Brown And Not Brown

Since my book of short fiction, tentatively titled Rare Air, has not been picked up by any publishers yet, I figured I would make use of an excerpt from one of them to look at one of the aspects of the societal challenges our nation faces in working towards this racial utopia we all seem to want to magically descend upon us.

We don't need another PBS special on racial profiling. The challenges we have all stem from more fundamental issues that determine how we Americans look at each other, and why the idea of a "colorless neutral" has so far been a step in the wrong direction.

The story itself, "Octoroon Swoon", chronicles the internal conflicts of a male African American graduate student who has to examine his own racial identity during an affair with a fellow student, an engaged to be married black woman PhD candidate named Veronica, who physically appears to be white.

The setting of this tale on a college campus also seems particularly apropos today, given the immense and intense attention given to Professor Henry Louis Gates and his brush with the world outside the safe diversity of the ivory tower life last week.

I have always like this story because it allowed me to wrestle with some of my own demons and prejudices. And it does have all the other good stuff in it - sex, violence, revenge and betrayal - but this section in particular is one that I think takes a new look at an old topic:

    Any mention of my thesis, which sought to redefine the way Americans looked at racial identity, caused my fellow graduate students to evade my eyes, most of them reluctant to acknowledge that the hypothetical theorems I put forth, however radical, might have some validity. Philosophical Logic was the least structured of all my seminars. Also the most segregated – I was the only minority, black, brown, yellow or otherwise, in the class. Halfway through the semester, we made brief presentations of a philosophical construct of our choice to the group.

    "Let's look at it this way," I said from the front of the airless room, "that a thing derives its identity from the thing that it is, as well as the thing that is its exact opposite."

    I wrote the words "The Law of Relational Identity" near the top of the whiteboard. "If we extrapolate a little here, we can assert that people of light skinned ethnicities, which I will denote for the purposes of this presentation as 'white', have appropriated the ability to be a 'colorless neutral' some of the time."

    Muted groans emanated from the back of the class as I wrote 'white' on the board. I turned around to a room full of long faces. Only the professor seemed interested in where this could be headed. A hand raised.

    "So people from the Mediterranean are considered what under your scheme?" Jimmy, the class contrarian, was honor-bound to look for ways to show up another classmate.


    "Uh - huh."

    "Anyway, as I was saying, people whom we regard in this country as 'white' usually see themselves as typical Americans. As average citizens." I looked at them, pale, paler and palest, staring back at me as if I were a creature from another planet, and decided to make this a little more personal. "If I were to leave this room at this very moment, there would be very little variation among the physical characteristics of those who remained.

    None of you is much lighter or darker than the other. Which means-" I turned back to the board, writing "not white" underneath "white" "-that the things you have in common – your relative skin tones, your similar hair textures – would then recede in importance as identifying markers." I wrote "black" below "white" and "not white."

    "Don’t you think you should write 'black' beside white instead of underneath it?" Jimmy asked. A few people tittered. The professor glared at the back of Jimmy’s neck.

    I erased "black" and started to write it beside "white", but rubbed the "bla" out with my finger. Smiling, I exaggerated the motions of the marker as I rewrote "black" off to the side and six inches above "white." Nervous laughter erupted when I turned back to the class.

    “The word 'black' that I just wrote on the board stands for people who have darker skin. People like me. So now we've got the signifiers 'white', 'not white', and 'black', which stand for various states of being. What I am proposing in my theory – actually, my extrapolation of the theory of relative identity - is that people who are darker skinned are unable to access a 'colorless neutral' self. That…we…are always bound to this state of 'colored' existence."

    Frowns appeared. I couldn't tell if these grimaces were in response to the word "colored" and all of its loaded imagery, or whether they just thought that my idea was stupid.

    I soldiered on. "If we express my definition of identity mathematically, it would look like this." The dry erase marker flew across the surface of the whiteboard as I scribbled the following equations on it.

      I = Identity

      IF I = {I, not-I}
      THEN {100% I} = null
      ERGO {100% not-I} = null
      ERGO: I = {I, not-I}

    A hand shot up. "You can't say that. 'I' has to equal 'I'. It can't equal '-I'. You just threw the Law of Non-Contradiction out the window.”

    "No, my premise is that identity is relational. It changes over time. Maybe you need to read a little more Heraclitus – things can change, you know. People definitely change.

    Anyway, if you substitute an ethnicity for '{I, not-I}' – let’s use 'white' - then we end up with these propositions."

    I wrote:

      white + not white = 100% of white identity

    then stopped to see if they were with me. The professor was gawking at the board and scribbling notes on his pad. Most of the others were looking at their watches, the same way I had earlier when I wondered how much longer the clowns before me were going to take.

    I'd gone this far, though – might as well give them the whole story.

    "If this makes sense to you, then you can take it a step further by expressing the balanced equation below:

      white + not white = white + not white

    I posit that canceling out 'white' on both sides of the equation leaves that individual with his neutral, or 'colorless' identity – 'not white.' If I were to do the same for 'black' –" I wrote the same propositions on the board, with 'black' inserted in the spot formerly designated for 'white', “when we get down to the part about canceling out the 'blackness', or the physical part of our identity, we find that is much easier to accomplish on paper than it is in real life."

