Turbulent Ambiguity Essay #1: Color My World

I was walking about Portland, Oregon several years ago when I realized I’d had a familiar feeling in an unfamiliar place. The familiar feeling was a let down, but in the most positive way to take that expression. It was like the moment when I open the car door, having arrived at my favorite spot in the world, a place of pine trees, mountain air, no electricity, and quiet. When the pine scented air in drawn in with my first breath my whole body seems to relax, I feel like I’m at home.

So here was a bit of that feeling in a major west coast city and the cause was seeing so many races and types of humans. That’s when I realized that my desire for variety, for newness and change included the human realm. Coming from the very white and mid-western cities of Nebraska, I was relieved to find something else.

My first big encounter with the vagaries of race was at an international fair with the university I was attending. There was an attractive coed there from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). We struck up a conversation about how she was friends with a foreign exchange student who had attended my high school, and Arthur C Clark who had taken up permanent residence in Ceylon. The conversation ended though as I mentioned something about her being black in America at the time. Her skin color was as dark as fresh ground coffee and yet she let me know in no uncertain terms that she was as Caucasian as I was. Clearly I had hit a nerve and I was embarrassed about it. I thought about her comments and, as is my way, checked into them. Of course she was right. Her lips were thin, the hair not kinky but long and straight, and we shared the Indo-European language group. We were close cousins in the scheme of things. Clearly I needed to think bigger and look for the nuances and ambiguities.

A few years later I was touring the Smithsonian museums. A few things I remember: Peruvian tar pots (how could one ignore them?), a stump of a large tree shot clean through by the metal flying through a Civil War battlefield, Washington’s campaign tent, and a wall that had a world map and faces of people from the different regions. So many variations of race were represented on that wall one merging into another. It was clear that so many characteristics  are just a spectrum of probabilities across the map. I stared at it a good long while to try to understand it’s patterns.

Science tells us that this is due to balancing vitamin D with skin cancers and other diseases. Getting the balance right is a strong evolutionary driver for selecting skin color. And it can happen quickly, in terms of evolution and may relate to the switch to farming and increased grains in the diet. (See the Wikipedia summary on Human Skin Color.)

Firefly, a science fiction TV/show offers a glimpse of a world where transportation and living on many planets has mixed this all up. Besides the horses, six shooters, cannibalistic spacefarers, and spaceships, the colors and cultures are so interesting. It includes swearing in Mandarin, I think it’s mandarin anyway. I don’t live in one of the frontier towns they visit, but diversity of Kansas City is a relief. We have a grocery store near our home which caters to the Hispanic part of our community, sort of what I imagine a Safeway in Mexico to be like. Their just made flour and corn tortillas come out of the machines there ready to be pickup up, and cactus and mangoes are standard in the produce aisles. There’s always a smile there and people are happy to tell me what to do with the new culinary treats.

I like the place and the feelings of possibility in KC.