Eugenics and My Lower Lip

Phrenology: The Victorian Beginnings of Eugenics

There are only three things I remember about the 6th grade, and they all happened in social studies class. I remember meeting my friend Marc, the first person I ever met from the Philippines, who in college became my ballroom dance partner, and who is now living his best life as a dentist in Houston. I remember the names of my best two friends that year, Laura and Paula, who I later found out were assigned to befriend me by our social studies teacher (whose name I don’t remember) because I’d come to the school as a new student in the middle of the year. The third thing I remember was learning about race: that there were five races, and that each race had unique aspects. Our textbook included the example of 18th century scholars who, after performing extensive research, had determined that you could tell a person’s intelligence by the thickness of their lips.

I remember reading this in our social studies book and getting embarrassed, because among all my friends, I had the thickest lips. My bottom lip in particular had an extra little bulge on it, and until that moment, I’d had no reason to imagine that my lip was anything other than a neutral feature of my face. I found the new information…disorienting….

You see, the reason I had come to that school in the middle of the year was because our school board had permitted me to leave the 5th grade half-way through the school year. I had spent my Christmas break learning what the 6th graders had learned over the course of their first four months of school, and had placed myself into advanced 6th and 7th grade classes, with which I would close out the year. I was shy and awkward and nerdy, and had been told I was “smart.” I had always placed well on IQ and standardized tests, but more importantly, I was intrinsically curious and a voracious learner.

Still somehow, with all that going for me, it never occurred to me to question this textbook. I hadn’t yet turned 11, and my critical thinking balls hadn’t yet dropped; one could say I was more sponge than scholar. I got strangely obsessed with this troublesome bottom lip of mine, embarrassed that I had just been walking around the world with it all freely exposed. I went home and stood in front of the mirror for a bizarre duration, practicing how to hold my bottom lip between my teeth until it looked comfortably thin. I walked around like that for two years.

The textbook didn’t name the pseudo-science that birthed such obscenities, and it took years, well after I’d read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for me to connect the dots. Turns out they were teaching Eugenics to my late 80’s social studies class — to kids whose minds were not yet developed enough to suspect it was bunk.

If any mind should have caught it, it should have been mine. My parents were well educated. My mother’s folk were from a class of Black intelligentsia, the top tier of the talented 10th as it were. Our shelves were full of books on Black history which we referenced as a family regularly, and I had never once felt anything other than pride for my ethnicity. At ten years old, I was already the product and promise of Black excellence, and I still got “got.”

Eugenics — “Scientific” Racism

For several weeks during the early summer of 2020, I found myself lulled into a number of “race isn’t real” and “we’re all the same” conversations with white allies who still feel uncomfortable talking about and owning the legacy of White supremacy on the other side of Black people. They know so little about the origins of the invention of their whiteness, and even less about its impact on my blackness. They reverse language in an effort to put themselves in my place, but the cognitive dissonance keeps fritzing out the thought experiment, and they end up, in spite of themselves, expressing frustration at me for asserting any language they perceive as divisive. In my view, they appear to want to skip the “repair” step necessary for healing any relationship breach, and solve the problem by erasing the language, but they have no sense of the scars that the subtle yet intentional language of racism has left on the skin of the Black American.

I find that with many of my white ally friends, though they have borne witness to my intelligence and the breadth of my now critical thinking mind, sometimes over several decades, they still feel compelled to tell me what I should think, how I should frame my emotions, what is reasonable, and what is fair. They feel they can and must dictate the terms of the conversation, and they never seem to realize they are doing it. They have no sense of how patient we in Black bodies have been, how much effort has gone into protecting them from the consequences of their own lack of awareness, which would be neutral were it not for the ways in which the resulting ignorance imposes itself on the sovereignty and ultimate well-being of their Black brethren.

I don’t consider myself a slouch, but I didn’t learn the historical truth — that races were invented — until my late 20’s. I spent a lifetime being told in any number of ways that my particular race was “sub-human,” only to learn that the only surviving full homo-sapiens on the planet live in Africa, and that the genes of the Neanderthal, once considered more primitive and less successful, were carried by the “race” of people who put so much effort into building a pedestal of superiority for themselves.

While I inherited the messages of my home, of my community, and my church, where profound expressions of Black excellence, beauty and glory were to be found everywhere — I also inherited the dark, distorted legacy embedded in the language of white supremacy. That language is not simply found in the sensationalized use of slurs, the brutality found in acts of domestic terror, or the exhausting casual condescensions hurled at me on a daily basis. No, it’s more fundamental. The language was embedded in our textbooks; in our banking practices; in food pricing that changes according to zip code; in access to housing; in educational curricula; in access to jobs; in state sanctioned social abandonment projects; in the criminalization of everyday behaviors; in the absence of mirrors in the classroom, at the bank, in the office or in governmental bodies; in municipal planning; in the distribution of wealth; in the everyday omissions; in the false narratives of our entitlement and dependency; in the false narrative of our broken homes with no mention of context for how some of them may have become so.

The truth is, the propaganda of whiteness has imposed a gas-lighting trauma upon Black Americans that will not be healed writ large until the gas-lighting ceases. Even the most “user friendly” among us Black folk who do their best to “play along” live under the constant watchful white gaze — one that never seems to cease its assessments and evaluations of the validity of our claim on our own humanity.

The language of white supremacy unfortunately grants even some of the most well-meaning white people the illusion that they get to determine just how much “others” matter. In this they are as brainwashed as the 6th grade version of me who walked around for two years with a bitten lower lip. In these times, I remind myself nearly every day how quickly that moment happened to me, and ask myself how many other such messages slipped by without my noticing. I also find myself wondering what tools might get my white allies to start really asking themselves the same.

Lilli Lewis is a squishy humanist singer/composer who loves pianos and makes orange music-the distant, more sober cousin of the blues. http://bit.ly/getwebelong