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Lie #1: “Caucasian” is a Scientific Category

One of the ways racism is super-sneaky is that it provides terms we have come to assume are real, scientific, and factual, when really they are the stuff of legend and myth. In the 1700s, Johann Blumenbach coined the term Caucasian for “the White Race” as one of five subcategories of humans (the other four were: Malayan – The Brown Race, Ethiopian – The Black Race, Mongolian – The Yellow Race, and American – the Red Race, none of which we uphold as distinct racial categories today). He named the “white” race Caucasian because he felt the “most beautiful” skull in his human skull collection was from the Caucasus mountain range (“particularly its southern slope, which produces the most beautiful race of men” – J. Blumenbach), and thereby must represent his own people (he was German). The Caucasus Mountain Range, however, is in Azerbaijan and Armenia, places from which citizens would likely not even be considered “white” today: places that are nowhere near Europe or wherever “white” people are supposed to have originated.

When we use the term Caucasian, we are unwittingly upholding the white supremacy that Blumenbach promoted. We are also falsely suggesting that racial categories exist, which they do not. Our skin carries differing pigmentations depending on the intensity of sunlight wherever our ancestors settled. If they lived for generations somewhere in or near the equator, where sunlight is most intense (parts of Australia, Africa, India and South America), chances are good that their (and our) skin is darker in order to have better protected us from sunburn, skin cancers, etc.. If, however, our ancestors moved far from the equatorial band, they/we needed more vitamin D to penetrate our skin, and therefore our skin gradually lost its melanin in order to take in more sunlight. Skin color differs gradually by location, by distance from the equator – not by race. Think about it logically: if you were to walk from the tropics to the North pole, could you mark where people’s “race” suddenly changed? No – there would be a gradual change in the depth of color of residents’ skin. As Jay Smooth likes to say, “Race is a dance partner that was designed to trip us up.” For more information on this, please consider watching RACE: The Power of an Illusion, a PBS production which can be found on YouTube and Vimeo.

Unless I’m Sitting On Your Face, My Weight is None of Your Business

I’m sorry to be crass, but I’ve never seen a more effective response to weight stigma. Put differently, I believe with my whole heart (and have seen time and again) that criticizing someone else’s body – even when we think we’re being helpful – never, ever, ever helps. Unless I am living under a rock and I never leave, I am deluged on a daily basis by messaging about what my body “should” look like to be acceptable in this culture: believe me – we have each already internalized those images and have become quite skilled at comparing our own bodies to them. What we accomplish by commenting on another’s body (particularly negative comments) is to let them know that we, too, are judging them by this one yardstick; we become the personification of the messages that are already a Greek chorus, a tickertape, in that person’s head. And that person can never “un-know” that we view them through this lens.

When we are critical of something that does not directly affect us, such as someone’s size, it shines a spotlight on our own fears, anxieties and perceived shortcomings. It’s really about us. When you are tempted to express your concerns about someone else’s weight or size, consider these questions:

  • Does this person know they have a body?
  • Does this person live in Western society?
  • Do I know how this person already feels about their body?
  • Has this person asked me for help or support concerning their body’s size?
  • Am I willing to lose this person’s trust and possibly the relationship itself by saying what I want to say?
  • How comfortable am I inside my own body?

Hopefully, answering those questions silently in your mind will give you enough of a cautionary pause to prevent your words from leaving your mouth. Because loving that person and shutting the heck up is how you help. Love, connection and acceptance allow us to become the whole person we’re in this life to be, a whole that contains multitudes more than the “skin sack” holding it all. Yet again, an old adage wins the day: if you can’t say something nice, keep your mouth closed and consider what your words really say about you. Or something like that.

What is CRT?

CRT (Critical Race Theory) is a term coined by university professors Derrick Bell and Kimberle Crenshaw as a model for seeing history and other subjects through a lens of race/skin color. Two details about that sentence are are important: a) CRT was developed for a university/graduate school level of discourse, not grade school; and b) the model simply asserts that in order to see systems fully and accurately, we must consider them through a lens of race and skin color (for an explanation of why I write race AND skin color rather than just race, please see my earlier post on the myth of “Caucasian” ancestry).

