Skin color never a small issue - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Skin color never a small issue

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Posted: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 5:00 am

A news item came across my desk that gave me a moment's pause. It has to do with your looks.

Evidently, Prescott, Arizona City Councilman Steve Blair used his radio talk show to complain about some of the kid's skin color.

A downtown mural going up used Miller Valley Elementary School kids of various ethnicities as models. The "Go on Green" campaign, designed to promote environmentally friendly transportation, had a Hispanic boy as the dominant figure.

Project director R.E. Wall reported that for two months he "had people shouting racial slander from their cars." The children painting with the artists heard "yells of (a racial epithet for blacks) and (epithet for Hispanics)."

Then, school principal Jeff Lane insisted the skin color of the kids depicted in the mural get lightened.

Finally, Blair was fired for his aggressive on-air talk. Joe Gandelman, commenting in, said Blair "made comments that some interpreted as being racist."

This is one of those public incidents that can go, like sidewinder fireworks, in every direction. The moral about what we should get out of it should not be confusing.

The matter can get obfuscated in lots of ways. But, in the end, the old 1950s and '60s notion that "race," as depicted by skin color and not DNA, is what was intended. In that tortured social interpretation, skin color represents the social hierarchy about who is entitled and isn't.

All that got tumbled away long ago with Mendez v. Westminster (1947), the Hernandez v. Texas (1954) and then the 1964 civil rights legislation which chipped away at how people think about race and human differentiation.

And how people of color think about themselves has changed, too.

Times change, but how people talk doesn't change as fast, if at all. Even how new values are expressed can take glacial time and is forever a lagging indicator of what most people mean.

In the 1950s and '60s, dark skin was both a basis for discrimination and prejudice and the benchmark for self-deprecation. In its most extreme, it became self-hate.

But that was then and this is now. Designer looks are in. A person becomes what he wishes.

For example, one interpretation about why homogenous-seeming youth in Japan choose to paint their hair day-glo colors, apply cosmetics to look like make-believe characters (like Raggedy Ann dolls, other costuming and adding accoutrements) do so simply from wanting to distinguish and differentiate themselves. Some commentators say this is the age of designer identity.

If you don't believe it, take in one episode of the Tyra Banks cable TV show on Bravo, "America's Top Model," to see the transformation from how people are to what they wanna be.

On the more, noire side of life, ever since the appearance of the best-selling book, "Black Like Me," the 1961 diary of white journalist John Howard Griffin, who artificially darkened his skin to pass as a black man in the segregated South, the public understands that people are treated by how they are perceived.

That understanding about public prejudice came as news to some people.

By 2009, when baseball player Sammy Sosa brought a gasp to some of the audience of the Spanish-language Univision program "Primer Impacto" when he revealed using a bleaching cream. It's no longer reasonable to presume to know what that means. Some took it into their 1950s template. But that's not necessarily the case anymore.

He might have been making a metrosexual comment and not one about race relations.

Still, those statements involving kids in Arizona -- that's different. The intention and its effect was a micro-aggression to demean, chastise, subordinate and was mostly off-message for the good-natured "go green" campaign.

Anachronistic, knuckle-headed, spoiler thoughts and expressions only serve to poison the well from which children drink -- the kids we have cultivated to believe they can be anything they want.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at

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