Updated: Jul 10, 2020
One of the things I struggled with accepting about myself and my body growing up during that, oh so precious and delicately awkward phase of adolescence for many was the color of my skin.
I can’t remember the exact first time that the shading of my White skin was called out for being so pale, but I remember the general emotions that I started experiencing with it over time. At first, I was jealous of my brothers and cousins for their ability to tan the skin they were in through time in the sun. I didn’t understand why I had to get so lathered with sunscreen each time I wanted to play outside when they barely applied any at all.
Shame started to enter the picture when I had to wear shirts when swimming with others.
“Why do I have to wear shirts mom?!”
The simple answer was that it doesn’t take that long once I enter the sun’s light for my skin to start burning.
My sunburns were epic in nature. I honestly couldn’t count the number of times that I have been burned. They would typically last for days depending on the severity. Aloe vera and lidocaine gels become necessary items in our bathroom. Keeping an aloe vera plant around has also been a staple of my life that I learned from my grandmother who used to crush the plant up to apply directly to my burns.
My mom fiercely protected me, and will probably never get the thanks she truly deserves for waging tiny battles with an unruly, whining little queer kid who would protest, pout, and argue each moment of the sunscreen application and protection process. She never faltered though and committed to thinking creatively on sun protection when I had issues with my eyes getting sunburned (yes that can actually happen) by buying sunglasses and different types of hats to try to coax me to wear while playing in the water and other outdoor activities in the sun that I wanted to participate in.
My mom understood the importance of sun protection for my health when I did not. I was clearly too focused on my experience and how I was being perceived by others. I simply could not move past those feelings to be concerned about my health.
The regular and consistent public shaming that would be involved with many of my interactions with people following a sunburn was not fun either. In fact, it fueled a rage that I didn’t even know I was developing for this heteronormative world.
I HATED when others would say “Wow you are sunburned!” which was a common statement that would start these exchanges post-burn. I was never really sure if the statement was a question or an exclamation. Did they truly think I didn’t know that my skin was burned? Did they not understand that it felt like it was on fire for days after the burn? Did they think that this public shaming would somehow prevent future sunburns or take the heat out of my skin? Did they even understand or comprehend the amount of sunscreen application that I had gone through even to still get burned?
I have rationalized this for folks over time, but damn did it hurt at the time to have my skin color/sunburn be the agreed upon topic of conversation for many interactions with strangers, friends, extended family who thought that the banner of “family” meant they could basically say whatever the fuck they wanted without considering someone else’s experience.
Rinse and repeat, this has been the process with sun exposure all my life. My abilities to take care of my skin have improved over the years as I’ve learned more about the physical health dangers associated with unproductive sun exposure. I’ve come to realize that I need to apply my 50+ children’s grade sunscreen every 30 minutes to an hour when I am doing concerted outdoor activities, and need to put on a daily moisturizer with a lower SPF to prevent burns from regular activities like driving in the car on a sunny day.
I’ve accepted the fact that my experience with the sun is just different than others, and I’ve also increased the confidence associated with my skin. I no longer spend hours in the mirror wishing I could change this pale skin of mine through tanning, and now when folks make those passing comments about my pale skin, I just brush them off or join in on the joke if I haven’t already beat them to it.
Sitting with the Rage
My personal work through honoring my mental health has helped me understand a portion of my averse reactions to anything regarding this pale White skin of mine. The trauma of growing up in an environment that didn’t recognize my sexuality or Queer identity was compounded by the adverse attention I was receiving for my pale skin.
As an individual who had little to no ability to validate myself internally, I had become conditioned to make each and every decision about how I moved and presented myself in this world based on the external validation I would receive from others. Anything from the act of wearing additional clothing to the commentary from (potentially) well-meaning folks all registered as embarrassment anchored in the shame I already felt for being gay.
This helps explain why the process of bringing the internalized shame I’ve had over my sexuality into the light over the last decade or so has helped grow my confidence and quiet my rage.
My White Privilege
Now that I have done more self-education, started to listen to BIPOC (Black & Indigenous People of Color) voices in more concerted ways, and started to work on a regular practice of unlearning the racism that has been part of my worldview, I have to say that my rage towards this world is only growing.
