Viewpoint is all a matter of perspective

November 29, 2009


Please indulge me as I answer an e-mail from a guy named Dunbar. It says in part:

“Your column on Sammy Sosa’s skin cream use is off base and sends a wrong message. The issue is the man’s character — not the color of his skin. Your column seemingly assumes he lightens his skin color out of shame and fails to recognize that he may simply be doing it out of vanity or his own sense of personal style. Plenty of fair-skinned people use skin-darkening creams, sun baths, tanning beds for that purpose and the only criticism leveled at them is vanity and stupidity for ignoring skin cancer warnings. The same should hold for Sammy. …

“I think I know what point you are trying to make and that is a laudable one. But your delivery was clumsy and it might come across to some as ‘methinks thee doth protest too much.”’

Dear Dunbar:

Thank you for writing. It’s always a treat to receive such a thoughtful dissent.

Hope you don’t mind my using your e-mail as a vehicle for revisiting my recent column on Sosa, the once-black former baseball star who now looks like a photo negative of himself, but that piece generated so many missives like yours that I thought doing so might be of value.

I’m intrigued that you “think” you know what point I was trying to make. The fact that you have to guess, that it wasn’t starkly obvious to you, suggests that what we have here is a gulf between life experiences. It brings to mind a parable to the effect that the rabbit and the bear will never agree on how threatening is the dog.

I’m going to assume — I apologize if I’m wrong — that you’re not black. I say that because I’ve not yet encountered a single African-American reader who did not know immediately what my point was. My white readers, though, were more likely to see me as chiding Sosa for what they regarded as a benign cosmetic choice, such as when they color their hair, inject Botox in their faces or, yes, lie under the sun trying to get a tan. From where they sit, it’s the same when a black man lightens his skin.

I’m here to tell you: It isn’t.

I’d like you to do something for me. Go to YouTube and look up a movie: “A Girl Like Me,” directed by Kiri Davis. In the 7:15 it takes to watch, you may get a better understanding of the point I’m making.

The centerpiece of the film is a recreation of the old “doll test” conducted by a black psychologist, Dr. Kenneth Clark, in the 1940s. Clark found that black children, asked to choose between otherwise identical black and white baby dolls which one is “nice” and which one is “bad,” overwhelmingly favored the white one. Davis found that nothing has changed, six decades later.

Why is that the nice doll, the unseen researcher asks a little boy. “Because she’s white,” he replies, savoring the word like candy. Why does that one look bad, the researcher asks a girl. “Because it’s black,” the child says. Then the researcher asks this girl to indicate “the doll that looks like you.”

She jiggles the white doll, obviously wanting to choose it. And when she surrenders to reality and slides the black doll forward, it is with a deflated reluctance that sears you.

I submit that what you see in that moment is not a cosmetic preference. Rather, it is distressing evidence of how early and how profoundly the self-image of black children is maimed. We are taught from birth in a thousand ways, big and small, to hate the darkness of our very skin.

Some of us grow up to recognize and reject that brainwashing. But some of us are never able, no matter how many home runs they hit — or hit records they sell — to be at home in their God-given skin.

I understand if you can’t understand. You and I discussing Sosa are like the bear and the rabbit discussing the dog. You see a cosmetic choice.

I’m afraid I see something else entirely.


Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 6 months ago

I agree with you totally. I have always taught my bi-racial daughter and granddaughter to be proud of their heritage and proud of the color of their skin. It is a very important subject and one that we need to address in a frank and open manner.

notajayhawk 8 years, 6 months ago

"Viewpoint is all a matter of perspective"

Duh, ya' think, Lenny? Another profound observation.

"Clark found that black children, asked to choose between otherwise identical black and white baby dolls which one is “nice” and which one is “bad,”"

Just a thought, Mr. Pitts. And I realize it's just my viewpoint (or perspective):

Perhaps we shouldn't be teaching our kids that one is 'nice' and one is 'bad' based solely on their skin color. Now, I also realize that you make your living pointing out people's differences and perpetuating racial issues. But it seems it would be better if those children in the research study didn't care what color the doll's skin was. And if Sammy Sosa could do whatever he wants without you caring what color HIS skin is, or was, or will be.

bisky1 8 years, 6 months ago

hey bozo, i haven't got the time to read leonard right now, please tell me what to think about this article, i want to be smart like you and your minions. thanks man

equalaccessprivacy 8 years, 6 months ago

Notajayhawk your take on Mr. Pitts' column title seems a bit dismissive. He sums up his main point really well when he says the rabbit and the bear will never agree about how threatening the dog is. This statement memorably embodies the idea that one-dimensional takes on reality are usually inaccurate , reductive, and unjust. When we are talking marginalized and demeaned ethnic groups this point is obviously key.Too few people I've met in this part of the country understand that a sophisticated and decently ethical and responsible world view implies an ability to see and read situations, books, and people from multiple angles. An ability to do this holds the true meaning of empathy, fellow feeling and walking a mile in the other guy or gal's shoes.

equalaccessprivacy 8 years, 6 months ago

How many people are big enough to be willing to try to understand people who obviously don't understand them as Mr. Pitts according to the end of his article seems to be? I'm o.k. with those thick types who just don't get it mostly only when they are willing to give others their own space and be a little respectful and not violate others' personal boundaries. Mutual understanding is not always achievable, but to start tolerance is a good goal: all is takes is a decision to keep your nose out the business of people who have a right to see things differently from you. Don't aggressively confront others with offensive stereotypes and prejudices. This is not serving others, doing good, or helping: it's offensive self-flattery and political blindness.

Those of you commenting that the very structure of the doll experiment reinforces the innate human tendency to make black- and- white judgments make a good point.

mom_of_three 8 years, 6 months ago

I remember reading about the original doll test. It was sad to think about those kids then, how white society made them think of themselves and its even sadder to realize it's still happening 60 years later.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 6 months ago

I am surprised that people are so worried about the dolls. I am even more startled and dismayed by the fact that psychologists and therapists still get to play games under the guise of therapy. There is a classic Navajo joke that goes: What is the form of a Navajo family? Two parents, two children, and two anthro's. The skin color of blacks run the gamut of pale to ebony. Think Haile Berry and Precious, Chris Rock and Wesley Snapes. All black, all good, and all very different.

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