and important, to show us that white isn’t the best color but just one of many colors.
While I was living in Korea, I visited a U.S. military base with a friend and could hardly believe what I saw.
All around me were people of different races! Black, white, Latino, Asian! No one person stood out anymore than the others. I was no longer walking down a Korean street in a crowd of Koreans looking like the only person who didn’t fit in. It felt amazing. It felt like America.
And that’s why the U.S. is such an incredible place. Where people who look different and act different and believe different things all have the right to live in freedom.
That’s why it hurts so much when those freedoms are threatened, when peace and tolerance are threatened. If someone else’s freedom in this country is being threatened, then so is yours. And so is mine.
So let’s make sure that doesn’t happen. We’re all in this together, after all.
This is the end of my own part of this series on race. If you want to share your own personal experiences with race, that would be the coolest thing ever. You can get in touch with me through my contact form or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll get your story up on the blog. If you feel scared or silly or cynical about the whole thing, then congratulations, we’re in the same boat. But let’s tell our stories anyway!