When Skin Isn't Safe by Gemma Fleming
“Hypoxia” is defined as a condition in which the body’s tissues are deprived of oxygen. This condition is characterized by the discoloration of the skin turning blue (“cyanosis”). Often detected in pale-skinned patients as a bluing discoloration of the area affected, a method of assessing dark-skinned patients requires the use of a daylight balanced lamp and careful observations of either white or grey-ish skin. Since most skin care guidelines are based off patients with pale skin, providers might not detect any visible trauma crucial to diagnosis and treatment of dark-skinned patients. Especially in patients of mixed race, like myself, patients are often left in charge of their treatment process, as most doctors are unfamiliar with combination skin and must expand their awareness of multiple skin colors to detect signs of any deterioration and/or wounds.
Growing up as someone of mixed race I never had a foot in one particular social circle. Never White enough or Asian enough to be fully accepted by my peers of either race. Living in a predominately White community proposed a set of dangers to someone like myself. I would turn the privilege my father’s presence guaranteed.
By his white skin was an unspoken and well-known advantage. His pale complexion marked me as safe. But by contrast, I began to shift any inadequate traits onto my Asian mother. The fiery and fierce personality - not the typical image of Asian women as submissive and meek - was deemed an abnormality. My father supported this lumping of poor traits onto her by proclaiming, “You get that from your mom.”
This became habit. Only later, did I realize this act of redirection was harmful. The ownership of my character had been diminished and degraded as a result of how I blocked internalizing my mother and her/our race. Being taught prejudice to such a degree placed further distance between my mother and myself. It ruined our relationship. We shared the troubling growing pains of the mother-daughter dynamic. My mother wasn’t the best, and were often left mangled from our exchanges in battle. But conflict aside, I hated her just to hate her. I found myself in alignment with my father’s words, and becoming repulsed by the image of my reflection ever mirroring hers. But as I was my father, I was also my mother.
My father took pride in having two daughters. But there were often times he slighted my sister. He didn’t consider her his “real daughter.” Her biological father left long before she could remember. My father stepped in. Did I derive pleasure when I felt like his favorite? Perhaps, but this sank away with a glance of my sister’s face, her wincing expression of outright rejection. Then a haunting question, “Maybe I’m his real daughter because I’m the whiter one?”
Our mother worried about security. Would we be with someone who didn’t have the right job or financial means to take care of us? Guided by her fear, my sister and I went through partner after partner, but never presented a man worthy of her hospitality. Sure, she was polite and made sure they felt welcome in her home, but then came the usual scathing criticisms. Granted, these relationships didn’t fail only due to my mom’s opinions. Still, my mother’s infamous “I told you so” face appeared when I’d say “we’re not together.”
My parents collectively agreed on one expectation, and that was that we’d never bring a Black man home.
My mother’s perceptions of Black American men weren’t as hateful as my father’s, but just as damaging. My mother feared all men would subject me to abuse or disease. My father objected to the sight of both his brown and pale-skinned daughters introducing a “gang banger” as our boyfriend. Both my sister and I would find ourselves attracted to all types of men (and for myself, both men and women). The looming threat of criticism and rejection from our parents kept a stronghold, leaving us often turning Black men away as romantic partners, and unknown relationships that never stepped past the idea of “what if”.
I grew up and left the painfully White community of the Puget Sound suburbs. I found myself attracted to the city, and eventually to the East Coast. My extended family became of multiple race, gender, and creed.
Nine years have passed, and I now find myself in a loving relationship with a man of Haitian descent. As much as I felt my adult life was established, I felt reduced to my same childhood fears of rejection when it came to introducing him to my parents. Would he be too black for my father? Too threatening for my mother?
Thankfully, my parents now have their own relationships with my boyfriend. My father rambles about old movie star crushes, and my mother bonds over football.
Had I never met my significant other, I would have continued thinking that the worst of racism was over. But now I think about the acceptance - and safety - beyond only my family life. I never considered black identity until I started dating a Black man. I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I was never aware of the magnitude of racial prejudice that precedes my existence. Surely, I wasn’t “that kind of White person.”
As humiliated as I was, I had to understand that it wasn’t about being an exception to the norm and feeling good for it. I couldn’t make my association with my partner the only action or reason I’ve become aware of racial discrimination. Being in an interracial relationship does not make someone dismissed from the responsibilities - both personally and interpersonally - of understanding racism.
