On Being Black in China: Part 2

Lotus, the lady who runs the veggie shop at the front gate of our apartment complex, told me today that Judah looks more and more like me everyday.  That’s exactly what every dad wants to hear even if their children are adopted.  And a different race. She could have stopped there but she felt compelled to explain. “In the summertime, his skin is so black, now he looks more like you.” Again.  Good place to stop.  But no.  With a big smile on her face, and the pride that comes from knowing she is giving us both a huge compliment she said, “now is much more better.”
I thinks it’s funny how disconnected the head and the heart can be when it comes to deep cultural issues. I know what she was saying.  I know the heart behind it and the thoughts connected to it.  I grasp the social and economic dynamics that have shaped and honed and fine-tuned the stigma into its present form.  I teach this stuff and still . . . I was immediately offended.  My mind, in a split second, flashed through every racially charged concept I had ever understood.  Martin Luther King Jr. and Amistad and Kunta Kinte and Bobby (the single African American student in my small town high school who was treated really poorly) all hit me like a water balloon in the face and for that split second I wanted to rise up and fight oppression and hatred and prejudice and the man.  When the second was over though I saw Lotus smiling again and I smiled back.
It’s changing (as is everything) in China but for years, maybe centuries dark skin has been associated with involuntary exposure to the sun, which is associated with hard work outside, which is associated with being poor, which is associated with low education, which is associated with not being smart, which is associated with . . . this keeps going for a while.  In my culture it’s offensive to attach a stereotype to a person based on the lightness or darkness of their skin and thank goodness it is (it’s been a long time coming).  But jokes about people with red necks are just plain funny.  After all red necks come from over exposure to the sun, which comes from working hard outside, which comes from being poor . . .
My perspective:  “What a narrow-minded, bigoted remark.  How dare you insult my son.”
Her perspective:  “What a beautiful boy and I wish for him a prosperous, healthy, secure life. Here, have an orange.” 

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