    I wrote:

      black + not black = black + not black

    "But if an individual in real life is not able to ever enjoy being a 'colorless' neutral, there is no way in our equation as it is expressed below to ever cancel out the "black" part of the equation."

    "I don't see color," said a sensitive looking classmate whose name I could never remember.

    "Really? So does that mean I don't exist? Because me and the brownness of my skin are a package deal. Or does it mean that you've assigned a neutral value to something - the difference between our physical appearance - that actually exists?"

    "I guess…I guess you could say I've...designated...that's it...designated a neutral value for your skin tone."

    "Okay – I'll accept that." I looked at my classmates, who seemed glad that someone had pricked my theory – now they looked as if they were waiting for the air to rush out of it so that I would have to admit in the end that I was all wrong. "What about the rest of you – not that you’re a representative sample. Can you assign a neutral value to the skin tone of everyone who looks like me?"

    No one answered. The professor scribbled furiously for a moment, then pointed at the clock above my head. "Need to wrap this up, Derek - your time is almost up."

    "Whether or not I want to be 'not black' cannot alter the perceptions of the larger culture in which I exist." I erased the board as I talked. "That's all I’m trying to say. There's no Svengali in the world that can change that many minds at the same time. Thank you," I said to my professor and the class.

    Walking across the quad, I shook my head at the realities of the world I lived in. Veronica, and people like her, had an advantage over me when it came to exploiting their racial ambiguity. They could literally disappear even when they were right in front of someone, giving their ideas and their personalities more prominence in their intraracial relationships. It was the inability of people like me to be not brown, to be barred intellectually from inhabiting an existence other than that bounded by brown that frustrated me.

    Me and my brethren.

Maybe, just maybe, sometime in the near future, our nation's fiction editors and publishing houses will see that there is an audience for black fiction that isn't stuck in the "from slavery to the 60's" mindset, who are willing to support authors who are willing to write about the conundrums and contradictions that the darker slice of the American pie faces in the new millennium.

The question I have tried to pose for myself as a writer in this story is, if these characters are put in a position to define themselves, who would they be? Is the authenticity of their identities more dependent on how they define themselves, or how society defines them?

If there was a rebuilding of African American identity, what would that version of "African Americanness" look like?

If the "colorless neutral" of being white is revealed to be a cultural fiction, how would that change the dynamic of the American mainstream collective?

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Anonymous said...


I have mixed feelings on this article, and if I may, let me ramble a bit in an effort to drive home my point.

There is a terrific and popular hip hop club down the street from where I live. Having been in there numerous times I can say that my sour cream colored male butt is unique in this club. There is no color neutral for me within the confines of this club, but I would strongly suspect that those who are "not white" feel quite color neutral.

It, however, would be wrong to view my life within the confines of this microcosm, let alone surmise a macrocosm hypothesis based upon this experience. Furthermore, as I began to mull over your color neutrality proposition it occurred that you had failed to mention sex and even sexual orientation. As an example, a woman could argue quite successfully that in a business setting she does not feel gender neutral.

And what about color neutrality in a country such as Africa? Please, I am not trying to offend anyone with that oft repeated, well just move back crap, but rather trying to show that your hypothesis only works when the defining parameters put the issue under review in the minority.

Which brings me to my point of sorts, if the parameters are the limitation then why can't people broaden the parameters internally. Oh, a contradiction of sorts, but bear with me. While you are the only man of color within your school, how many men of color are achieving greatness on the worldwide stage? Or perhaps, you go the opposite route and find achievements closer to home. Are you color neutral in your home? Does the woman who is married to you care about the color of your skin?

So, to come back to my story in the hip hop club, in the end I am here with the woman I love listening to music I can't stand. But the men and women that are our friends laugh at my jokes, make me smile, and at the end of the night, the most beautiful woman in the world is my wife. So while I may not be color neutral, who really gives a damn.

Which brings me to my comment about your short story. I enjoy your prose immensely, but I find myself looking at my watch while reading it. Your style and crafting are amazing, but your subject matter is quite arguably, boring.

Keep writing though, your skill with the written word is incredible.

Rick Beagle

A.Smith said...

Rick, I liked your comment and I think you have a good point, but the problem is... and you recognized this... that's your experience.

I don't find this to be a strictly internal thing. I think the color neutrality thing is real. Neutral is the basis from which everything moves. If you're not neutral, you're the exception; you're different.

Male, Heterosexual, White -- those are our neutral points in this society... it's not fair to bring other cultures into it to make a point.

Those who happen to fall into all 3 of those categories should be careful not to make it personal. It's not. It's a fact of our society. Now, if you want to make it personal and so make it a goal of yours to change the way our society acts with respect to neutrality, then great, but too often I see White Heterosexual Males get upset because they feel they're being attacked in conversations like this, when they're not.

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