4 out of 4 stars
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Kathleen Bishop wrote A White Face Painted Brown because she wanted to educate people on what it’s like to live in the ghetto. She admirably accomplished this goal.
Bishop is the oldest child of a Panama-born father and a Russian Jewish mother. She was born in Colorado and enjoyed a relatively happy childhood until her father walked out on the family, leaving four young children and an emotionally fragile, pregnant wife who was hospitalized the day he left. The children were immediately separated and sent to foster homes. Eventually, she and all of her siblings, including her newborn brother, were reunited with their mother. They had no access to income from any family members, so they moved to California. When they arrived in Los Angeles, Social Services sent them to live in the Aliso Village housing project, which borders East Los Angeles.
From the age of six, the author lived in the ghetto. Her neighbors, friends, and classmates were the fellow Mexican and African American residents of the housing project. The author discussed the complexity of being the only white person among her friends and how she became comfortable seeing nothing but black and brown faces around her.
The title of the book was taken from an incident when the author bought makeup for the first time. As she applied the shade that she requested, which was much darker than her skin, the salesclerk tried to persuade her to get a lighter shade, but she was mesmerized by the color of it on her skin—it looked like all her friends. She bought the dark foundation.
This memoir is less than 200 pages and comprises forty-four brief stories that are snapshots of the author’s life. They are divided into sections with topics including the poor educational environment, substandard medical facilities, slow emergency response, and the racist comments and actions by people that did not live in the ghetto. It was particularly discouraging to witness those who were supposed to help—teachers, doctors, police officers, and social workers—consistently shirk their responsibilities and ignore the needs of this community.
The author has a writing style that is descriptive but no frills, which complements the setting in which the stories take place. What I liked most about this book was how the author embraced the relationships she made while living in the ghetto. She was not content with the quality of life they were forced to endure, but she loved her friends and her neighbors.
When Bishop moved out of the ghetto and went to college, she tried to hide her Aliso Village background from her teachers because she felt they would not understand. But, much like an accent, you can’t always hide something that is a part of you. Her professor in a Mexican American studies class was intrigued by a paper that Bishop wrote. He asked her where she was from and how she knew so much about Mexican Americans. When she did not answer, he laughed and said she even walked like a Mexican woman. His observation fit Bishop’s life. She grew up in the ghetto and embraced her relationships there, but she was not bound by the trappings of her environment.
One thing I disliked about this book was that I found it difficult to understand the author’s family background. The stories about her parents and grandparents were sometimes vague, and there were many family-related events crammed into only a few narratives. However, this memoir was more about the author’s life in the ghetto than her personal family life, so this issue was not a distraction.
I rate A White Face Painted Brown 4 out of 4 stars. The editing was impeccable. I found only one grammatical error in this book. There were descriptions of medical emergencies and mild violence in fitting with the setting, but there were no erotic scenes and very little profanity. If any adult would like to understand what ghetto life is like, Bishop is an articulate, caring guide. I particularly recommend this book to those in service-oriented fields. It may help to uncover and address areas of bias in dealing with people from underprivileged environments. If you would rather not feel the pain and frustration of reading about a neighborhood that is brutally neglected and ignored, I would advise you to skip this read.
A White Face Painted Brown
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