Practice Makes Presence
In October 2013 I noticed a small patch form under my left elbow. I consulted Dr. Google and came to the self-diagnosis that it was either a fungus or Vitiligo. Several anti-fungal treatments, two dermatology appointments, and a punch biopsy later I had a professional opinion. The doctor diagnosed me with Vitiligo - an autoimmune condition where your body reacts to the cells that create your skin tone as if they were a threat and killed them. Other than its cosmetic effects, it is not problematic and is not contagious. When I first heard the diagnosis, I was stunned, and I remember that the technician tried to comfort me by saying "at least it's not on your face." It's true; I am blessed to have a mild and slow changing pattern. It is also true that it would be years before I could see it that way. When I look at my arm, I remember that it could show up anywhere and anytime, even on my face.
It wasn't until my well-meaning immune system started destroying the pigment on my arm that I realized how much the color of my skin had melded with my self-identity. Cultural resentment and shame cripple a large part of my self-identity. I picked up these cues early; in first grade, my classmates covered my class birthday card with comparisons to Speedy Gonzales. In tenth grade, I overheard "decent" classmates at Christian school tell me how Mexican's look dirty. I have been told, more than once as an adult, that given how I speak and what I have to say, that I must be from East Indian heritage (the implication being: certainly not heritage from south of the border). Extended family relatives of my children have questioned the legitimacy of them being "Latino." Professionally, I accepted pigeonhole assignments and promotions from middle-aged, white males, to work predominately with Spanish speaking communities while also needing to justify that I do not speak Spanish and with few alternatives to grow my career.
It took me three years to stop covering the spots on my arm and hands. I didn't think the cover up fooled anyone, it just made me feel better and usually held off the Michael Jackson (who had Vitiligo) inspired joke for a while. In a year of committing to "show up, just as I am, wherever I am," I stopped covering it up. I continue the medical regime and even see some slowing of its progression, but the real progress has been psychological and spiritual. It is part of my journey to complete self-acceptance. Along the way, I have also learned to accept a few other things:
People will follow the spots with their eyes until they figure out what is going on
Someone always has "that one friend" who also has it, too
I did not become more or less of an American in the spot that lost its brown color
I did not become any smarter/less intelligent as my color shifted
I did not develop the drive to increase or decrease anyone else's access to education, employment, healthcare, or any other version of the American dream as the color changed.
This past fall, I volunteered in three elementary schools and played many hours of math and language arts games with student populations that are 95% Hispanic/Latino. About half of the time, and almost immediately, one of the students will ask about the spots. The inquiries are as sweet as they are surprising. Adults don't ask as often, and usually not out of curiosity, but from something that sounds like fear - "what is up with your arm?". The first time a young student asked me what was wrong with my skin I blurted out "that is just how God colored me." He then reached over, patted the spot on my right hand, and with tender eyes said, "it's okay!".
I supposed that this student's reaction is how God felt when he pronounced all of creation, and all of humanity as "good." Believing that we are born in and carry this "goodness" in all our lives makes it hard to watch the bias and racism that exist toward humans who have dared to live as they were born. Born into bodies where skin color is mediated by cellular function and not inherited superiority. Born into societies where ethnic differences are socially conditioned and not decided by genetic capability. And born in a world that looks the same as we widen the scope of our vision and realize that if we gain enough distance we all look the same and we are beautiful!