Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Brown Like Me

Article first published as Brown Like Me on Blogcritics.

Salon.com has an interesting piece by Clara Germani about growing up Mexican American. Her story features a tragicomic moment of self-mutilation:

When I was 10, I showed up at the breakfast table one morning with the sandpapery scabs of an experiment-gone-wrong on my face. I’d tried to engineer rosy cheeks by scouring with a wash cloth, thinking it might buff my olive coloring toward a more Norman Rockwell hue.

While my three-year-old has not yet engaged in such a dramatic act, he has been letting us know that he is becoming "color-conscious." The first time came seemingly out of nowhere. We were sitting at the table and he started to rub and pull at his arm like he had an itch. "I don't want this," he stated, rubbing and rubbing. "You don't want what?" I inquired. "I don't want this skin." I explained to him that he had brown skin like daddy and put my arm next to his to illustrate. He smiled. His mother, who was also sitting with us, said that she had "white skin" and showed him. His smile disappeared. "I don't want a white mommy!" Oh boy.

We knew this day was coming. Like it or not, we had officially entered the next phase of that journey where parenting collides with the politics of race. We started when, as a black man and white woman, we decided to marry and have children. We tried to prepare ourselves, to be intentional about helping whatever kids we had to navigate the waters of race in America. We made sure that our son had lots of positive interactions with folks who look like daddy. We chose to live in a thoroughly racially integrated neighborhood. We sent him to a day care center run by a wonderful Haitian woman in her home. Our son had still gotten the message that when it comes to color there's skin you want to live in and skin you don't.

For us as Baha'is, parenting in the face of the politics of race is not a secular enterprise. Our religion teaches us that social conditions are a reflection of spiritual conditions, that the soul is central to the advancement of civilization. We are thus challenged to consider the spiritual dimensions of our son's efforts to make sense of skin-color diversity among human beings. In the words of 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892-1921:

This variety in forms and colorings which is manifest in all the kingdoms is according to creative wisdom and has a divine purpose.

Human beings have too often catastrophically failed to grasp what this creative wisdom and divine purpose might be. The Baha'i Faith offers insights that might provide a way of talking to our son about the skin he lives in. For example, Baha'u'llah (1817-1892), Founder of the Baha'i Faith, has described physical reality as being created for the training of souls:

Out of the wastes of nothingness, with the clay of My command I made thee to appear, and have ordained for thy training every atom in existence and the essence of all created things.

Is it possible then, that God is trying to teach us something through the hues that human beings come in? Could melanin be more meaningful than we have imagined? 'Abdu'l-Baha provides an organic metaphor to illustrate this possibility:

[Baha'u'llah] has declared that difference of race and color is like the variegated beauty of flowers in a garden. If you enter a garden, you will see yellow, white, blue, red flowers in profusion and beauty — each radiant within itself and although different from the others, lending its own charm to them. Racial difference in the human kingdom is similar...Therefore, Bahá'u'lláh hath said that the various races of humankind lend a composite harmony and beauty of color to the whole. 

This metaphor provides a way of talking to our son about skin-color diversity which is accessible to a three-year-old mind. He can walk right outside and see a natural world awash with different colors. This includes all the varied hues of the human family. What's more, this colorful world reflects creative wisdom and has a divine purpose. God made him the beautiful, brown boy that he is and whatever anyone else thinks, Creation is a bit more beautiful because he's here.