But Cleopatra was Beautiful!

I had a professor once who asked the class to close their eyes and envision the “perfect mate”. He then went around the room asking each student to describe their “dream” mate and marked it on the board. After every one was finished describing their vision he proceeded to explain to the class that every time he does this exercise, the “ideal” ends up being Caucasian, taller, blue eyes and light hair. While there were some votes for dark hair and eyes, his statement held true and the Caucasian, taller, blue eyes and light hair ideal won out; even with the black students. The professor then went about explaining American WASP culture and how deep its roots really delve. Tatum, 2007/1997, hit on this when on page 124, a student, once discovering that Cleopatra was black, exclaimed; “But Cleopatra was beautiful!”. Why is it that within our society we have been programmed to believe that being black, or “of color” (“of color” always makes me laugh; are all white people really “white” and void of color somehow pristine and pure?), is so unworthy of the word beauty?

I would venture to suggest that this “ideal” came about when whites first “discovered” the Indians here in America. I say “discovered” because that is what we are taught in school and frankly it’s pathetic. Indians were here long before the entitled white elite arrived here and took what they wanted; to somehow suggest otherwise is reckless and woefully inaccurate. In my opinion, this is where the rumblings of “different” from white became “bad” and has remained as such to date. So much so that, as we read in Omi & Winant 2007, Susie Guillory Phipps actually sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records to change her racial classification from black to white. Phipps wanted to bury an entire part of her identity in order to be considered “ok” within society and to gain more standing (power). This is what we (white America) have done to the “others” who do not fit into our ideal. White America steals the beauty and joy of the differences between us by making them “ugly” and “wrong”; what gives us the right to decide those battle lines? Furthermore, being the creators of those lines, why are we incapable of having an honest dialogue about a situation WE started? Why do we place the burden onto the shoulders of black American’s?

In class we discussed the Martin Luther King Jr speech to the APA and President Obama’s speech on race in 2008 and noted several key points. MLK was obviously not running for public office and therefore could afford to be more outspoken in his resolve; something that President Obama could not do if he wanted to be elected. The sad reality is that, while I agree that President Obama’s speech lacked zeal and harsh realities of race in the United States, white America would not have respond to a black man talking about the realities of being black in the United States. President Obama (then Senator Obama) would have been labeled just another “radical black” and he would have been neatly placed in his “proper” box and would have watched his opportunity to become America’s 44th President go quietly down the drain. So the question that remains is; who is going to fix it?

There are plenty of “not me’s” and “I simply can’t” out there. Many whites feel unqualified to speak on race in America when really we all should, we all can and we are all experts on race since we live it daily. We are not colorblind. When I am speaking to someone who is black I am keenly aware that they are black and they are acutely aware of our differences (probably more so than I). By admitting that fact does that make me wrong? (What will my white friends think?!) We don’t say things like this because we (whites) are afraid of the truth; we’re white and that carries power and with great power comes great responsibility. We are not comfortable in our own skin when it comes to discussions on race and, for me, that is a tremendous irony. Is it possible for us, as a society, to educate ourselves and answer the call uttered by Dr. King and simply “tell it like it is”? How can we make it more clear that the issues surrounding race are not issues for the blacks to “fix”; it’s our (whites) mess, do we not have the responsibility to clean it up? Where do we begin?