The Single Item that Made Me Understand Racism

It was a Band-Aid. Well, not actually a Band-Aid – just the image of a Band-Aid. So small, yet so damaging. It changed my life – the entire way I had viewed racism shifted. It was no longer individual, overt interactions. It was about the million little ways I was taught that I don’t belong.

My first class addressing multicultural issues was during my doctoral program. It was a six-day course, over the span of two weekends. It was the first time I was able to explore concepts of racism, sexism, classism, ableism…anything related to marginalized communities. Hell, it was the first time any words acknowledging various forms of oppression had been uttered in a classroom or by a professor throughout my twenty years of education. Ludicrous, right?!

I had some idea of what racism looked like. As an Indian-born adoptee, I wasn’t unaware of the impact of brown skin. I had experienced all of the typical kid-like forms of racism – being asked if there was something wrong with my skin in preschool, being told I was the color of poop in elementary school, being questioned about how dirty my face was when I washed off the make-up that matched it during a middle school sleepover. I had even been through more adult forms of racism – being told by a coworker I would have no problem getting into graduate school as a racial minority, being spoken to slowly and loudly by a graduate school professor who assumed I couldn’t speak English, being gawked at as exotic, being asked ridiculous questions about tanning, constantly being questioned about my ethnicity by strangers. I thought I knew what racism was…

Until one sentence hit me like a ton of bricks: “#46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”

We were reading through Peggy McIntosh’s list of the daily, and often invisible, effects of white privilege, trying to understand the systemic nature of racism, and not just the individual and overt acts. I read through the list…“arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time” … “do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race” … “never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group” … “buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race”… “take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race”…

None of these statements surprised me. Just the opposite: They felt normal. They were my experience of life. It had never occurred to me that they could be any other way, unless maybe I actually lived in my country of birth.

But when I read the word “bandage,” the limits of world as I had understood them exploded and expanded. I can’t quite explain it. I suddenly felt frozen. It was as if I couldn’t breathe, because the weight of those words was physically suppressing me. I couldn’t stop picturing the image of a small, beige Band-Aid on my skin, with its light color standing out against my brown color, signifying that I was different, that I would always be different. It suddenly made perfect sense why I had spent my entire life in discomfort, unable to verbalize why.

I saw the world in an entirely new way after reading that sentence. I saw all of the small ways – institutional and previously-covert ways – that I was told I don’t belong and that I would always be different. All of the ways in which being white was the default and the norm. The high volume of cosmetics to choose from in fair skin tones versus the few in my skin tone. The way photo lighting enhanced fair skin but nearly made me disappear. The ways white celebrities were depicted in a range of ways compared to the limited stereotyping of celebrities of color. The ads for beauty products that never reflected my appearance. The clothing and art supplies in “nude” or “flesh” color that were always lighter than my skin. The glances, offhand comments, and felt sense of being treated differently even when I couldn’t find the words to articulate it.

I had accepted all of these things as MY norm because it hadn’t ever crossed my mind to consider that I wasn’t the one who was wrong or different – that the entire world should be different. I assumed I was meant to live on the outside of normal, that the slim margin of what could make me feel normal was all that I deserved. The relief of knowing that I deserved more was palpable. It was like the suffocating presence that had been in my lungs for my entire life had dissipated and the words to verbalize the validity of my racial discomfort were born. I was no longer wishing away the whispering dissonance in an attempt to accept the traditional norm. I was allowing that dissonance space and volume, encouraging it to grow and speak and fight for what I deserved.

It gave me permission to wish for teachers, neighbors, politicians, and celebrities who looked like me. It made it acceptable for me to be angry at the limited definition of “flesh-colored.” It provided an avenue for critical thinking about race in our society.

It’s a process. I’m still learning – about all forms of privilege and oppression. I’m still grimly in awe of how ingrained white supremacy is in our society. I still catch myself reacting with the mentality that I am somehow in the wrong for wanting to be considered normal – but it happens less often as time goes on.

It’s incredibly disheartening at times. Once I awakened to the covert representations of white privilege surrounding me every second of every day, it was difficult to turn off that awareness. It’s not that I’d want to go back to a place of constant discomfort without the words to name it, but damn if the power of whiteness doesn’t feel unending and unstoppable sometimes.

I can’t help but wonder where my racial awareness would be right now if not for that class and that list – if not for that one sentence that unleashed my capacity to breathe and discredited years of feeling inferior. Everything I do now is with the intentional purpose of empowering other marginalized individuals – especially adoptees of color – to recognize that there is nothing wrong with them, and everything wrong with a society that unfairly designates worth based upon pigmentation.

This is why I am so passionate when I work with white adoptive parents who are raising children of color – I want them to understand the racism their children WILL face, I want them to support the development of positive racial identity by providing racial mirrors, and I want them to openly acknowledge and discuss these concepts with their children from the second they become a family. I don’t want anyone else to experience an unnecessary epiphany in their mid-twenties like I did, having to endure a sense of inadequacy for years before being given explicit permission to feel whole and worthy. I’m striving for a world in which children of color are aware of and calling out white privilege from the time they can speak, confidently conveying the value of their appearance without a sliver of doubt, because they know that a society that perpetuates any kind of “ism” is one that needs to be changed.

(By the way, if you’re looking for bandages that ACTUALLY come in “flesh” colors, check out Tru Colour Bandages.)

About Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is an adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist who provides mental health support focused on adoption, trauma, and racial identity work. She is the author of the "Adoptees Like Me" book series.