by Mia McKenzie
I have been thinking about this post for a long time. I have been ruminating on how, and whether, to say these things. I have been talking to trusted friends to get their thoughts and input. I have spoken to other writers about how to collaborate on a piece like this, so we could share the backlash that would surely come. It has been weeks and months of considering what, exactly, to say and how, exactly, to say it. Friends, other writers, have told me they are afraid to go where I am about to go. I have been a little afraid myself.
Our fear comes from the fact that no one seems to talk about this, at least not in an open forum. It also comes from the fact that identity politics are a serious bitch and people get hella touchy about them. As a result of this silence and this touchiness, there is big fat white-skinned elephant in the room.
Well. This is Black Girl Dangerous, and pointing out the elephant is sometimes what we have to do. So, here goes.
I’ll start here:
In 2003, I moved to Denver. How and why isn’t important, but I ended up there. I never really liked it, never felt at home there, but I was tired of moving, so I stayed. For the first few years, I couldn’t find any community that felt like a fit for me. And then, in 2006, I discovered some queers of color, a whole group of them, a small but significant community. I was thrilled. I started hanging out with folks, and one day I was invited to a gathering. It was a group started for QPOC to get together and talk about life, problems, to vent and get support or whatever. There were awesome people there, and I met many cool folks. But…something was a little strange.
There were one or two people there who, to my eyes, looked completely white. I’m talking blue-eyed, fair-skinned (not light-skinned, white-skinned) people. These people were not calling themselves allies. They were calling themselves POC. I was…confused. I looked around at the other POC there, and none of them seemed perturbed about it.
In all my life on the East Coast, I had never encountered this. Where I come from, people of color are people who walk through the world in skin that gets hella bullshit brought down on them. Because their skin is not white, their lives are more difficult. They are discriminated against in employment and housing. They are profiled by police. They are followed around in stores (in the case of black and brown people) because they are marked as thieves. The list of bullshit they have to deal with goes on and on.
But here, in Denver, were these white-skinned, sometimes blue-eyed people, who I could not imagine having ever experienced any of that, calling themselves POC and talking mad shit about “white people”. And it wasn’t only the one or two at that first gathering. As I spent more and more time in that community in Denver, I was introduced to more and more people who looked white but called themselves POC.
What I discovered was that these people usually had POC ancestry. More often than not, a grandparent, or even great-grandparent, who was a person of color. And because of this, because of their brown ancestors, they called themselves POC, even though they themselves presented as white. And not only did they call themselves POC, but they very strongly, adamantly, separated themselves from the idea of whiteness. And I was like…really?
Again, none of the other visible people of color seemed to have any problem with this. The other visible people of color even dated these white-skinned people and described themselves as being in QPOC relationships. Everyone else was so mum about it, in fact, that I, new to this community, felt completely intimidated about bringing it up, about asking why and how these folks were people of color. So, I never did.
When I went back to the East Coast, the issue became somewhat moot, at least in my immediate vicinity. In Philly, the queer POC community I knew were all visible people of color. The only people I knew who weren’t were from other places, and they were still few. So, it kinda fell off my radar.
And then I came to Oakland.
Where, once again, I am encountering people whose skin is white and who identify as people of color. And not only identify, but OWN that shit. People who, with their white skin, lead workshops and arts organizations and panels about being POC.
I’m not gonna lie. I’m feeling some type of way about this.
As a visible person of color, as a woman who walks around in this very brown skin, with this kinky hair and these features, all of which invite discrimination, degradation, and presuppositions based on race into my life every day, it has been hard (and is becoming impossible) for me to continue to be quiet about this. The idea that some people (white-skinned people) get to have all the benefits of whiteness and still claim ownership of POC-ness, without anyone raising an eyebrow, is, to me, problematic.
Let me say here that there are people I like and love who fall into this category: white-skinned people who call themselves POC. This post is not meant to hurt them. It is also not meant to be skin-policing. What it is meant to do is start a conversation. A conversation that I just don’t see happening anywhere else. It’s a complicated conversation, and undoubtedly a difficult one. But I believe it needs to be had.
So, this is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts, by me and by other contributors, about white-skin privilege in POC community* and what it means, in reality, to be a person of color who has to deal with racism directed at oneself, as opposed to being a white-skinned person with POC ancestry who does not. Can you really have white skin and be a person of color? Does that even make sense? Or is this yet another way that whiteness gets to have its way, gets to be whatever it chooses, even if it chooses to be not white.
There it is. I said it. I got it out and I feel better already.
*Light-skinned privilege, by the way, is an entirely different issue and should be discussed as such, in my opinion. It is quite something different to be light-skinned and still visibly POC than to be white-skinned and not visibly POC.
Mia McKenzie is a writer and a smart, scrappy Philadelphian with a deep love of vegan pomegranate ice cream and fake fur collars. She is a black feminist and a freaking queer, facts that are often reflected in her writings, which have won her some awards and grants, such as the Astraea Foundation’s Writers Fund Award and the Leeway Foundation’s Transformation Award. She just finished a novel and has a short story forthcoming in The Kenyon Review. Her work has been published at Jezebel.com, and recommended by The Root, Colorlines, Feministing, Angry Asian Man, and Crunk Feminist Collective. She is a nerd, and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous, a revolutionary blog.
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I could be one of these people, but I’m not, because I think it would be FUCKED UP of me to claim to be a POC, so I am not in POC centered spaces unless explicitly invited. I agree with you completely that these conversations need to be had, and I totally have your back in having them.
It’s complicated…but Whiteness instructs white people in appropriation…it teaches us that we can be whatever we want, take whatever we want, be whatever we want. So…I think critically conscious white people, no matter our ancestry, need to be VERY VERY careful about how we self-identify, what we claim, what spaces we take up; because the forces that socialized us did so in a way that makes it all to easy for us to take things that really aren’t ours.
And of course we have to take into account the way that Whiteness also tries to nullify non-Christian-Anglo cultures… That it teaches light skinned POC to identify with Kyriarchy (speaking from a bay area/US perspective here) instead of with the cultures and ways of being of their non-white ancestors, and through their assimilation and white skin they benefit -somewhat- from white privilege as well. I’m thinking here of people who can “pass.” And THEIR identification as POC is self-preserving and radical and important….
But that doesn’t ring true for me. When talking about people like me, whose grandparents were POC, I….have a hard time believing ALL of them grew up immersed in whatever culture that ancestor called their own. Especially us here in the Bay. So yeah, this needs to be talked about. Because I’m not quite white, but I’m DEFINITELY not a POC, and no matter my ancestry it would be wrong to claim otherwise, to invade one of the few spaces not FOR me already. To be a colonizer all over again. No no no. Critically conscious white people, ESPECIALLY those of us with this sort of heritage, should know better than that!