And here I am, with the full realization that racism in America hasn’t dissolved. The racism is in the very building blocks of our country: Integration has never actualized, and segregation is merely redirected. Black Americans are faced with disadvantages in their socioeconomic status. There is the increased likelihood of mass incarceration compared to their pale-skinned counterparts. The perception that Blacks only populate in the inner cities, making the areas deemed undesirable by even the most progressive of metropolises.
When I hold my partner’s skin to mine, I don’t see or feel these things. But when I hear him speak, I hear and feel his sadness. His anger. The absolute formula behind his bottomless mental fortitude and strength as a result of colonization of his culture, the persecution of his safety. I wish I could travel back in time and give him the shield of protection that was lent to me by my father. The blanket of meekness from my mother.
But how would this help him? Would it make him safe to some, but not to everyone? I had to stop speaking about what I thought I knew about racial injustice and actually listen to someone who has lived the embodiment since his first breath.
On January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as our 45th president. In the days after, I’ve found myself holding witness to a rapidly changing political climate that targets specific groups of religion and ethnicity. White guilt, including my own, rushed to fill the front of the protest lines. I felt the need to show up and say “we are affected, too.”
Once again, these actions place White Americans in front and our colored comrades in the back. Photographs I took at demonstrations are disproportionately of White Americans, despite attempts to find and photograph people of color. While the sentiment of protest was touching, this is another example of a path that was the easiest to travel. I wonder how many people will start the paving of one that requires a large amount of work and endless humility?
People are satisfied with what little progress they can see. Sometimes they fall short of achieving real improvement, which requires pushing for real change, no matter how much it takes. Many groups are being turned on their sides in the wake of President Trump, but colored Americans - black, brown, yellow; imported and indigenous - have been living in this realm of terror for hundreds if not thousands of years.
So how do you process the culpability of finding penance as a 21st Century White American? Where do you find solace in-between being supportive to people of color without eclipsing the message? These are areas I am struggling with on my own as I rush to remedy my actions, but I find the simplest solution is to listen.
Seize yourself from the idea that in order to understand any minority that you have to comb through their timeline for the exact moments of pain and suffering they’ve endured. Try viewing racism as a structural idea that has an end solution. We missed those said opportunities for real change in the wake of previous events like the LA Riots, Hurricane Katrina, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement, and so forth. Many of us really missed the message because we found ourselves arguing that change has to happen while remaining hesitant to step in as allies willing to put in the real work.
White privilege will never be truly dismantled so long as the reassignment of that privilege is prevented (when seeking the expansion of equality towards all races). Race is not a biological concept, and serves merely as a path for one’s experience. The experience for those with darker skin is a path marred with inequality and injustice. Many who live within the walls of such privilege are often in denial of its existence.The immediate cure-all would be to treat everyone the way we’ve been treating White Americans for years - except we can’t actualize that change. However, small steps can be taken to ensure this starts, and the only way to do that is to shift the views of the average White American’s perception on racism in America.
Speak with those that have been victim to civil unrest and listen to where they feel they need your support the most. Truly put them before you and out of harm’s way. Help to rewrite the rules through appropriate avenues. Are you someone who holds a senior position at your workplace? Work on mentoring a minority and carving a path towards the same successes you’ve received. Volunteer your time and services to help elevate people of color. Recognize that your education of society might omit the struggle of colored people. Inform yourself by searching for stories from sources that originate from those communities. Understand that prejudice exists everywhere: the workplace, the criminal justice system, in the education system, the healthcare system, and for White people: the subconscious mind.
Don’t let the state of the world leave you breathless. You need breath to fight. Accept that racism still exists and that Whites still have a long way to go in understanding that they must help by not leading the march, but by being offered a seat at the table.
A transplant to the United States from Naples, Italy, Gemma grew up in the Pacific Northwest region of Washington state. Shortly after graduating from Seattle Central Creative Academy in 2008, she relocated to New York City. Her photography and films have showcased in print and exhibitions by way of New York, Miami, Dublin, Seattle, and elsewhere. Gemma’s work has grown to an extensive body of personal and commissioned portraits, editorials, and films.