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No Longer Brown?

April 2, 2009

When I was in Hawaii a couple weeks back, I realized something: I’m not brown, anymore.

In fact, I haven’t been brown for the last 10-plus years.

But I used to be.

See – I grew up in California (SF Bay Area). Through most of my years there, I wore shorts and a t-shirt (even when the weather should have prevented me from doing so). I was on a swim team in the summer. I was exposed to the sun on a very regular basis. And, as a result, I was brown.

And when I say “brown,” I mean brown. Brown-skinned. Not tan or darker-than-pale. Brown like folks that refer to themselves as brown look.

Then I moved out of California (to Michigan, first; eventually to Portland), and my brown days came to an end. I remember my shock the first time I got flat sunburnt when I came back to California one summer. Since I had never been pale enough to burn as a kid, I didn’t ever think about sunscreen. So when my pale-ass came out of a Michigan winter to hang out at the beach in California, I went up like a torch. And it absolutely shocked me.

I remember thinking, “but I don’t sunburn.” It took me forever to realize the obvious: that being bundled up and out of sunlight for many months had caused me to turn pale. And pale skin is not equipped to handle large quantities of sunlight naturally.

Now I’ve become used to it. I wear sunscreen during the summer or am very conscious about my exposure. In Hawaii, I was doubly-conscious. I do get tan during the summer now, but in Hawaii, I realized how far from brown I end up these days, even in the summer. And it was an interesting thought.

Because, in many ways, I am much more consciously brown, in terms of political orientation, identity, and lifestyle now than I was as a child. It’s been more or less a perfect inverse correlation – as my skin-tone got lighter, my mentality got darker.

Seems strange, at first, but it makes perfect sense when given a bit of analysis: as a kid, when I was actually brown-skinned, I lived in a place where other people like me were (relatively) common. I didn’t stand out so much. My friends spanned a number of shades, my mix wasn’t particularly shocking – I didn’t really have to worry about it to a large degree (obviously, I never fully fit in, either, but it wasn’t so blatant in the Bay).

So – as I began to spend time (and formative, conscious-raising years) in climes and regions where the overall skin-tone was pale, I found myself standing out more. I was very regularly “the only one” that looked like me. I didn’t know people with common experiences of identity. People’s understanding of race and “otherness” was a little less sophisticated. And so, as the sunlight left me, so did my ability to just “let things go” and feel comfortable.

I became more and more dependent upon the media to find people that represented me (and we know how that all ended up) as real-life representations ceased to exist. I became more and more conscious of my real place in the world.

And so here I stand: no longer any darker than “tan” in skin-tone, but “brown” in mentality. Maybe it’s some weird yin-yang balance thing for mixed folks like me: the white and the non-white side must be in balance, somehow. So my skin must be paler if my mind is going to get darker, or else my whole life-force will get too out of whack.

It’s not completely crazy: because I was at my most unbalanced (mentally) during those first few years of transition; the years when my skin-tone lost its pigmentation, but I wasn’t conscious enough to fully understand what was happening to me (and around me). As a kid – when my skin was darker – I was relatively happy and what-not with some folks like me around, while still taking little issue with the general white world around me. Now, I am relatively happy and what-not with my mind darker – but more focused – and my skin lighter.

Maybe I’m on to something here. Maybe if I moved to Hawaii, I would have to lose a little bit of my political edge to compensate for my darkening skin. Maybe if I moved to the Arctic, I would have to become militant to handle permanently-pale skin. Who knows?

You readers will have to tell me – do I chill out a little bit on the rage during the summer months? Are there other instances of skin-mind color-balancing for the other mixed folks out there?

And what would ever happen if I were to artificially tan?! Now there’s a thought-experiment for the ages . . .

* No, I don’t actually think it works like that, by the way.

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5 comments

  1. It might.

    Look at light skinned Blacks who feel the need to compensate by acting “even more Black” just to fit in with darker Blacks.
    Many who are dark black have to be extra nice to fit into “white” environments.

    It’s actually an interseting theory.


  2. I have a really broad spectrum in skin tone… when I tan, I go BROWN rather than tanned-white-skin, but when I’m pale (which is most of the time these days) I’m REALLY pale. Paler than many of my white friends.

    I didn’t realise how much I’d absorbed that “pale” is my standard colour these days until I browned up over the summer and felt… odd… in my own skin. Something as simple as having to change the makeup I wore because it clashed with my darker skin tone made me feel uncomfortable with my brown-ness and wish to go back to my “normal” pale skin. It was not a pleasant experience, and it made me very angry at myself.


  3. uglyblackjohn –
    Good point, there. Maybe my random blathering actually touched on something . . .

    hexy –
    That’s an interesting counterpoint to my experience – just because I tend to get really excited when I start to “brown up” again – like I’m returning to my roots or something. Kind of goes to show how strong otherization can be . . .


  4. Absolutely. My logical mind was going “This is your skin. This is what it does. You look like your family. It’s NOT BAD.”

    But somewhere in my brain, all that programming from when I was a kid about how UGLY my skin was when I was dark and how LUCKY I was to be the palest one in my family apparently found a hold.


  5. where in michigan were you?

    i was always brown in michigan, so, i never really had to deal with shifting color issues.
    my sister gets pretty light in the winter and her hair gets blonde highlights in the summer.
    i don’t think it really had that much of an effect on her, though.



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