Thursday, September 21, 2006

Gimme some skin

You have to understand that we never do anything in pre-calculus. Actually, I don't even take pre-calculus, but the rest of my grade does, so I always go in, too, to hang out with my friends. So yesterday in pre-calculus, as my teacher was padding around in his socks, and half the class was slouching around campus in search of information on trigonometric functions, a senior named Muzamil wandered into the classroom.
I think Muzamil is Sudanese. At any rate, he speaks Sudanese Arabic fluently. So does Tariq, a guy in my grade that I know is Sudanese. The difference is that Tariq's skin is darker than Muzamil's, and Tariq has lived a lot of his life in Canada, whereas Muzamil has practically never left Sudan. Somehow, Muzamil and Tariq got into a big argument about whether the two of them were black or white. Surprisingly, this is a common point of discussion at my school.
Muzamil claimed they were both white, but Tariq thinks of himself as black. Both have skin darker than mine. They discussed whether or not Arab was a separate group, whether black necessarily meant of African descent, and so on. Muzamil said that he thought you were white unless your skin was so dark that it could be called black pretty literally. There are a lot of Southern Sudanese people in Khartoum for whom this is true. He said that if Tariq wasn't white, he was at the very most tan. Tariq said that if Muzamil had ever done any travelling, he would know that black people can be a whole variety of shades, and that to be white you have to have really pale skin.
It was an interesting conversation to listen to. My skin was pointed out several times, as was that of Hana (from Malaysia). It made me think about what we're doing in history class, how the Darfur conflict was transformed into something racial when it had started out over land. And also what we're doing in English (African Lit), with both foreign and native perspectives on Africa, and "savages". And even what we're doing in art, which is value studies. Muzamil is in my art class. He and I both have black and white photographs of ourselves that we are using to paint huge self-portraits, all in one color. Mine is green, his is orange. The challenge is to take the different values of gray from the photograph and translate them into different tints and shades of our chosen color. In the end, I think, our skin will look about the same.


CuracaoChick said...

That's so interesting. For the most part people at my school don't have deep conversations like that. But sometimes we do. In my friend's English class, they talked about whether men and women should be treated differently or not. Sounded interesting.


CuracaoChick said...


Sam said...

You're going to have college admissions officers eating out of your hand, Ruth. :)

We talked about this same issue the other day in our dorm-wide discussion of Stanford's diversity programs. I think you read Mountains Beyond Mountains (you should if you haven't); there's one part where the Haitians call one of Paul Farmer's African-American medical students a "blan," and ask if he is Farmer's brother.