At an early age, I recall identifying myself as a brown girl. It made no sense to accept the label “Black,” because my skin was so clearly brown. It was brown like milk chocolate- dark chocolate in the later months of Summer. I remember my aunt describing my skin as having my daddy’s reddish tone (Native American ancestry). So I suppose I’m a mix between milk chocolate, dark chocolate and red velvet cake. Yummy.
In my earliest years, I had my natural hair texture. I think my first perm was around age 8. It sort of makes sense, because that’s the age when my hair steadily shortened. I had long black locks, and they turned into split ends that barely reached my shoulders. I do remember looking at White, Asian and bi-racial girls and wondering why they had longer hair. I do not remember coveting their hair for very long. Instead of valuing their hair, I devalued my own. I stopped caring about the appearance of my hair.
As for my skin color, I actually learned to not see it. Yeah, I was brown, I was dark… so what? At that point, I never paid attention to the skin color of the girls around me (I was at predominantly White schools at this time). In a sense, this was a rejection of White skin tones as the default, the norm. But on the other hand, I erased my own experience as a Black girl. I never fit in with other Black girls. I was MVP of the Spelling Team, I had the highest scores in economics in Academic Decathlon and I had no interest in hip hop culture. Heck, I couldn’t even tell you the latest new artist, let alone wear the latest trends. Add to that the fact that I was skinny with no booty (thus non-comformant to the Black Beauty Standard [silly, isn’t it?]), and that sealed the conviction that I was an Oreo.
But somehow, I bypassed the virulent colorism/hueism of the “Black community.” Women in my (predominately Black church) would praise me for my hair length, but they’d comment on my sisters’ skin (they are what one would call “high yellow”). I got the hair, they got the skin.
Really, those comments stuck with me because I realized (without having the words to express this) that certain traits were more higly valued than others, and consequently, persons were valued over others with a gendered inter-racial and intra-racial hierarchy of skin color, hair texture and body type. My experience was particular to Black girls. Black boys with lighter skin and “good” hair were either understood to be “pretty boys” or feminized boys- never both.
I never could see why anyone would aspire to be White. Somehow, perming the hair, bleaching the skin and speaking with an affected manner never translated to “acting White.” Conforming to aesthetic norms was never a priority for me. I liked my skin the way it was- oily, smooth and brown. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. As for my hair, I longed for the kinks and coils that God gave me. I was coming into the understanding that God made me this way for a purpose, and I should love and embrace this body and consciousness I’ve been given.
Even today with my kinks and coils, my no-butt and my bookish looks, I’m completely certain that I am this way because God made me this way.
I never related with Pecola Breedlove (of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye). My brown eyes were uniquely mine. I never related with Precious (of Sapphire’s Push), the long, flowing tresses characteristic of White girls would not change who I was or my station. Clearly there are contextual and class differences between me and these protagonists. I was raised in a middle-class home where I was affirmed and told that I was beautiful (there were conflicting messages: good/bad hair, etc.). But really… no one ever told me I was ugly and unworthy. I only ever did that to myself. The worst I remember was a back-handed compliment from a popular girl in middle school who told me that I’d be beautiful if I wore jeans in the latest style and make up.
I am one of the lucky ones.
I thank God for that.