Dark Matter

a mixture of the unknown and the tangible

The shadow took shape - and it was white and gold!

Our eyes are funny things. . . I cannot force myself to see this dress another way - it is clearly white and gold to my eyes. Maybe I have too few cones that see blue. Maybe I prefer those colors somehow subconsciously. The madding fact remains that I simply cannot see it differently. (Maddening because this dress is actually blue and black! WTF?!?)

dressperception.jpg

If our eyes can play such tricks with something so simple as a dress, what if other ideas could be this perceptively polarizing? This lead me down a Google rabbit hole about colorism, race passing, and racial identification. 

Race passing is a way of performing identity, where a person denies their actual race in favor of identifying with and projecting another race. Race is largely a social construct, reified by all of us who identify and project race biases. But what happens when someone can navigate the slipperiness of these boundaries, sliding from one construct to the next? Light-skinned blacks identifying as white to avoid the persecutions of the Jim Crow South is a oft-cited example. (As an aside, I deny use of the term African-American in preference for black because I think it is more accurate in its abstraction, non-truth (yo, my skin is BROWN), and general imprecision. . . Plus, my friend from Zambia who grew up in Baltimore is African-American! In stark contrast, I am plain ol', ruptured history, descended from slaves black.) Terms such as black, white, mulatto, octoroon, quadroon, etc all attempted to codify the amount and disposition of blackness in someone's blood - the (in)famous "one drop rule."

Hypodecent is alive and well, although without the negative connotations it originally imparted. Interestingly, many bi-racial children choose to identify most closely with their non-white ancestry as a way of asserting positive difference. In 2000, the US Census allowed people to check more than one race, thus paving the way for those of mixed heritage to claim them all equally. 

The story comes closer to (my new) home with the fascinating story of Marie Joseph, a First Nations woman who, along with her sister, denied their heritage and passed as Chinese. After horrifying experiences at residential schools, they moved to Chinatown and assimilated into that culture, utilizing their high cheekbones to great effect. In actuality, Marie was the last of the Qayqayt tribe in New Westminster, a city near Vancouver. When Marie's daughter Rhonda Larrabee found out about her mother's background, she vowed to bring honor to her mother's memory and reclaim her heritage. Rhonda is now Chief of the Qayqayt and instrumental in getting this group recognized. She helped save what was thought to be a dead tribe from obscurity. Yet the Qayqayt remain the only First Nations tribe in Canada without a land base.

I would really like to see the National Film Board movie A Tribe of One about Miss Joseph and Miss Larrabee. It was produced by Trinidadian-Canadian filmmaker Selwyn Jacob, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Over the Imaginary Border last week. The world is small.

I think it is the mind's predisposition to chunk and categorize information, be it the colors of a dress or the race associated with the melanin in one's skin.

To send you off on your own rabbit-hole, Google the folks below. . .


Fredi Washington

Fredi Washington

Carol Channing

Carol Channing

Walter Francis White

Walter Francis White

Dr. Albert Johnston and family

Dr. Albert Johnston and family