Being Brown

When skin lies, when skin tells the truth

Jen Wick Studio

I stand in the cosmetics aisle at the Rite-Aid on Coburg Road, in my hometown of Eugene, considering options for a tinted moisturizer. I've worn eye makeup and a slick of lipstick or gloss since high school, but in my thirties and forties, my aging skin, or maybe my aging psyche, seems to need that sheer wash of camouflage and sheen.

I scan the section of Cover Girl products, looking for the right shade of CG Smoothers. There is Light Ivory, Creamy Ivory, Natural Ivory, Medium Light, Beige, Creamy Beige, Soft Honey.

I grimace at the sample dots of color on the makeup packages; then I look at the back of my hand. I pull the darkest shade from the shelf, Soft Honey, and hold it to my wrist. It is dusky pink next to my olive-brown skin.

I need Wheat Toast or Strong Coffee with Cream or Autumn Leaf or Bronze Medal, something deep with an undertone of yellow. I am not white or pink or beige. I am brown, and this store doesn't have it.

I leave empty-handed, my face flushed with self-consciousness and defeat.

 

I moved to Eugene in 1996, after spending most of my life in Southern California and then the four years after college teaching middle school and high school in American Samoa, where my parents are from.

I moved to Eugene for love: In 1992, my best friend in college had invited me on her family's annual Memorial Day rafting trip on the Santiam River in Oregon's Willamette Valley, out near Scio, and I was smitten. On that trip, I fell head over heels for a Northwest boy, now my husband, and with the Pacific Northwest itself. Here was a place that was clean, safe, slow-paced, and stunningly beautiful.

But Eugene is also overwhelmingly white. The 2010 US Census Bureau reports that the city, with its population of about 157,000 people, was 85.8 percent white. The same report shows that Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, including Samoans like myself, make up just 0.2 percent of the population. That's point two percent.

Before my husband and I had kids, I used to entertain the idea of leaving Eugene for more racially diverse digs, for a place where I would see more black hair, more black and brown and tan skin. But then I would tell myself that brown people deserve this place, too; that if I leave, it is just one less person of color in the mix, one more person of color who loses out.

All of this probably has something to do with the uncontrollable urge I have to scan for and count any brown-skinned faces I can find in Eugene. I never know what to do when I see them; I know only that I feel relief and comfort when I find them.

 

 

 

Just before the holidays a few years ago, a coworker enters my office. She wants to show me a project her husband has done for our department.

“He likes to design, and he loves playing with Photoshop,” she says with both excitement and pride. She unrolls a poster and hands it to me.

Each person in our department has been rendered as a cartoon caricature in an icy blue winter landscape. We are ice-skating and sledding and skiing under a happy-holidays banner headline. My coworkers are drawn, for the most part, in similar shades of pink and peach and cream.

I, however—being the only brown person in the department—have been drawn darker. In fact, I have been drawn in a shade twice, maybe three times, as dark as my actual skin. My caricature is the same color as a dark chocolate chip, and my features, save the whites of my eyes and teeth, are practically indiscernible. I think for just a second of blackface.

I open my mouth to say something. Then I close it. She has no idea there is a problem, though in my peripheral vision, I see my caricature as a black splotch on the poster. I don't have the heart to embarrass her.

“Isn't it great?” she asks. “I've already passed out copies to all the other departments. They're posted throughout the building!”

This time I can't even open my mouth. I swallow my humiliation. I bite the inside of my lip and force back the urge to cry.

She leaves and when a friend from another department comes by and sees the poster, she asks, “Why are you drawn like Whoopi Goldberg?”

I start to feel angry. I am angry that I am embarrassed to be drawn with darker skin than I have. It makes me wonder if I'm the racist.

Still another friend, a young black man from another department, comes by, and on seeing the poster goes fully ballistic.

“That is completely, blatantly, inappropriately racist. It's blackface. And you're not even black!” he fumes.

Suddenly those tears are back, stinging my eyes and rolling down my cheeks in relief. I am relieved that I am not crazy to feel violated, to feel singled out by the one thing—my skin color—that makes me different, despite all things I do to be exactly like everyone around me.

