Saturday, May 3, 2008

Black people and skin cancer

“Do black people get skin cancer?”

The question wasn’t at all meant to be racist; it was asked out of curiosity. Still, it created an awkward silence as three pale Caucasians stared at three black people across the dinner table.

Almost 20 seconds went by.

“Eh, no, I don’t think it’s very common,” a tall, well-built black man finally answered. “Some people, you know, just react differently to the sun, I guess.”

Up until that point, I hadn’t even focused on the fact that three of my fellow workers were black. I was the only girl, and I suddenly felt very white.

It is a strange thing with race, really. In the U.S., you see people with a variety of skin color, hair color, height and weight. It is probably the most diverse nation in the world. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1960s that African-Americans were allowed “privileges” like voting and going to the same university as the white man down the street.

When I first applied to Westchester Community College, I was shocked to find out that I was asked to enter my race on the application form.

After dismissing Native American, Asian, Hispanic and African-American as options, I was finally left with “Caucasian,” and thought for a while about checking that box. Then I saw the small disclaimer about this being a voluntary step of the process and left the whole section blank.

“It’s for diversity purposes,” I was told.

Which means that schools now have to keep track of the students it accepts to say “20 percent of our student body is Hispanic” or “More than half of our students are female!” It also means that those in a “minority group” sometimes get accepted to college based on their race or gender, because it makes the school look better.

“But that’s illegal!” someone says. “That’s discrimination!”

It is and that’s true, but how will anyone ever prove it? As so many things in this country, this issue has been taken from one extreme to the other.

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