Here’s an example of how acknowledging race/skin color changes what we’re seeing: the GI Bill of 1945 was intended as a gift to soldiers returning from World War II, as well as an incentive to invest in the American economy: the GI Bill offered low-interest mortgages on new homes and low-interest loans on college education for returning soldiers. This ultimately led to the building of suburban neighborhoods and a greater middle class. Great, right? A total win for America. Except that the colleges that would accept the federal loans did not accept Black people, and the neighborhoods that accepted federal mortgages only permitted white-European people to live there. If we don’t look at the GI Bill critically through a lens of race, we won’t see how this bill not only discriminated against Black soldiers, but ultimately became one of the greatest contributors to the current wealth divide between white-European and Black Americans, giving the former group an opportunity to access financial stability and higher education (along with all the connections made during this time that result in employment leads), while the latter group could not.

If we refuse to look at systems of power through a lens of race/skin color, we “whitewash” history and perpetuate the myth that the current inequities are the fault of the individual/population, rather than of laws that benefit one group while disadvantaging another.

I want to be clear regarding my own position on this CRT debate. As anyone can hopefully tell from my website, I don’t believe any of us thrive in situations where we are shamed. Telling the truth about our history DOES NOT have to mean that white-European children are made to feel bad about themselves or their place in history. By facing up to a more-nuanced telling of our story, what is ideally being taught is the ability to hold multiple truths at the same time. We can look at our circumstances through a racial lens and take responsibility for what we see without needing to shame each other. Inequities must be named in order to be corrected.

For those of you whom I haven’t lost yet, imagine for a minute that we replaced the “R” in CRT with a “G:” that all this heated debate was taking place because schools wanted to teach a grade-school version of “Critical Gender Theory,” where students were expected to learn the ways that gender impacts systems of power in American society. Who would argue that it isn’t essential to take gender into account when we look at history or health care? If I don’t acknowledge that people of different genders were and are treated differently (and often unequally) by these systems and that we have had to make significant changes in order for women to have greater access, I’m at risk of undervaluing the contributions of women, their potential for success, and possibly even putting women’s heath at risk (which is what happened when women were dosed with medications that had only been researched/dosed on men). Whenever we refuse to look at the ways that our society privileges some and disadvantages others, we are forced into the myth that one group is simply better, smarter or stronger than another. I would love to believe that even the groups that benefit from this myth would be confident enough to want to seek success on a more-level playing field.

I’ve quoted him before, and I’ll quote him again here: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Thank you, James Baldwin. May we have the courage and the humility to face our history so we can continue to right its wrongs and learn how to be better.

Brave Ideas: Understanding White Privilege

Whoo-wee. If ever there were a term that sets white people’s teeth on edge, it’s this one. And I get it, because the folks who want us to remain segregated and mad at each other have done an excellent job of using the term to suggest that white-European folks should be ashamed of ourselves; that we had everything handed to us on a silver platter and never did an honest day’s work in our lives. I’d be mad about that, too, if I believed it. But I know better.

The term white privilege means that, while I have had hardships in my life – I have faced discrimination, bullying, being denied jobs, etc. – those difficulties did not happen as a result of my skin color. Then it’s just a tiny step further to be willing to acknowledge that yes, okay, having white skin does make *some* things in my life easier, but they might be things I don’t think about very often. Here are a couple of possible examples:

  • All the money I use – bills and change – has people with my skin color portrayed on it
  • When I learn about “civilization,” I am shown/taught that people with my skin color made it what it is (this includes art, music, literature, math, science, etc.)
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to see the “person in charge,” I will be met with someone of my skin color
  • I don’t need to worry that people will assume I am poor or a criminal because of my skin color
  • I can easily buy posters, magazines, greeting cards, etc. featuring people of my skin color
  • I am never asked to represent or speak for my entire “racial” group, nor am I judged as an “example” of my “race”
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being considered a credit to my “race,” or an exception to a rule
  • I don’t have to worry that if too many people who look like me move into a neighborhood, its value will decrease

Someone once said, “I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.” Part of white privilege is not having to recognize how I am centered by society, how whiteness is upheld as the desirable standard against which no other skin color can compare. I might not have even realized I was white until later in my life, whereas people of color are awakened to their skin (often quite harshly) from a very early age.

I do not know what it is to live a life where my skin color is either rendered invisible or associated with poverty, criminality, public assistance, and so many other negative traits. As a part of the group that doesn’t have to experience that, I believe it’s my job to extend the sense of belonging that I feel to everyone else. How to do that is fodder for another post. Or nine.