Sometimes topics cross the private-public divide so strongly that entries in this blog will be categorized across both sides of the aisle. The truth is, our private and public lives do blend, a lot, and the better we understand this, the better we are able to develop healthy, meaningful, and transformative tools and mechanisms for living out both these lives better.
In my Situate Magazine essay, “Black, Brown and Yellow in New Orleans,” I talked about how the heritage of white superiority and racial difference plays out among people of color in New Orleans, leaving open the possibility of hope for a future where people relations are more inclusive and understanding. What I didn’t get to talk about is how this heritage of difference so permeates all aspects of society that it seems to have a force all its own in shaping both our private and public lives.
My identity, for example, as an immigrant is much more visible, prominent, and salient because of the color of my skin and the texture of my hair. Skin pigmentation, hair texture, and to some extent eye shape and color, today are associated in most of the world’s minds as indicators of racial identity.
Historically, the modern western world was colonized, socially structured, and politically shaped by men with pink skin, who hailed from european countries full of men and women with pink skins, fine or straight hair, and light-colored eyes. People with lighter skin tones, finer hair textures and brighter eye colors set up economic, political, social, and even cultural systems and structures in the modern western world that supported differentiation. This differentiation established a hierarchy of better and lesser ‘races’ of people in the world (because they were in charge, of course, and because racial difference came to equal white=better and non-white=less than, lighter skin and finer hair began to be seen as better than darker skin and coarse hair).
Research over the last fifty years has established that this racial heritage was created (later supported scientifically during the heyday of Darwinian social evolution thinking in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s) and institutionalized in order to ensure that the belief in superiority of fairer skinned and lighter eyed people would become THE Social Reality in the United States (and other former european colonies). This would be done through how people were taught, governed, given work, paid, supported, and allowed to participate politically. Today this legacy pervades all aspects of public life in our local, state, and national policies, in hiring practices, in social associations, and so on, making public life in the United States (and many other parts of the world today) a racialized experience.
In seeking to establish ourselves as individuals who belong in the world, we have to decide how we approach who we are and how this identity influences both our private and public lives. As a Spanish-speaking immigrant from the Dominican Republic, for example, I was born into a world that denied the existence of any African heritage in my family and in my country of birth. It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties, living in the New Orleans area, that I came to realize that I have African heritage. My sense of myself as an individual, how I identified myself, had to change. I went from being Lucas, the Dominican guy, to becoming Lucas, the Afro Dominican guy. In doing so, I took it upon myself to make sure that others in my life understood that I wanted my new identity recognized.
Who I am, and how I see myself as a person, is a private matter, to be sure, but I have to take this private sense of identity out into the world and engage with it. Once I take this private identity into the world, I am engaging with the public heritage of racial difference that was created, and has been maintained for the better part of 500 years in the western world. This heritage of racial difference says that I am to be seen as being somehow less than another human being simply because my skin tone is a bit darker and my hair texture a bit more coarse. Of course, many human beings buy into this belief, making for problematic public relationships with people and institutions who don’t know me, and may not ever care to know me, but rely on this malicious, fictitious, and pervasive myth that we understand today as racial difference.
For my part, I am interested in having public experiences and relationships that affirm my difference without judgment of my worthiness as a person being dependent on some outdated and problematic skin-based, hair-based, culture-based, or language-based notion of inferiority. There are certainly differences in human existence in this world, but no aspect of this difference makes one human better or less than another. Such ideas are detrimental to healthy, inclusive, transformative public lives and spaces, and no democracy will work until we eliminate racial hierarchies in thought and practice.