seeing in color
May 3, 2009, 11:58 pm
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i have been thinking about race and history almost non stop for the past month, and feeling increasingly frustrated and confused. i have been in the united states for 7 years now, and i am still at the beginning of understanding and learning about the history of race in the U.S., and its impact on contemporary society.

coming from a monocultural country, one that has been monocultural and mono racial for centuries, i came to an understanding of race slowly. In italy there is a clear sense of being at the bottom of the food chain, a feeling of inferiority and insecurity pervading society, and prompting many to claim of being from neighboring switzerland when traveling abroad. from a young age it became a game to spot other italians in foreign counties and to try not to look “italian”. when i was in England the first time, at age 12, i distinctly recall being very proud when a native failed to recognize me as “other”, and asked me for directions in the streets of London. i was brought up ashamed of my country, and bombarded with anglophile messages.

When i came to the U.S. as an exchange student everything was laid out on the continuum between black and white, in a way that i still cannot navigate.  i am an ethnic other, but still passing into whiteness at times. Here in Bloomington you don’t have to think about race. it’s a white town, where people display “bloomington values diversity” signs, even though it’s 80% white.  it’s easy to feel post-racial and integrated when “otherness” is absent..

the upcoming move to chicago has forced me to look at the face of american racial history, of thinking hard about where i want to position myself, or even if i have a choice in the matter at all. Everything in the city seems to be about race. how people talk about neighbourhoods, or schools, or safety. i found an animated map of the city detailing the racial changes from 1910 to 2000, and it blew my mind that chicago in 1910 was 90% white.

i have to come to terms with my own prejudice, and with the reality of growing up in a society where it was completely normal to distinguish between civilized and primitive,  or where non-western meant inferior, or at best exotic, without a doubt, or a dissenting voice. i can tell myself it did not affect me at all, that the people closest to me are not caucasian, or whatever other bullshit, but there is no way. there is no way that the ideas about people that i was given to understand the world as a child are not impacting me now.

i feel that the only way of creating a less divided and tense world is to stop being paralyzed by fear, of saying something fucked up, or misunderstanding someone’s thoughts and refuse to be segregated. to stay in a completely artificial color bubble.

i am reading “sundown towns”, a book about all the places, town, and neighborhoods where whiteness was enforced violently.  the author challenges every reader to explore the history of wherever they live, and to realize that if a town, or even neighborhood is mostly white it’s no accident, and more likely than not the product of a history of official and unofficial regulations to drive out non-whites. he argues that divisions are only worsening prejudice and stereotyping , as most people will only have a mythical, media induced sense of otherness, without being able to relate a lived experience to it, whatever it is.

still, i am struggling to figure out how to position myself, to come to terms with the privilege of a lighter shade of skin, or to truly understand my fellow humans, without being a cultural tourist, or intruding in someone else’s space…