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Coloring and identity, Part 1: Intro

March 29, 2011

This may be choppy, between the brain fog and having neither time nor energy for (at least) quadruple reread-and-edit sessions. If so, I’m sorry it’s not easier to follow.

I have a complicated relationship with my skin, and pretty much always have. The rest of my coloring goes in with that.

As a little kid, it bordered on dysmorphic. I haven’t talked about this much to anyone, because it sounds so goofy to people who haven’t been there.  Actually, I say “bordered on” when I mean that it was dysmorphic. I imagined myself with much darker skin, hair, and eyes. Then I looked in the mirror and saw blonde hair (before it darkened through red into darkish auburn) and grey eyes ringed with blue.  Sometimes my skin was much lighter than it “should” be, sometimes it wasn’t by much. It was very disconcerting.

When I was very little, I also kept touching and patting Black people’s skin at pretty much every opportunity, and my mother was concerned they’d take it in an insulting way. (She did get some funny looks because I sought out dark-skinned dolls–which, at least in memory seem like they were easier to find in the late ’70s– and could never keep track of doll clothes, so toddled around clutching naked brown-skinned dolls.) Thankfully, most people just thought I was cute. I wished my skin were that pretty a color, and kept telling them so. Especially since we were living somewhere without as many darker visibly Native people at that point, it may well have helped perceptions that my mom did have “ambiguous” darker coloring, come to think of it.

I don’t know where the dysphoria came from. These days, I have to suspect that at least part of it was from picking up early on the ubiquitous messages about how an American Indian person should look.  I don’t know how much, though, especially as lousy I was at even noticing the kinds of wider societal messages Cordelia Fine describes in Delusions of Gender. It’s gotten better over the years, as I’ve had to get used to living in this body, but I’m sure that’s been part of my discomfort at getting so “assumed Irish” pale since I’ve been living in the UK. (BTW, I also ended up with some dysmorphia about my height, which is probably lower than it would have been without some medical problems and trying to starve myself starting at 11 or so. I’m about 5’8″, still feeling 6’+. That, too, is something I’ve mostly gotten used to.)

In an earlier post, I quoted from Dan Waters’ Multi-Racial and Skin Identity, which got me thinking about this subject more again:

Today, my skin fluctuates a lot. I get very dark like my dad at times, and other times I grow pale. I now have a vitamin D deficiency that affects my skin color a lot.

That sounded entirely too familiar. (It especially caught my eye since my own D deficiency is probably helping make me unhealthily pasty-looking.) My mom was the dark one; I got my biodad’s coloring, with lower base melanin levels but a tendency to tan very easily and just as dark, with the same coppery tone. My own skin tone varies a lot, as illustrated in a recent post, though I didn’t know I could get as pale as I have living in this climate.

Some people are genderfluid; I guess I am physically skin tone fluid, which is a piece of reality which fits almost equally well into the Great American Race Binary as my own (a)gender or being genderfluid fits into the gender binary. Ambiguity? Not so popular. If the binary don’t fit, you’ve got to quit (confusing it with reality). Including the internalized stuff.

My family situation is a bit different from some “mixed” people’s, with long-term ambiguity  in a lot of people’s eyes. As I’ve mentioned before, my whole family comes from  (so charmingly named!) “tri-racial isolate” backgrounds–not nearly as rare or isolated as a lot of people would like to think!–mostly identifying as “mixed-blood” Native. That used to be in private, now it’s safer to be Public Indians again–so some people want to claim we can’t possibly be who we say we are, but that’s a whole other story. We’ve got ancestors from a variety of Eastern Nations, as waves of people had to flee British encroachment, and an awful lot of them headed for the mountains. My last European ancestor left Ireland not far in advance of the Potato Famine–at about the same time we were getting the Trail of Tears refugees from North Carolina–and in spite of all the coverups over the years, it looks remarkably like there were as many West Africans as Europeans in the mix. This is not an unusual state of affairs for especially Southeastern Native people in general; look at the Lumbee, Nottoway, and Accomac/Gingaskin to name just a few (and the continuing racist treatment they’ve gotten because they didn’t/couldn’t pretend they didn’t adopt and marry Africans.) We’ve been “mixed” for at least 400 years, and similar applies back home:

