Thursday, March 19, 2009

Beach Blanket Bingo

I'm a brunette, but I've spent a lot of time holding my egregiously white arm up against the arms of blonds and redheads in the pale people's version of chicken. I am, to put it politely, fair. To put it impolitely, I couldn't tan if you basted me with cooking oil and strapped me to a supernova.

Yet, I used to try. The summer after seventh grade, I unearthed a ratty bath towel from the linen closet and spread it on the lawn. Perched uneasily atop the terrycloth flowers, I stuck my skinny, bone-white legs in front of me and willed the sun to do something, anything. Sure I knew about cancer, but I also knew that you couldn't wear shorts unless your legs were the delectable shade of cinnamon toast. And if you couldn't wear shorts, you couldn't get boys to like you and, even more troublingly, you were always too hot.

I lasted only a couple of months. The trouble was I'd take a book with me -some sci-fi tale of faraway suns- and inevitably there would be the issue of how to hold the book without shading some portion of your legs. The position required of you would be uncomfortable; and there would be ants crawling on you, interrupting, at critical plot points, your reading; and soon you would remember how comfortable it was to read in bed, how the whiteness of the sheets and the softness of the breeze from the open window carried you up up and away like a titanic space cruiser.

In eighth grade I moved to England where there was no sun, and by the time I moved back, I'd given up. That was the end of tanning, for me. Yet, why had I tried it in the first place? I wasn't stupid: I knew the risks, and it should have been obvious to me that genetics were stabbing me brutally in the back.

When I look back on it, I interpret my tanning travails as a petty consequence of the larger issue of limited perspective. Much later in life I saw pictures of pale women who were beautiful; I understood that beauty, like fungus, is not a single organism but a constellation of species. But in Indiana in summer in the early 1990s, all I saw in front of me were JV cheerleaders with leathery legs.

And scrunchies! And penny loafers! And crimped hair! Thank God my perspective widened when it did. It was good for me, that expansion of understanding. It enabled me not to fry like cheap bacon. In fact, I'd argue that broadened horizons and exposure to multiple streams of thought and culture are good for most folks. So why do we keep trying to keep people on the straight and narrow?

I work in three radically different fields. Each and every one of them gives me flack about it. People in one field have no conception of the rules and requirements of the other two and no use for their practitioners. Everyone howls at me for not giving 100%. Any divagation from one field toward another is viewed as a slackening of commitment.

An even more disturbing example is the way we've allowed the de facto resegregation of our urban schools. I work at a school that is 90% black in a city that is 70% white. I saw a white child in the hallway the other day and actually rubbernecked. How is that we think it is OK to immure our children in communities of others just like themselves? How does this allow perspective to ream us in the way it must if we are to become not just residents, but citizens?

Keep this up and our children will die of skin cancer.


Will said...

Way to bring up a significant portion of my civil rights course.

The prevailing view down at the Court these days is that de facto school segregation is a-ok. Only de jure segregation (caused by government action) is a problem. Also, you cannot bus kids between school districts to achieve racial balance.

Modern public education is certainly a far cry from some of the language of Brown v. Board, "if our children cannot learn together, how can our people ever live together," or something like that. Yet there are also no overt dual-system schools anymore.

My take is that there are limits on the ability of the courts to re-engineer society. Segregation sanctioned and enforced by the government clearly violates equal protection; segregation as a result of millions of individual decisions of citizens is much less clear an issue.

Anne said...

I guess I've become, in my old age dispiritingly results-oriented. There's data that voluntary integration programs (many of which are now being dismantled as unlawful) have a positive impact on the school/life outcomes of all kids. Given that, I'm not sure I care how we get there. I recognize this is vaguely unamerican.