I am angry at my public school education that taught me that the Civil War was predominantly about state’s rights. I especially HATE the fact that one outspoken student was silenced and demeaned by my White teacher in grade school when they challenged her on that very topic. This is just one of many examples of how incomplete the history being taught in public schools and beyond which has helped perpetuate so many problems.
I’ve noticed a lot of anger and rage as those of us who were late to the understanding of racial inequality and inequity in this world have awakened to these facts. I empathize with it because I understand where they are coming from. I also know that it can sometimes be easier to rage against those people out there, or the system, without turning focus inward. Perhaps this is the space where some of my fellow folx who thought that voting a certain way or being “progressive” somehow made us “not racist,” are at.
I introduced the idea of talking through some of my favorite X-Women in a previous post to help convey my point of view and hopefully make topics that some might consider “heavy” more accessible. The heroine I’m spotlighting for this essay is the White Queen herself, Emma Frost.
Emma is a telepath which means she can read minds and control others. She’s very much been a villain in many stories but has also joined the X-Men on many occasions as a hero and leader. She’s a polarizing character, to say the least for many reasons.
In addition to her telepathic powers, Emma can also completely turn her body into organic diamond which makes her virtually invulnerable and impenetrable.
When I think of the idea that for so much of my life growing up I thought of my pale White skin as a nuisance or annoyance, when in reality there is so much stacked in my favor in this world because of that skin, I relate to Emma. For much of my life, I was blind to the fact that my skin was creating a near-impenetrable barrier that protected me from so much in the same way that others were blinded by the light reflected off my pale body.
Even worse, I moved around in this world with that impenetrable diamond privilege up, either ignorant or unwilling to see the racist damage that I was causing and perpetuating simply because I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable. While I can’t take it off, I can educate myself on how to operate with that privilege in mind.
This imagery helps when I have conversations with rural White and White-passing POC (people of color) folx whose biggest objection to the idea of White privilege or White-passing privilege is that they have had it tough due to their position as part of America’s working class. Their privilege, like an impenetrable diamond, is protecting them from certain experiences. Their ignorance or unwillingness to see that privilege or be vulnerable prevents them from understanding that they can absolutely have individual struggles while also holding space for the struggles and oppression of others with different lived experiences.
They also can’t seem to see how their unwillingness to create and hold that additional space for others is perpetuating so many racially motivated inequalities and inequities within this country. They keep trudging through life leaving diamond-like cuts in their wake without a care for the impacts of their actions or beliefs.
Dealing with Discomfort
Whether we are raging against the “others” who disagree with us, the "system," or what we believe to be "right," I think it is important to sit with that rage. Examine that emotion and try to identify what is exactly causing the discomfort we are feeling.
What I am learning from listening to Black voices is that an anti-racism practice is imperative for all of us for a variety of reasoning. My own anti-racism practice has helped me understand that I absolutely cannot fully work towards BraveNewLove’s mission of sharing stories and creating space to live authentically without BNL being an explicitly anti-racist movement.
My experience advocating for myself and others has taught me that true cultural change takes time and that folx who are willing to get on board are all starting at different places based on lived experiences. To be clear, I am not saying to self-censor through repression or work to diminish our rage, no matter where or how it is showing up, and I heavily encourage boundary setting for multiple reasons and scenarios.
I am advocating for understanding that emotion without the binary option of it being “good” or “bad", and more specifically trying to understand the discomfort we are feeling as part of a personal authenticity practice. Once we learn more about ourselves, others, and the world around us, we can put our passions, talents, and in some instances rage - to work creating space to live authentically.
If you are interested in starting an anti-racist practice, but unsure where to start past a quick Google search, I’d be happy to tell you what my process has looked like so far if that would be helpful. I’m specifically not including any of it here because I don’t believe that is my space to speak with authority on. I will point you to others, but I understand that starting hard things can sometimes be easier when you don’t feel alone.
If you are interested in discussing any aspect of this post or what living authentically means to you, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.