In all my discussions and statuses about colorism, I didn’t realize until this past year or so how deeply ingrained it was in me, how it shaped my own daily interactions. Despite the amount of intellectual energy I give the topic, it took a situation that happened at work to bring to me to a place of genuine reflection.
It started with a new girl joining my class.
She is pretty in the exotic way that some children are pretty–wide eyed, a burnt sienna shade of blackness that you don’t see often, long wavy hair. She calmly and quietly asserts herself as black; the other kids (a little awestruck) have debated this fact when she isn’t present.
This debating in and of itself isn’t the thing that threw me. We often debate the topic at the end of class. I am a fond flinger of the phrases “black peoples kids” and “negro” when I am jokingly complaining about patterns of behavior that are particularly urban in nature. The students challenge my assessments of blackness with the lists of heritages that they carry: Native American tribes, white fore bearers and parents, that kind of stuff. We argue the finer points of what blackness is as much as middle schoolers can do intelligently when they haven’t been formally taught blackness as a political topic. It’s informative for both sides: I get to see what they believe and they get to articulate their beliefs and refine (or redefine) them.
No, what got to me was how freaking enamored the adults in the building were with this girl. She wore her hair in two long, smooth French braids one day, and the teachers lost their collective shit. Add to that her naturally dainty demeanor and they all had a love fest for a good 15 minutes extolling her virtue. I didn’t participate, of course; I was too busy listening in awe at how they seemed to be equating her academic success with her quiet and her…well, her skin color.
As a dark skinned woman, my thoughts raced to defend all the chocolate children who were just as academically astute that we had the privilege of serving. Their names flashed before my eyes. What about [this girl] and [that one too]? The several girls who lit up my neurological pathways with memories of their academic excellence and quiet demeanors weren’t more or less demur or dedicated than the student in question. The only difference was that they weren’t light skin pretty.
It stung me. I won’t lie.
The conversation they were having took me back to my own childhood. I never put much truck in other folks’ opinions even as a child, but I’d be a liar if I said I hadn’t struggled with the difference in treatment because I was dark skinned. Added to that fact that I am what’s considered to be ghetto–loud and assertive–and I don’t doubt that many adults who didn’t know me well dismissed me just like the teachers were effectively dismissing all the hard work and success of those browner babies by only harping on the one who hadn’t been with us long enough to really assess the new girl by much more than that her look made her more refined than the others.
I look at my own development as freeing. My family always affirmed my beauty, even when boys and other adults around me didn’t. And so I took the rejection and turned it into my own version of the carefree black girls that roam the earth on Instagram and Tumblr today. I did what I wanted how I wanted with little concern for how it might be perceived, and it worked for me. I was sexually liberated, independent, and quite frankly never short of male attention because I lived solely for the love of me.
But what about those beautiful black girls who don’t have the benefit of building that kind of self affirmation? What about my own daughter, a dark brown beauty with her daddy’s long legs and long neck? Did she understand her own beauty? And how often had I unfairly insisted that she toughen up because she was darker and taller and more aggressive than her fairer, seemingly more sensitive sister–who coincidentally emoted at the drop of a hat and received hugs and concern instead of stern talking to’s about being strong and proud? Isn’t that daughter also deserving of consideration, of a place to cry her tears in safety?
I am becoming a better mother these days, and mostly because subconsciously, I had already begun to actively turn my empathy more firmly toward my daughter who has had to be strong because I expect her to be like me. I have turned off my strength in my black womanhood to let her see that it’s okay to not be okay, that that privilege doesn’t somehow pass by dark skinned women. I let her feel, and I let her see me feel more than just the weight of being woman and black. I allow her to know that some days, I AM sad. I am disappointed. I am uncertain. I am afraid. And that none of those things take away from the fact that I am also strong. That quite frankly my strength comes in knowing and accepting that I am not always okay–and THAT’S OKAY.
And far beyond that, I drive home the knowing that there’s no need to live a censored life to gain acceptance. You won’t find real love by forsaking self love. You won’t get any farther or live longer by living less authentically. Talking loudly, giggling rapaciously, living freely are worth far more than existing in a man made, self locking cage. Those who truly love you will cackle with you; those who understand you will tune their ears to hear.
Seeing the difference in how even dark skinned women ourselves treat each other differently than we treat those of lighter hue sharpened the blade of my resolve to handle my dark skinned young women with the value they deserve. Being assertive or loud or sassy doesn’t negate the need for safe space to just BE. And it is my duty–and yours–to honor the worth of every young girl and women beyond the patriarchal bonds of what counts as respectability. We owe each other more than just the pride of natural hair. We also owe each other the respect and love of our diverse humanity, even when that humanity doesn’t mirror what we have been taught.