Growing up as a white, middle class kid, I had the privilege of essentially ignoring race completely until I was in grade 7. For example, I never remember having any conscious thoughts about race or color until I was 12. And I certainly never thought of my privileges as being a white person or what if felt like to be a minority until then.
In elementary school I was growing up in a town on the northern tip of Vancouver Island; In a community that had a large First Nations population, and I attended at least part of the time, a school that was 50% white, 50% not. I remember learning basket weaving, I remember learning some native language but I never, ever remember playing with an "Indian" child. Somewhere, somehow I had learned that we just didn't. We lived NEXT DOOR to the reserve, and yet their kids didn't cross that ditch, and neither did we.
I remember driving through the reserve, during this late 1970's period and being terrified of what I saw. The disfigured, the drunk, the poor. I remember thinking I was lucky. Worse, I remember feeling glad I wasn't "them". But never, ever did it cross my 10 year old mind that in some way there was a greater problem at work than the fact that "Indians drank too much".
By grade eight we had moved to a the Vancouver area. A diverse, cosmopolitan, interesting city. And I attended a large, white, private, Christian school with a bunch of other white, middle class, Christian kids. I was friendly with people not like me, but in a curious, odd and OH MY GOD YOU DON'T EAT HAMBURGERS THAT'S SO STRANGE sort of way, it never crossing my mind that different was simply different, not worse or less than.
In one fell swoop my glass world shattered when my Social Studies teacher assigned the class to watch a series that was then showing on PBS on the civil rights movement in the seemingly far away USA.
I sat through 5 straight nights of documentary, weeping. I had never, ever felt shame for being white and suddenly I did. Shame for what people who looked like me had done not so very long ago. I could not even understand the whys or hows but I weeped. Weeped for the young men and women I watched being whipped for wanting to vote; for wanting to sit on the bus; for wanting to drink from a water fountain; for wanting to marry the one they loved.
I weeped for my 12 year old self who couldn't understand what I could do to fix it. I weeped for the injustice of it all. I weeped because suddenly I was so very ashamed of the color of my skin. I, Jennifer, age 12, white Canadian child was apparently part of the problem of global racial relations, particularly those of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, and I felt it deeply. I was nothing if not idealistic and a tad naive. Mock if you must.
But in my heart, at that moment, was planted a seed of hate. Hatred towards prejudice. Hatred towards racism. Hatred towards those who made light of racial injustice. I am sure I made mistakes, but in the glow of past remembrances, from that week on I stood up against racism. I remember calling out friends on racial jokes. Feeling uncomfortable and expressing that when fake accents were used to mock our foreign schoolmates. I understood, as much as my teen self could, that I had a responsibility to be part of the solution because if not, I was part of the problem that I abhorred. Of course, 98% of my world was still white, but that fact seemed to escape me at the time.
As an eighteen year old I travelled to the Philippines and it was there that I was first exposed to the "Color Factor" in adoption. As I strolled the streets of Manila with my new Filipino friends I saw many children that were obviously half Caucasian with obviously full Filipino parents. Freckled faced Filipinos? Sandy haired children with skin the color of cream speaking Tagalog with their Asian parents? I could not understand, and I didn't until I visited Subic Bay Naval Base.
Subic Bay, for those that are unaware, was the home of a large American Naval Base. Full of young, angry, bored and horny men. And the base? Surrounded by young, poor and desperate Filipino women. Some very, very young and all very, very vulnerable. And an industry was born.
I don't mean to speak for now, but certainly then "American" looks were greatly valued in the growing Upper Class of Filipino society. Round eyes. Light skin. Fine hair. And how better to achieve this than to "adopt" a half American baby and pretend your newly wealthy genes suddenly produced this little off spring?
One of those horny American Navy Men was the boyfriend of a girl I travelled with for a while. It was from him that I heard the American side of the business. Men, really boys, happy to get sex with whomever offered it. Women able to make a seeming fortune selling their light skinned babies to the new Upper Class in Manila. Doctors willing to forge birth certificates and no one the wiser. Well, except me, this 18 year old Canadian white girl trying to understand the whys and hows and really, simply, failing.
I returned to Manila and heard the Filipino side of this issue. Families who would never tell their children why they had curly hair or blue eyes. How many kids? Well, it was enough children that I noticed. It was enough children that if you had a brother, or a son, or a husband serve over there, it might be worth asking them about it.
And so, for the first time, I realized that lighter sometimes meant better, even when your own skin was brown.