Between Black and White: Red-Brown Color Consciousness

The large banner outside the prestigious National Museum of Art in Mexico City reads: “Discursos de la piel.” Translation: “Discourses on skin.” The accompanying image is that of a mulatta from Mexico’s colonial era. When I first saw the banner, my mind automatically added the word “color” after the word “skin.” I assume that my mind did that because the topic of skin color in Mexico during that era was very pronounced. That is code for a society that was very racially stratified.

Going in, what I wanted to know is whether the exhibit also examines the post-colonial era, including present-day Mexico, a society that continues to be very color conscious.

When I took in the exhibit in November, I was actually disappointed because while it included the topic of skin color, that was not its primary focus, nor actually part of the discourse.

What I saw inside was very typical of what one sees in Western museums: It was the equivalent of 21st century Mexican, or Spanish speaking media in the United States; perhaps 90 percent of the images were of white or very light-skinned people, the exact opposite of their audiences.

In an ideal world, no one would care or notice people’s skin color. In an ideal world, we would all be treated respectfully as full human beings. In an ideal world, we would all be afforded our corresponding full human rights. But obviously, we do not live in that world. That’s why people notice skin color.

Historians disagree when race and color began to matter, though many agree that the era of colonialism on this continent certainly created a consciousness of colonizers/exploiters v. colonized / exploited, which undeniably involved a colorline. In the United States, that colorline has always been black and white, a prism that generally erases Indigenous peoples, not simply from the history of this country, but from the thousands and thousands of years before there ever were any kind of Euro-centered countries on this continent.

So inside the exhibit, despite the promotion, it really was not a discourse on the dynamics of skin color in Mexico or the Americas, but rather simply on skin, more in relationship between artists and the flesh. Inside, the imagery screamed Europe. White Europe, with a few Red, Black and Brown images interspersed.

Mexico has always been a predominant Indigenous/mestizo-based nation, with a dominant small minority of Europeans. Of note, during Mexico’s 300-year colonial era, more African peoples, than Europeans, came to Mexico. And yet in the art world, and in modern times, television, advertising and the larger media universe, white and light-skinned people have always predominated.

In polite company, people do not refer to light-skin preference as a symptom or manifestation of white supremacy. Instead, it is denied or attributed to class differences, or people simply refer to it as part of the past — part of the now discarded colonial racial caste system, and nowadays simply as colorism. Yet, it has not been relegated to the past and it is beyond skin color preference; it continues to be a manifestation of white supremacy.

Within Mexican culture, and in Central American culture as well, I believe, a similar history and a similar dynamic continues to exist regarding this phenomenon. Some of the countries in South America also have a similar dynamic. For some of the other countries in the hemisphere, there is a much greater historic presence of Indigenous or African peoples, which also includes colorline issues.

In my first few years in Mexico as a child, I was not conscious of color, though growing up in the United States, especially since I used to spend most of the day in the blazing sun, I always saw myself as brown, or very dark brown, and this was among Mexican or Mexican American peoples in East Los Angeles. Without question, light-skin preference was prevalent, if not omnipresent, there. Thus, this topic has always fascinated me, ever since I became aware that there was meaning attached to skin color; seemingly, the lighter the better and the darker the worse. And yet, for these brown communities, this color dynamic has historically been complicated by this country’s extreme xenophobia, which generally has been code for extreme anti-Mexicanism. And in this country, all Brown peoples, including most Spanish-speaking peoples, have generally also always been seen as and treated as Mexicans also. In other words, they / we are viewed and treated as suspect and unwanted and subject to a very “special” police force, historically referred to as the “migra.” In great irony, to this police force, especially created for these peoples, the more Indigenous one looks, the more suspect one is. In other words, the color brown is what the migra primarily targets.

An exhibit on skin color — with a full spectrum of humanity — would be awesome in both countries. Though the idea is not to simply look at it through a historical lens, but through a contemporary lens also; a lens that also does not disappear the original peoples of this continent, but so too their histories as unwanted peoples or as peoples “in the way.” Such an exhibit would necessarily also have to examine the relationships between the different peoples of the countries and the continent, which often are also obfuscated by binary prisms.

Hopefully, this would create national conversations about the legacies of colonialism, which include that ugly and omnipressant residue of light-skin color preference, not just in these cointries or this continent, but worldwide.