Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Melanin Wars

I was one of the unlucky ones. Born with just a smidge of melanin, I can't pass for coffee or any type of tea; just a distant cousin of pink grapefruit juice. In cultural parlance, I'm Caucasian. And even though I've never been persecuted for it (except one time in New Mexico, but I'll get to that), I can appreciate how the amount of melanin in one's skin affects who they'll become.

Consider the Melanin Megastars: people with skin so black it's almost blue. They're melanin rich, whether they reside in a poverty-stricken African country or in the United States. Then there are the Melanin Middlin': people whose skin color may be a toffee brown or other shade that reflects a blended heritage. Those who hail from the Mediterranean, India, Latin countries, and Native Americans generally fall into this category.

But the melanin-deprived are a vast group, spread across the globe. We don't talk about being Melanin Midgets; it simply isn't a subject for polite discourse. But it rankles. Why can't our skin glow with the bronze hues other ethnicities take for granted? To assuage our privation, some of us may occasionally use an epithet to describe members of one of these privileged groups. It's an attempt to camouflage our sense of inferiority.

Perhaps this is what happened with Paula Deen, who made headlines recently because she admitted to using the "N" word in the past. Ms. Deen was promptly and roundly punished for her error, losing both face and finances in a very public way. It was a temporary slip, long ago, she says. But as Oprah so trenchantly observed, we're not yet ready for a "real conversation" about racism in today's world.

One of my few direct experiences of racial prejudice occurred nearly two decades ago, when I lived in northern New Mexico, an area whose inhabitants are a mix of Latino, Native American, and Caucasian, living an uneasy cultural détente. In the midst of a labyrinthine healing quest from chronic illness, I was also opening to Spirit, not working except on myself, and living on savings.

Shopping in a local pharmacy for personal care needs, I observed that my cashier appeared to have a cold. Solicitously I asked, "Are you sick? Maybe you should take a few days off." She flared, "Look, Lady, I gotta work! I don't have no sugar daddy!" Obviously, since it was the middle of the day, she assumed I was a woman of leisure. I understood her rage, and that it wasn't directed at me personally so much as at her life situation. It was nonetheless shocking, because it was new to me. Yet this is what melanin-endowed people experience perhaps every day of their lives.

What will it take to begin the conversation? What if melanin was valued instead of money? African Americans would be wealthy beyond measure; Caucasians, not so much. Just because people of minimal color may be Melanin Midgets doesn't mean we have to be mental midgets.

We have bigger issues to resolve that affect us all, regardless of the amount of pigment in our skin. Let's grow beyond the Melanin Wars. We've transcended the apocalyptic drama of 2012. Surely we can do this.