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Rodriguez: Light Skin Preference and the Denial of Indigeneity

Lately I have been asking myself how anyone can do work during this extraordinary and dizzying time we are living in? And I am thinking in the philosophical realm as opposed to logistically.

And yes, I actually can work. I’m just thinking that it is a very distracting time for most anybody attending or working at a university. I say this because I’m in the midst of some incredible research — on color and color consciousness — and yet, it is difficult to ignore the unprecedented doings of this nation’s new president and his administration.

020817_SkinAnd yet I stop to think that whether the new president is impeached or not, the need to research what I am researching — light-skin preference — will remain. What I examine is light-skin preference in the Mexican, Central American and Andean communities of this nation, particularly in relationship to indigeneity and denial of indigeneity. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is a taboo topic in these communities. The reason for that is because I primarily examine the internal dimension to this phenomenon; i.e. how it plays out within family/relatives/friends. The external, of course, manifests as racial profiling. Part of what I choose to examine is the earliest memories when children become conscious of their color and that there is meaning attached to their color, and yes, most of these memories are negative.

The idea for this project goes back probably since I was a little kid, when I was always told to get back inside, otherwise I would get dark, even though I was chocolate brown. One of my childhood memories is that as a child, I would take showers with my eyes closed. And I remember rubbing and rubbing and when I opened my eyes, I was still brown.

I recount this at this time because, Ruben Botello, someone in his 70s, wrote to me about this topic several years ago. Last week, he sent me his testimony in the form of a PowerPoint with audio. It confirmed what I had always thought, that what I grew up with, is not uncommon. Ruben grew up in Texas and was subjected to the same ideas regarding skin color as I. When he was about 7 or 8, he took a bath and poured bleach all over his body. He had overheard his mom say that bleach whitened things. Being that it did not work, he resorted to scouring pads. That didn’t work either.

While that sounds extreme, it isn’t. This is but one story of perhaps 100 that I have received on this topic and they are all equally powerful. One person wrote that when they were children, they were bathed in milk, in efforts to lighten her up. Others have written about creams or chemicals they used to try to lighten up. This includes the use of blue/green contacts. This is not choice, but shame or low self-esteem.

Another common story takes place is when babies are born. If they are light-skinned, with green or blue eyes or with blonde hair, it’s as if they has dropped from heaven. The praise is always effusive and lasts throughout childhood. And the memories of dark siblings always listening to that praise, apparently also lasts a lifetime.

When I first started this project I did not initially use the word White supremacy. Perhaps this is referred to as normalization. Even now, I do not refer to it as “colorism.” It is partially that, but such a description does not suffice. And I say this because this is an issue that has been with us on this continent for some 500 years. And I understand that it is also a worldwide phenomenon. But my research is primarily centered around denial of indigeneity, though it does not neglect or ignore the racial issues of this country, which are primarily viewed through a Black-White prism. So this project or research does not shy away from issues of racism in this country. In part that’s why I finally realized that light-skinned preference in fact is part of White racial supremacy ideology, something that has been foisted upon the peoples of the Americas, and the entire world, for that matter.

On this topic, with this new president at the helm, I see a relationship and I see no need to mince words. He straight up preaches racial supremacist ideas, xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny. And I know that he does not view many of my students or their families as full human beings.

It is precisely the same politics, ones that originate some 500 years ago on this continent that continue to be at play here, both in regards to my research I have laid out here and also at the presidential level. The challenge is to believe that those illnesses can be eliminated in our lifetimes. And I do believe that.

Dr. Roberto Rodriguez is an associate professor in Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona.

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