White Skin, Black Masks
You are part of a group of about a dozen friends that has been invited into the home of some colleagues from another land, who are hosting you for a meal to share and learn about one another’s ways. You have come to learn the stories of the people whose home you have been invited into as they relate to theology, violence, suffering, and hope.
At the door, you are welcomed warmly by hosts who usher you into their home. It has been a long trip. You dust your coat, take your shoes off at the door, and step into their modest but bustling dining room. Everyone begins to introduce themselves, laugh, share stories, and connect even across a steady language barrier. Your hosts have prepared for you all a wonderful meal, which is brought out on worn plates and adorned with local spices. You pray, and then dive into the meal.
A few bites into the meal, several of the guests in your group begin to cough. Their eyes begin to water, fists ball tightly, and throats begin to swell shut. You discern that some of the contents of the meal have caused for a few folks an allergic reaction. This is, of course, no one’s fault – caused simply because of what went into the meal and what your friends happened to he carrying around in their own bodies.
Wordlessly, a few of your friends stumble outside for air, to take a minute to see if the symptoms subside. You follow quickly to comfort them. A few others come outside to pray for wellness and healing. One of them throws up. As the pain begins to settle, still raw, your group returns back inside. Medical treatment at this time is unnecessary, but clearly the meal cannot continue as it was.
When you regain your seats at the table, your hosts begin to pepper you with questions: “so I see that you didn’t enjoy our food? We went through all this trouble for you.” You try to say that is not the case, but are cut off: “No, no, no. This is an outrage,” your hosts shoot back. “This is my grandmother’s recipe. We have prepared this meal for you with all of the finest ingredients, from local sources.”
“I understand and appreciate the profound gladness from which this meal came,” one of your friends begins. “But as you can see, eating this meal caused me inexpressible pain. Is there anything else I might eat?”
You look around the room for sympathetic eyes, confused. The mood in the room has clearly shifted from one of celebration to one of anger and hurt. After a period of silence, one of your hosts stands shaking her head and explains that one must always be in firmer control of their emotions. Another man crosses his arms and scoffs: “This is our culture. You don’t understand our ways. How dare you come here and tell us what’s wrong – perhaps you had better leave.”
Later that night, your friends talk about what happened over drinks. How did this happen? Could we have reacted any better? There were more dietitians and culinary professionals sitting in the room than you could count on both your hands, but you feel there was so little understanding of what happened.
The two older members of your group, who architected the visit, have fallen largely silent. They are hurt also. Although they have eaten here dozens of times, they have never thought too much about the meal’s ingredients. Without allergies of their own, this was never a personal concern. No warnings were given before the meal on the hope they wouldn’t prove necessary. You are instructed that we must move forward in learning from our hosts – when we return to the hosts’ home tomorrow, we will not under any circumstances have a group conversation about what happened.
The next day, one of these older friends – who didn’t say a word over drinks the night before – has a separate group member send out his thoughts by email, precluding direct response or engagement (perhaps having had enough time to formulate his own perspective).
The email reads: How could you expect our hosts to be “partners” in a conversation about food allergies? I see you’re in pain, but we must get it together. These people are not scientists! They don’t understand antihistamines. Did you know they just lost their child to a war, and the government can’t help them at all? I think we have got it pretty good back in our homes compared to these people who are very poor. Everyone has suffered pain. My wife and I have suffered also, so you shouldn’t make such a big deal out of things. We should really just be grateful for what we have.
When you return to your hosts’ home the following afternoon, you are surprised to find that everyone is, in fact, now going to talk about what happened. All of the hosts are at the front of the room, arms crossed, joined by your older friends. Those who suffered yesterday begin to share the pain they experienced. One tries to talk about the reality of food allergies in relation to her family history. Others around the room – from both groups – begin to chime in, staring with contorted faces and thin lips. Whispers and groans begin to fill the air:
“Get a handle on yourselves.”
“Voy a defender esta tradición un poco…mostremos honor, y nos insultaron.”
“You all have made a big deal out of nothing.”
“Es de much dolor lo que ustedes hicieron.”
This is, of course, a sloppy allegory. What happened in real life was that my study trip to Colombia had a large incidence of blackface (preceded and followed by several dozen smaller such incidences) during a visit to a community who had around thirty youth paint their skin black, their lips red, and dance a traditional dance for us. I wasn’t going to write about this, but enough people have asked me what happened and posted about it in part that I wanted to share my honest impressions.
