“I call myself Black because that is who I am. Blackness is a label that I do not have a choice in rejecting as long as systemic barriers exist in this country.”- Morgan Jerkins, This Will Be My Undoing.
I am a Black woman. I have always been a Black female and that in and of itself could be seen as a cursed existence. Black women have long been objectified for our looks and have been ridiculed for the persona that is often perceived as being “angry.” There is also a curiosity that has followed the Black woman for hundreds of years, especially in regards to her hair, her butt, her lips, and her complexion. Women in general to held to an impossible standard of beauty, but Black women are constantly held to the expectation that the closer to white they are, the more beautiful they are, the more acceptable they become. The words “you are pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” or “you are cute for a Black girl” have probably penetrated the ears of most Black women I know, myself included. There is history behind this just as in all things. In times of slavery, lighter-skinned slaves received “preferential” treatment of sorts in that they were usually kept in the home and as such were given much better resources, such as clothing. In some cases, they might’ve been educated. There were slave owners who believed that the more whiteness a slave possessed in his or her blood, the purer they became. This thought that lighter was better soon became reflected in the Black community. Black people with lighter complexions were given better opportunities and tend to be seen as more desirable. I remember during my high school and college days that it was the lighter-skinned girls who were deemed most desirable.
Growing up in a predominantly White neighborhood, I was just Black. No one really speculated about my entire cultural background because to them, I had brown skin… that was enough. I had mostly White friends and in most cases, I became a “Token.” You’ve seen them in plenty of television shows and in movies, 90’s teen movies especially. Dion from Clueless, Rochelle from The Craft, Katerina from She’s All That, and Chastity from 10 Things I Hate About You just to name a few. I was that girl. I grew up listening to soft rock and pop music, and most of the shows I watched and celebrities I admired were White. In fact, it wasn’t until I got to college that I even saw The Color Purple or Roots. It’s not to say that my parents didn’t talk to me at length about my Blackness. But those conversations were more so about the responsibility my Blackness put onto me. They stressed the significance in how to act and speak appropriately, emphasized the importance of studying hard, and reiterated the necessity to be twice as good as my White friends to secure the equal reward (if there is such a thing). Don’t slur your words! Annunciate! Pull up your pants to your waist! Read often! Do your homework right when you get home! Be twice as good! Assimilation was my best chance at success. And once I mastered this, at a rather young age at that, I became acceptable to most with whom I grew up. I became the exception.
As such, I never could understood how some Black people could consciously act in ways that I perceived to be ignorant… talking loudly, blasting music, sagging their pants, not taking their education seriously. My perceptions were based on what I was raised to be believe was detrimental to our ability to overcome. When Black people mess up, it is often expected because for us to do anything more than that is the exception. The same is true for physical appearance. “You are cute for a Black girl” subjects the Black women to an expected standard of beauty that is much lower than that for a White woman. To look anything other than the expectation is the exception. And this exception can often times be confusing by those whom we call our own.
I started my Freshman year at Bethune-Cookman University (then College), a historically Black college/university (HBCU for short) in 2004. It was the first time in my entire life that I had lived in a predominantly Black space. For the first time I blended in… I wasn’t “the Black one” anymore. But strangely enough, I also became hyper aware that there was still something different about me. I remember the girls in my dorm walking around with their hair wrapped at night. I didn’t know I needed to do that to maintain my hair. I didn’t even know what to use or how to shape my hair so that it would lay in a perfect circle around my head. I didn’t know anything more about hair care than to use Pink moisturizer once a day, and that every four weeks I needed to go back to the salon for a relaxer touch-up. I dressed differently too. I opted for flip-flops in the hot Florida weather as opposed to the Jordan’s or heels that were much more popular with the girls in my class. It was in the first two or three months of my matriculation that friends and peers asked me the question: “What are you?” I often looked at them as though I didn’t hear them correctly the first time.
“Excuse me?” I’d respond, as I didn’t completely understand to what they could be referring.
“What are you, Robin?” they’d repeat. “Are you mixed or something?”
Mixed? What in the world were they talking about? I didn’t looked mixed! I had cousins who were mixed, and they had lighter skin and lighter eyes. Their hair was straighter and often lighter as well. My best friend growing up was mixed and she had a much fairer complexion than I. I’d arched my brow at them and replied a simple “No, I’m not mixed… both my parents are Black.” The first few times I was annoyed. I thought it was a super ignorant question… like how do you have the audacity to ask a person what they are!? Like who even does that? But then as the same question kept coming my way, I became curious. What was it about me that made people, my people, think that I was anything other than just Black. That’s what I’d been my whole life. What made me different now? I asked one of my friends at the time why she thought I might’ve been mixed. This was her response:
“Well your hair is lighter and finer and your skin is pretty light. And your nose is thinner.”
I looked at her blankly as if to say, “That’s it?” I then nodded my head as she quickly changed the subject. And although part of me was engaged in the conversation we had that day, I couldn’t help but think about her justifications for her assumptions. My hair is finer and lighter, my skin is lighter, my nose is thinner. Finer than whose? Lighter than whose? Thinner than whose? Hers? I had to wonder, was this the way other Black people saw me? Instead of just being Black, I had to be something else too because comparatively speaking, I was lighter, my hair finer, my nose thinner. I didn’t understand why I had to be so different from being Black. Wasn’t being Black different enough? And then I thought to myself, am I not Black enough? Was it in the way I looked or acted? Was it in my interests… that I thoroughly enjoyed Rock music and talked in such a way that if I were on the phone, people would’ve thought I was White? Did I come across as though I was better than everyone else, that in some way I was privileged and above my peers? In entering a space that was filled with people whom I could call my own, I never felt so separated.
In the time since, I have grown to understand that the reasoning behind much of the curiosity stemmed from colorism. Albeit not intentionally hateful, my new Black colleagues were intrigued with not only the way I looked, but also the way I spoke and presented myself. I was the Yankee in a world populated heavily by Southerners. And people were baffled when they found out I was Catholic. Black people weren’t Catholic! I was different; I wasn’t the “normal” Black girl. I found myself not quite fitting in with the expectation that now my own people had subconsciously put onto me. Again, I was the exception.
In the years since college, I have embraced the differences that make me who I am. I enjoy country music in addition to hip-hop and R&B, I love to read funny romantic comedies and indulge in historical drama. I use phrases that tend to be mostly used by White women. I love sports. I dress casually most days. I wear my hair natural, still figuring out how to properly care for the vast array of textures that grow from my scalp. I have lived in this skin for almost 33 years now, and as each day passes and I look into the mirror to see my pecan complexion, button nose and wavy/curly brown hair, my beauty reflects those Black women who came before me. Those women who were all shades of brown and tan. Those women who were the exception, who transcended expectation and rose beyond their stationed rank by way of their color and gender. According to Morgan Jerkins, our Blackness is a kaleidoscope consisting of a variety of colors reflected from our perfectly beautiful forms. There is no one way to be Black, and as such I embrace all of who I am and what I hope to be.