Beyond Ebony and Ivory

“Ebony, ivory living in perfect harmony.”

I just finished a compelling paranormal romance by a Black American author in which she described a character as having skin so dark it seemed blue-black. Not long ago, a book I read by a White American* author described a character’s skin as so light, it almost appeared translucent.

In spite of what popular songs, literary imagery, and even our language itself tells us, skin colors don’t come in black and white. Ebony and ivory language aside, we are all shades of brown. Some, like me, have very light brown skin; I like to think of myself as a fetching shade of beige. Some, like the woman pictured to the right, have very dark brown skin; rather than “black,” we might think of her skin color as mahogany or seal.

Often in my classes, I flatten myself against the whiteboard in the front of the class and ask students if I’ve suddenly become invisible to them. Spoiler alert: I haven’t. The fact is, even pale, Western European-derived me isn’t really “white.”

Race isn’t a real thing. There’s no basis in biology to distinguish this ridiculous, false construction. This doesn’t mean, of course, race doesn’t matter. In spite of being, you know, totally fake and stuff, our socially constructed racial categories contribute to everything from amount of wealth families have to where they live to how much education they get to national incarceration and poverty rates. But. Race. Isn’t. Real.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who thinks we can wish away racism by simply acknowledging race as a lie and then sticking our fingers in our ears and singing “La la la.” Racism is deeply implicated in all our systems and institutions, from our construction of laws to the very language we use.

Speaking of language, why do we pretend skin tones come in opposite colors? It’s beyond my scope here to provide a historical analysis of why binary terms have been applied to varying shades of brown. Suffice to say it isn’t an accident that we associate whiteness with positivity, safety, and purity and blackness with darkness, dirtiness, and evil.

But why do we authors feed into the myth that skin tones actually come in milk white and midnight black? Habit, I guess, and the authorial urge to make scenes pop with dramatic visual imagery; it’s more dazzling to refer to skin as “powder white” or “obsidian” than “sand” and “hickory.”

She raised her head and stared into Marcus’ bright blue eyes. She’d never seen so many pairs of light eyes [before]; maybe Barstow had a preponderance of skin and eyes tones toward the darker end of the brown spectrum. Her own eyes, she knew from staring into the mirror every morning for the past twenty years, gleamed a dull medium brown, too light for chocolate and too dark for amber (The Tithe). 

In The Tithe, a novel about a postracial utopian/dystopian society, my characters reflect on skin color only as a matter of description. I’m not saying I do race right in my books, but it is important to me to try not to reinforce existing racial misperceptions and, therefore, inequalities. This may or may not help dismantle understandings of race and racism, but hey, at least I’m highlighting sameness rather than reinforcing difference. That has to be doing something right, right?

* I use "Black" and "White" not because I want to reinforce these chromatic misrepresentations but because these are actual legal racial categories in the U.S. 

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