I’m not going to post pictures, but please know that the experience splintered the group. It chemically altered the way we were able to relate to each other. It fractured both Colombian and Chicagoan students and professors along strange fault lines of indifference, loyalties to old friendships, and misguided racial solidarity. It changed the way I was able to understand, and even look at, students and faculty from both schools.
In 1952, critical theorist Frantz Fanon published Black Skin, White Masks, a psychological study of the internalized racism that colonialism infuses in its subjects, particularly in relation to the pathology of the colonized mind and the black body. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates (and James Cone before him) Fanon was a prophetic expositor of the implicit but often unarticulated fault lines along blackness and whiteness, theorizing on the invisible racial cracks that swallow up entire persons and psyches. He elucidated before many others the profound inability of black people to fit into dominant social norms in a postcolonial society and discussed the implicit association of “blackness” with “villainy” with which we have all been trained to think.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon reflects: “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
The core, inviolable belief at play in our group conversation about the people with white skin wearing masks of black paint, for our Colombian friends, seemed to be a misplaced sense of cultural orgullo and defense of the nobility and supremacy of “our traditional ways.” Therefore, it didn’t matter that the room was full of pastors trained in pastoral care, that some of our group experienced a trauma beyond human words, that we were all Christians struggling to express our mutual hurt. In that moment, very cowardly responses emerged (with the exception of one comment). To preserve cognitive harmony, overwhelmingly cold, sterile, mathematical reactions – “there is no racism in Latin America;” “Look, I am 1/16th African on my mother’s side!” – needed to be liberally employed to, as Fanon writes, “rationalize, ignore, and even deny” our students’ raw, emotional pain.
On the very first day of class we presented for three hours on experiences of anti-black racism that our students felt in both Chicago and in Colombia. But even after two weeks together, there was no recognition that this was all connected: Laquan McDonald’s lynching; being followed around in stores in Barranquilla and Chicago; the racial profiling by security at the airport; Ta-Nehisi’s talk of reparations for slavery; the protests actual black Colombians have been making against blackface; and the “beloved cultural tradition” of putting black paint on white skin.
It is hard to imagine that a blackness one can apply with a sponge, crudely baptize under the guise of “honoring our slave ancestors,” and mop off the floor afterwards is not related to the kind of pathologies that Fanon was writing about. This is perhaps why one of our Colombian professors felt the need to liken light-skinned people doing blackface to the beauty of the incarnation (how a perfect God slipped on soiled human skin and became one of us in a gesture of love). On a continent where blackness has historically been associated with embarrassment, terror, and sin and is currently publicly extinguished or painted on for minstrel dance, this was an uninspired analogy.
Many times in Colombia I heard an invocation of Latin America’s historic tripartite blood fraternity to explain women’s physical beauty, and to justify romanticized claims to African identity. As a multigenerational diasporic mixed race person, I can appreciate to some (although an entirely different) degree the distanced pride in mestizaje identity. But just as I don’t dress as a samurai and do fake Japanese or Hawaiian accents to entertain my white friends, I don’t know that it’s possible to crudely spiritualize away and “parody” one’s vague African ancestry without virulently participating in a tragic kind of anti-blackness. A largely hypothetical mestizaje identity, imagined as a single potent drop of black blood, does not excuse one from the task of reckoning with what the actual black people are feeling today.
I’m not going to go into the exhausting, painful experiences of racism I constantly experienced throughout our trip. I won’t delve into how my sharing of my pain related to Orientalism and anti-Asian racism led to mocking from our own group, how our Colombian hosts perpetuated some of the most hurtful racisms I’ve felt in a while. Those are conversations I will reserve for those I trust.
I’ll just close by saying that in light of the ongoing poverty that children of the African diaspora are still experiencing on this continent, it is unfortunate that many of us took into account the momentary discomfort of fake black people far more than the abiding trauma that actual black people experienced. It is, to be sure, unfortunate that during a trip studying contexts of violence and how the church responds, our leaders, our local partners, and we ourselves largely failed to meaningfully account for situations of emotional violence and silencing perpetuated by the church.