Café con Leche: Conversations on skin color

“Being given a space in which to discuss my skin color and how that affects my everyday life as well as how it affects everyone in this country... was very surreal. These conversations are often silenced because it isn’t a topic everyone is comfortable discussing.”

Participant in “Café con Leche: Conversations on skin color”

I have tried to write this post several times, deleting, re-writing, and editing what I have written and feeling embarrassed at not getting the wording right. The reason I’m struggling with this post is because because it is difficult for me to talk about skin color. Its also difficult because of the sadness of what has happened this week. 

When I was a child I thought my skin was darker than it is because my family is from Mexico. It wasn’t until the last ten years that I took a deeper look at my skin color and how other people saw me. I have fair skin, light eyes, was brought up in a white middle class neighborhood, and I speak “academically” or “professionally.” Even though I see myself as Mexican, others see and treat me as white. Somewhere as a child I learned that Mexican equals brown skin and white skin equals not-Mexican. I have been struggling with the meaning of this, wanting to pick it apart and figure out where these beliefs were installed. I also wanted a place to talk about it, so last week I started a project called, “Café con Leche: Conversations on skin color.” 

In this project I ask participants to mix coffee and milk together to try to match their skin color. Then we have a conversation on any ideas or feelings that come up during the process. The goal is to instigate a place to talk about the color of their skin and how that color affects how other people see them and how they see themselves.

I hosted my first gathering for the project during my residency at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and so far have done the project with 18 individuals. For the time-being, I choose not to directly record the audio of these conversations, so we can talk freely in these spaces, but I would like to take a moment to share what I have learned in these brief sessions so far: 

  • People are scared to talk about skin color. This includes white people and people of color, for similar reasons and different reasons.
  • The fear of talking about skin color restricts people from speaking up when they see an injustice occur in the institutions and social groups they are a part of.
  • People who identify as light skinned and recognize their privilege are scared of talking about skin color because they are worried they will say the wrong thing and offend people of color or be seen as “just another liberal.”
  • Both people of color and light skinned people are scared to speak up about the unjust treatment of people of color for fear of “ruffling feathers” in the social groups or institutions they are a part of.
  • Despite their fears, people want change and are eager to talk about it. 

I am appreciative of the boldness it takes for individuals to participate in a dialogue like this one, to share their stories and experiences, and to be open and eager for conversations. I also struggle with this conversation. It's uncomfortable and will continue to be. I want to make change in my own corner of the world, but its also hard to know if this project will do anything but spin wheels. 

With everything that has been happening this week in our country, I don't know how to end this post. I'll be at the museum until Sunday if you want to talk.