Growing up in the south meant I was constantly surrounded by a pretty diverse rainbow of skin tones. I saw race, we all do, but as a white girl it never mattered to me. I was friends with people regardless of race or ethnicity, but I also never understood what it was like to be anything other than white. I still don’t, obviously, being the lily white lady that I am. It’s very unlikely I will be judged based on my skin color alone in that way; it’s never something I really had to think about.
And then I moved here.There is very little racial diversity on this island. Combine that with the 350 years of colonial imperialism from the Dutch and you have this western-worshipping mindset that makes a white girl stand out in a crowd. Or a rice paddy. Or a corner store.
After living here for a year I have become very cognizant of my own skin: the color, the texture, the various levels of tan. Every piece of my skin that is exposed (which usually isn’t all that much) draws my mind in some way now because I know it’s different. I know people stare at me for no other reason than because of the skin I was born with. People yell after me, they approach me, try to talk to me, to get my attention because of some tiny genetic marker that slated me for paler than paper.
I never considered myself an overly private person before I moved to this country. I am great at parties, a good leader, generally pretty charismatic and outgoing, but it turns out I’m quite the introvert. I do well in large groups for a limited time and then must regroup by myself in order to recharge the ol’ batteries. It would also seem I don’t much care to be the center of a lot of attention. I suppose there’s a reason I gave up acting so long ago. I don’t like to be stared at and watched. The only place I am not stared at, pointed at, yelled after, or otherwise accosted is at home, in my room. Generally the attention is positive. It’s people who are excited to see a bule and just want to say hello. They don’t really have negative associations with my skin color except to place me on a scale that is even further from a real person. Generally, women are objectified, no matter what country you’re in. Here, being a white woman makes me even more of an object: a pretty porcelain doll that couldn’t possibly adhere to the same rules that apply to everyone else.
I still don’t understand what it must be like for other races in America. I can’t fathom being discriminated against for my race, especially since I’ve only been identified as an ‘other’ in circumstances where it gives me a general advantage, but I feel like I now have a vague understanding of how much I truly do not understand. For the first time in my life I have had moments where all I wanted to do was disappear and scrub the white out of my skin just to have a moment of peace, and it breaks my heart to imagine there are people who may have felt like that their whole lives.
So I tell my kids they’re beautiful. All of them. I talk about how, in America, a lot of people really like to be dark or tan. I tell them that I love their noses and their dark hair and brown eyes. I tell them they are perfect just the way they are. And I’m not lying. These people are generous and kind, they do not have the unnatural suspicion with which I was raised, they smile and make friends for no reason at all. And not one part of that has the slightest bit to do with the color of their skin or the way they look.
I try to find the perspective on days when I want to disappear. I try to remember that many of them have never seen someone with blue eyes in person, whereas I grew up around a veritable rainbow of eyes, hair, and skin. When I try to remember all of that, I find that I so thoroughly cannot relate and decide to again embrace what my left foot says, “Know Thyself.” Know that you know nothing and that there are some things you may never be able to understand. I will never be able to relate to the clamor to say hello or the shock when they see my eyes, but as long as I retain the ability to remember the perspective and appreciate the difference, I have hope that I won’t lose my mind. Everyone has a story and I just have to remember theirs.