It might surprise you to find out that I was a relatively pale pink when I was born. My complexion smooth and cream coloured like many of the other babies surrounding me in the maternity ward of Geisenhofer Frauenklinik. Quite in spite of my fathers dark brown skin colour mine refused to acknowledge such ancestry; it wasn’t until I was a few weeks old that my skin assumed the colour it has today.
It is this inheritance, blackness, that I have to thank for my interest in skin, for what would I be without it. My skin makes me a black woman, whether I want it to or not. In a fantastic Ted Talk by Michael Kimmel he explains how he became a white, middle class man, how he came to recognise his privilege, how he came to look in the mirror and see a white, middle class man. His race and his gender make him a generic person, the default, what you imagine when someone says ‘there was someone standing in the corner of the room’, (that phrase gives no specifics but I would bet that the first image that comes to mind is a generic white man). My race and my gender, the colour of my skin and my genitalia, on the other hand make me an alternative form of humanity
Of course I should clarify that I am not, strictly speaking, “black”, in fact I identify as mixed race and although I perceive there to be a considerable difference between the two I know this is not always recognised. Since, commonly, blackness refers not to skin colour but a symbol of: being, race, status, humanity etc. Since the word “black” might be used to refer to genres of music, types of behaviours, types of criminality as well as to skin, it assumes a range of meanings and it may serve to unite or divide depending on how it is used and by whom. These inconsistencies and peculiarities around race are what drew me to the topic of skin, there is much else besides race to explore, but I wanted to begin by explaining my interest in the topic.
Below I have embedded a clip from an episode of Newsnight in which historian David Starkey explains how ‘whites have become black’ (start at 1:20), as evidenced by the behaviour of young white men and women during the London Riots. His choice of phrase is quite illuminating, ‘whites have become black’, he assigns the colours a range of meanings and histories which are tied up in complicated political and historical stereotypes, ideologies and perceptions. The phrase highlights the common link between criminality, violence and blackness, he uses the dichotomous colours to designate two different kinds of people and behaviour. This language has nothing to do with skin colour anymore, but it is incredible that such associations still cling to those of us who bear the burden of colour. We can no more shed the prejudices as we can shed our skin. These associations, between colour and character, may be found the world over. In the US racism and colourism can be found in far more malicious and deadly form than in the UK. The “Black Lives Matter” campaign calls to attention the lethal manner in which black skin is criminalised and persecuted on the streets of American cities, where execution at the hands of a police officer may be doled out for having a less than white complexion.
Before I move on from this topic I’d like to briefly discuss a notion that arose during a week in the course on The Body and the City. In a paper by Steve Pile (1996) on the psychoanalysis of space he explores various oppositions and significations as they are manifest in the city and the body. He cites the work of Stallybrass and White, in which they assert that ‘the body is an intensifying grid for the power geometrics of transcoded binary oppositions’, such as gender and race (ibid. 194). Power and subordination are negotiated in terms of black and white, male and female, rich and poor through a process of reduction which may be the result of psychodynamic influences or political machinations. This emerges in the metaphors we use to describe truth and falsity, right and wrong etc. as evident in the language Starkey used in the clip above and in the established systems of domination.
The path into and under our skin is long and I plan to make many pit stops along the way, this has been the first, with a quick peek into what drew me to the topic of skin.
Until next time!
Pile, S. (1996). The Body and the City: Psychoanalysis, Space and Subjectivity. Routledge.
Stallybrass, P. and White, A. (1986). The politics and Poetics of Transgression. London: Methuen