When someone is described as “very white,” white people will often consider the paleness of their skin. When people of color think of “very white,” they think of the obsession with John Mayer, Dutch Bros. Coffee, backpacking across Europe, et cetera.
That is to say, white people often see race as appearance, where people of color see it as a broader construct. This construct encompasses music, food, fashion, dance and all sorts of signifiers of identity. With any generalization, there are countless exceptions.
This difference in how people perceive race is usually harmless and amusing, but it can lead to frustrating, superficial views on race from people who haven’t been forced to think about identity in a meaningful way.
If race is about appearance, then racism ends the moment one accepts someone who looks different. With a black friend — or a black president — comes diversity, tolerance and all sorts of nice-sounding buzzwords.
A one-dimensional view of race centered on skin color reduces racism to explicit, cartoonish rejections of people who look different. It makes anti-racism as simple as professed colorblindness.
In truth, being racially tolerant means accepting differences beyond skin color. It means respecting people who speak differently, dress differently or listen to different music, and we struggle with this.
I deal with very little overt discrimination in my day-to-day life because I grew up in the suburbs, and can speak the same way as my white counterparts. My parents, on the other hand, face all sorts of assumptions about their worth and legitimacy because of their accents.
We need to combat racism and bigotry with specificity. When we see someone as a man from a city in Malaysia instead of some nondescript brown guy, it becomes more difficult to reduce him to caricatures and stereotypes.
Only a view of race and identity that takes into account more than skin color can accomplish the difficult work of seeing people as complex individuals. If tolerance ends with skin color, the content of someone’s character can be crowded out by intolerance of how they dress, speak and live.This is not to say dress, speech or lifestyle cannot be indicative of character or open to criticism. It’s fine not to tolerate someone who swears every other word. But simply doing things differently from the dominant culture should not open one up to the sort of prejudice it does in our society.
In the end, racial differences are meaningless social constructions. People generally want the same things behind a thin curtain of cultural difference: a supportive community, a happy family and some time to pursue their interests.
Pulling back the curtain requires that we see race for what it is: more than skin color.
Danny Bugingo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org