My skin says that I am unusual, that I am mysterious, that I am exotic. But I am not. Growing up, my dad played Samoan pop music by The Five Stars and Papase'ea on the stereo, while my mother cooked tuna and chicken casseroles from recipes in Good Housekeeping magazine. My mother washed and peeled taro and green bananas for family feasts, while my brothers and I sat with Saturday cartoons and Beverly Cleary library books. I spent my childhood roller-skating and skateboarding and riding bikes in a sunny, Southern California cul-de-sac. I spent my school years in marching band and AP classes and pizza parlors with classmates named Juliana Yasinski, Kent Ishii, Frankie Cordova, Sandy Nguyen, Hoang Tran—not a melting pot, but a patchwork quilt. Our names and our skin color announced it: everyone was different. And in that way, we were the same.

 

 

 

When my older son was just three, we were sitting together and he looked at his arm, then at my arm.

“Mommy,” he said, “my skin is white, my brother's skin is white, and Daddy's skin is white. You are the only one who is brown.”

“Yes,” I murmured. “That's true. I am brown like Grandpa Joe and Uncle Mark and Uncle Brian and like many of my aunties and uncles and cousins.”

“Because you're Samoan?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Because I'm Samoan.”

“I don't know if I'm Samoan,” he said. “My skin is white.”

Before I had kids with my white husband, I had simply assumed that our children would be dark, like me. I assumed, based solely on what I could remember from high school biology, that dark skin was dominant and light skin was recessive. Truth be told, I'd fantasized about the beautiful dark-skinned, blue-eyed babies we would make.

In fact, the genetics of skin color is a little more complex, determined by three sets of genes on chromosomes 1, 2, and 4. If the genes A, B, and C are dominant alleles for dark skin, and genes a, b, and c are recessive alleles for light skin, then an AABBCC would be someone with very dark skin, and an aabbcc would be someone with very light skin.

But unlike traits such as eye color or ear lobe attachment, where the dominant trait wins out and covers up the recessive, combined alleles in skin color can result in intermediate shades of darkness.

So, while I had assumed that I had the dominant genetics to make our kids' skin dark, it is more likely that my dark-skinned father and my lighter-skinned mother, whose own father was Chinese, produced in me a combination something like AaBbCc. And when that came together with what I assume is my husband's aabbcc combination, well, let's just say our sons are fascinating science experiments with results I did not expect. Our older son is pink-cheeked, fair, and velvety as a rose petal. His hair is thick, straight, black. His eyes are dark and shiny as roasted coffee beans. Our younger son is tawny. His hair is curly and light-brown tinged with copper. His eyes are the color of well-steeped tea, clear and amber, flecked with gold.

Perfect strangers remark on their handsomeness, their beauty. Sometimes I think they look nothing like me at all.

 

 

I am getting old in Eugene. I finished my twenties, unfurled in my thirties, and am basking in my forties. Today, at forty-two, my skin has loosened a little between my chin and my neck; patches are soft as bread dough behind my upper arms and around my navel. There's something dark and shadowy in the delicate skin around my eyes and mouth, something I can't see directly in the mirror, but that shows up in photographs. The brown in my skin is less golden on my good days, more sallow on my tired days.

But I don't worry too much about aging. My beautiful mother taught me there is little to be done about it. I will get old. My skin will age and wrinkle. The best I can do is to seek joy, cultivate laugh lines, and avoid frown lines. The best I can do is to keep carving out my spot and to keep settling in. The best I can do is to keep working at both fitting in and distinguishing myself beyond just my skin color.

Comments

5 comments have been posted.

Thank you...brown people not only 'deserve this place'--they make it better.

Tim Laue | August 2015 | Blue River

I think that this excellent article should be submitted to a newspaper columnist or otherwise provided to a larger audience. Thank you for sharing this.

Susan Guenter | December 2014 | Tigard, OR

Growing up in a small Northern California town, the oldest child of an African American father and white mother of mixed European decent, I share feelings of being singled out for the surface level differences. For me, and now for my younger sisters, it was a struggle to seek out definitions and reflections of beauty that also included our own reflections. Your claim, "brown people deserve this place" resonates with me, and makes me wonder how we can make these more homogeneous place feel like home without loosing ourselves in the process?

Krysta | May 2014 |

Very great piece Bobbie! Nice highlighting of the complexities from makeup to Photoshop to genetic make up and childrearing. If I'm the first to comment...well...its Oregon right?

Mark Harris | March 2014 | Lane Community College

Thank you for this beutiful painful honest writing. I appreciate you sharing your experiences with me. Blessings,

Teri Dianne Ciacchi | February 2014 | Portland, OR

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Editor's Note: The Skin I'm In

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Dangerous Subjects

More Than Skin Deep

One America?

Picture Their Hearts

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