Last class we read “The Fire Next Time”[i] by James Baldwin and the “Autobiography of Malcolm X”[ii]. These two readings highlighted in great detail the social differences between blacks and whites and how those differences, in their opinion, should be dealt with. I couldn’t help but think back to reading the book “Black Like Me”[iii] by John Howard Griffin. This book was an interesting case study on how the life experiences of one man changed with the changing of his skin color. This book highlighted the fluid nature and ambiguity of social race definitions. Is race, socially, really as arbitrary as the color of one’s skin? “Black Like Me” argues that even though it is unfounded as a means of judgment – skin color is key in many of our stereotyped social constructs of race.
Artist Dulce Pinzón created a series of photographs entitled, “Multiracial”. Pinzón described the series as follows: “This project consists of a series of 16 color portraits of people of mixed ethnic origin in front of primary color backgrounds. The images challenge the concept of race by highlighting the disparity between the stark natural boundaries between the primary colors, and the ambiguous and artificial, yet commonly accepted boundaries between the different races. This project asks the viewer to question the existence of race in nature.”[iv] Pinzón’s photographs make the viewer confront their own stereotypes of race. One photograph after the other further solidifies in the viewer’s mind that any one person is not just one race – we are all a unique mixture of races and therefore it is impossible to put people into single race categories. And yet, often, we do.
What a strange social construct “race” is: Baldwin and Malcolm X point out the injustice in it, Griffin points out the arbitrary nature of it, and Pinzón points out how convoluted, complex, and unnatural of a social construct race truly is. Why then, I ask, do we as a nation continue to bring ourselves down by seemingly embracing this flawed social construct? There may no longer be lynchings in the town square but the issue of discrimination is far from resolved in our national consciousness. The Trayvon Martin tragedy highlights the fact that we are still making snap judgments about people, judgments that in this case cost Trayvon his life. Are we not all more than the color of our skin and don’t we all deserve respect? We must ask ourselves as a nation how we could be living in the year 2012 and still seemingly be unable to see past the color of one’s skin.
[i] Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International, 1993.
[ii] X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1992.
[iii] Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. NAL Trade, 2003.