Because skin color has been under strong selective pressure, similar skin colors can result from convergent adaptation rather than from genetic relatedness, populations with similar pigmentation may be genetically no more similar than other widely separated groups. Furthermore, in some parts of the world in which people from different regions have mixed extensively, the connection between skin color and ancestry has been substantially weakened.[100] In Brazil, for example, skin color is not closely associated with the percentage of recent African ancestors a person has, as estimated from an analysis of genetic variants differing in frequency among continent groups.[101]

Yeah. People can–and do–turn out looking like just about anything, and it has nothing to do with their “blood quantum” (if such a genocidally racist concept even made any sense applied to people from backgrounds like ours). Much less the culture they were raised in. Back home in Southwest Virginia, I don’t feel particularly “mixed” until someone from a different background makes a big deal of it. Here, I am very aware of being a (logical, if frequently denied) product of colonialism, and never seeing anyone who looks like me on the street. No British person has told me to my face that I couldn’t possibly be Indian, though, the few times it has come up as relevant; there’s just not the immediate political convenience there. It’s no skin off their teeth, acknowledging that people like me exist. Frankly, I think the (understandable, if not totally honest) modern downplaying of Britain’s imperial past has something to do with it; it’s a lot easier to project things like slavery and Native genocide onto the US government, than think about how the people in charge here got both those balls rolling way back when. They are also not operating under the Great American Race Binary–complete with color line and careful, barely conscious by now eyeballing for African features–which was developed in Virginia, partly to deal with the Native Problem (and “mixed” people in general) by defining us out of existence. An astounding variety* of “mixed-race” people from other parts of the former Empire have immigrated to the UK; why should the American colonies be any different?

There is plenty of racism in Greater London and the UK at large, but it is of a very different type with different manifestations. As long as I’m not visibly brown and speak fluent English, I’m not even a Real Foreigner to the xenophobes. Neither is my Swedish husband. *shrug*

This has run long enough already, so I will split off comments on light skin and privilege to another post. Which I will hopefully get around to writing later tonight. 🙂


* When you keep shipping people from one part of the Empire to another part as indentured labor, quite a visual range of people will eventually show up on your doorstep.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 2:16 am

    A great book, that I did read some but had to return it and it’s sitting on my wishlist right now at Amazon, is Race and Reality.

    • urocyon permalink
      March 30, 2011 3:05 pm

      Thanks for the pointer! That’s another one for the “To Read” list. Sometimes I do really miss having easy access to two university libraries…

      Sorry I didn’t reply to your previous comment yet; it wasn’t because of lack of interest. (Yay, brain fog! 😐 ) It’s good to run across other mixed, Two Spirit-identified people–it’s all too easy to start feeling pretty alone with some of this stuff sometimes.

      • March 30, 2011 4:48 pm

        Most definitely. I was actually really shocked you really liked my stuff. I mean, I was realize that it would be read but, I have a bit of low confidence in that it’d be received so well 🙂

        Also, my vitamin D is also making my hair lighter as well. I have lovely, dark near black hair and it’s been lightening like I have highlights.

      • urocyon permalink
        April 6, 2011 8:03 pm

        Sorry for the late reply. It’s good stuff. 🙂 I still get worried sometimes that nobody is going to be interested in a lot of the stuff I end up writing about, but that seems to be a side effect of marginalization. If you keep getting messages that the issues in question don’t even exist, are not important, and you’re just being an overreacting bore… Yeah. These days, I try to tell myself that I may be doing something right when those reactions pop up. 😉

        Interesting with the hair color effects. If less melanin is showing in your skin, it makes sense that it could in new hair growth, too. I thought mine was looking lighter too for a couple of years, then just the past few months I started noticing a bunch of coarser, more porous and brittle-feeling hairs mixed in. It’s also thinned a lot, which lack of D will apparently do. (There was enough starting out that it’s still not thin, but I’m guessing there’s 25% less than a couple of years ago.) I looked into that, and found that the hypocalcemia from D deficiency can cause “patchy hair loss, dry and/or scaly skin, hyperpigmentation, brittle nails, and mucocutaneous candidiasis”.

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