As many readers know, I work at a predominantly white college in the US, where I am one of a handful of professionals of color. To keep myself entertained — rather, to keep myself from going nuts — I often try to find humor in my non-diverse working world. A game I typically play is “How many brown people will I see when walking from my office to the dining hall?” I’ve been playing this little game for about 3 years now.
In those first three years, unless I saw my own reflection in a mirrored window, that number was ZERO. Yup. Zero. And, this is no short walk, mind you. It’s a good 7 minutes, and I’m typically walking at a time when classes are just getting out and everyone is rushing to the dining commons.
This past year, with increased efforts to increase visible diversity, I’m shocked at the number of SOC’s (students of color) that I see — I see an average of 4-5 students during my 7 minute walk! C’mon… I know that’s not a huge number, but for me, that’s a 500% increase! I’ll play those odds any day!
So, here’s an interesting twist to the game. Sometimes, if I pass by a campus tour that is being given by the admissions office, I’ll even count “visitors” to campus. Alas, that has never changed the number.
Today, however, I was walking with a friend to the dining commons from my office, and exclaimed “Oh my gosh! Stop everything! There are two brown families on that tour!!”
My friend looked over and said, “Where?”
I said, “Are you freakin’ kidding me? There are brown people on that tour!!”
His response: “Who?”
“Those three people of Asian heritage! Look!!” I exclaimed, wondering if the visitors could hear the excitement in my voice from across the quad.
And my friend replies, “THEY’RE not brown, are they? Wait, you count Asians as BROWN?”
“Listen, friend. I take what I can get on this campus…. and, yes, Asian is BROWN. I am BROWN. My skin is BROWN.”
** So, let me briefly stop here and say that I have the best conversations with this friend. He’s probably one of the most aware people I know. And, he loves Obama. So, therefore, I love him (in a professional way, of course). For me, that fact highlights that even the most aware allies sometimes don’t quite get it. **
We were already getting close to the busy lunch line (where you have to throw elbows just to get some over cooked chicken nuggets and undercooked curly fries), so I didn’t continue the conversation. But, the comment stayed with me.
Brown. Am I brown? Yes, I am Brown. When I talk to my daughters, we talk about our skin being different shades of brown. My 5-year old daughter’s skin color resembles my husband’s dark chocolate skin shade. I’m a lighter shade of that brown. And, my 2-year old daughter is a very light brown. But, we are unmistakably BROWN.
Not Yellow? I’m not sure if my friend was trying to get me to say that I was “yellow” — a common color so wrongly associated with people of my heritage background: Asian. When people say they have friends of all different colors, “black, white, red, yellow….”, they mean “African American, Euro American, First Peoples, and Asian.” I’m not sure what people mean when they also say, “green, purple, blue, ….” but I digress. All I know is that I am not hella’ yella’, people. I’m just not.
Well, then, that got me thinking further — what is my Dad, who’s racial background is made up predominantly of a Chinese lineage? His skin is as white as the Mac laptop I’m typing on now. So, is HE BROWN? The shape of his eyes keeps me from calling him white. And, aside from jaundice when he was born in 1947, he hasn’t ever been yellow. But, is my Dad BROWN?
So, naturally, I have my own take on the questions that I pose here….
Skin “color” is more about political connotations than it is about “color.” I have had plenty of white people email me and say, “I don’t like the term ‘people of color’… we all have ‘color.’” And, I respectfully disagree. The term “people of color” is less about the actual Crayola shade that we have to defend time and again. But, it’s more about the political, systematic, and institutionalized implications that go along with color. So, is my dad’s skin physically WHITE? Yes, sure. Has he ever in his entire life been given the same privilege as a White person? Uh, no….
Why do I emphatically disagree with the “yellow” part? Well, honestly, I’m just not yellow. That’s weird. That’s like some f’d up Big Bird vibe or something. Those yummy Easter Peeps are Yellow. That neon bubble gum that’s been sitting in the $.25 dispenser at the grocery store entrance since 1987 is Yellow. That damn “Have a Nice Day” smiley face is Yellow.
I am a shade of Brown. Beautiful. Blessed.
And, before people start to do the jump off of “Well, then, as a white person, I embrace my Peachness….” realize that the conversation here is around politics of color. Go on and embrace the Peachness, because, you’re right, I don’t believe that anyone is a true “beige, eggshell, ivory, off white,” or any other paint color that’s a version of White. But, we’d be crazy to be blind to the fact that politics, the institutionalization of privilege and power, equity and resources don’t favor and empower the “peach persuasion.”
By rejecting “yellow-ness”, am I disowning my Asian heritage? Absolutely NOT. I love my culture. I love my eyes. I love the sounds of Tagalog that echo in my ears and the sweet/sour/spicy taste of chicken adobo that makes my mouth to water just writing about it. “Yellow” does no justice to the rich and vibrant history of my people. “Yellow” is not a shade Asians and Asian Americans have in common with one another. “Yellow”, I am not.
Mellow? Maybe. Yellow? No.
Liza Talusan is the Director of Intercultural Affairs at a small Catholic college in Massachusetts. She is an active member of Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence (www.girlsaspire.org) and believes that mentoring is one of the best way to make changes in this world. She serves as an advisor and mentor to students of color as well as to organizations designed to educate and promote cultural competency.
Image courtesy of caseywest on Flickr.