How is it that before today I never noticed that Band-Aids are Caucasian-skin colored? Of course, there are Spider-Man bandages and clear bandages and Disney princess bandages, but when you’re buying a basic package of no-frills bandages, such as I did at Costco before coming to Africa, they are Caucasian-colored. (In grad-school terms, Caucasian-colored Band-Aids are the unmarked term.) Of course they don’t match my skin, or my husband’s, or my children’s, perfectly, but it’s close. You can tell that the manufacturers are at least trying to make them match.
I noticed this today because Pulicila, an eight-year-old girl who comes over every day, or nearly so, to watch the boys play soccer and to sit on the porch and smile at me and to play with my hair, whose texture, around here, is a source of fascination for children, most of whom are brave enough only to touch my children’s hair. But Pulicila is bolder than most; she insists on drawing me into various clapping games and circle games and regularly tells other children off for various perceived infractions. Like half the kids who come around, she wears no shoes; her skin is not only brown but toughened by constant exposure to the elements.
Today, I saw that the tip of her left big toe had been badly torn; there’s a flap that’s glistening slightly underneath but that is already stiffening and drying out with the dust. She speaks no English; I speak no Chichewa. “Oooh!” I say. “Ouch!” She said something and pointed over the fence. It happened somewhere over there, in that direction, but that’s all I know. I look again at her toe. It doesn’t look like the kind of thing that would require stitches, but it’s close to that point. Certainly it would be helped by glue, or a butterfly closure. I sit for a moment, wondering if I should do anything.Like many Americans, I love to fix things, or, at least, to feel like I’m fixing things. But my cultural sensitivity training has encouraged me to slow down that impulse, to stop and think. So I stopped and thought, and, a half second later, headed into the house for antibiotic ointment and Band-Aids. I gestured and motioned with my hands, a pantomime of informed consent, and then, as she seemed unperturbed, smeared a bit of ointment in the wound and affixed one Band-Aid over the tip of her toe to hold the torn flap back in place, wrapping another around the toe to hold the first Band-Aid in place since, again, she has no shoes.
She doesn’t move her toes or her foot the way my children do in anticipation of the Band-Aid’s contact with their skin; the slight movement of big toe away from other toes to permit the inter-toe passage of the bandage. She seems so surprised by the Band-Aid, as do some of the other children-–I’m not sure, but it seems like the first time she’s encountered a Band-Aid. It’s then I realize that not every mother has Band-Aids and antibiotic ointment for cuts, or shoes for her children’s feet that would prevent such cuts in the first place. It’s then, too, that I realize how garish the Band-Aid looks against her 80% cacao skin; it may as well be hunter’s orange. It wasn’t made with her skin tone in mind.
How is it that, before today, I never realized that sometimes wealth means shoes and a first aid kit, while poverty means a preventable but present wound that’s easily treatable but untreated? Is this not true of malaria, of malnutrition, of HIV/AIDS, of death from diarrhea, things that no longer threaten us in the West, but remain the specter of death in places like this one? I put away the antibiotic ointment, toss away the sterile Band-Aid wrappers, wash my hands, and shake my head. I can’t unravel my tangled thoughts: guilt, gratitude, sadness, anger. One thought emerges, and I realize with a start that it’s a remarkably concise metaphor for so much of the injustice and inequality and, yes, racism that’s still with us, all over and everywhere, and the metaphor is this: Band-Aids are made for white people.