When I was younger, I was constantly teased for my character, my voice, my personality, and my skin tone. I went to an all-black elementary school and I did not understand what anyone meant when they were calling me an “Oreo,” or that I sounded white. I was not aware of the distinction between the two. I had rarely been around people that weren’t black. When I went to middle school and the racial percentages changed, the teasing did not. As a budding adolescent, the bullying and verbal assaults damaged my psyche and identity greatly; I wanted to be white.
I believed that white was powerful and that it was beautiful. In my experience, white people have always been better off; they have had more money, better clothes, better cars, better homes, their children were smarter and were offered more educational opportunities – something I now define as white privilege. I believed that if I wanted to get ahead in life, I had to appease white people.
In order to do so, I permed my hair religiously every six weeks. I wanted lighter skin. I wanted to lose weight; I did not want the gifts my ancestors gave to me. I did not want my hips or butt or thighs, so I downplayed them. I wanted a slimmer nose, higher cheekbones, blue eyes, lighter skin, and straight, blonde hair. I wanted to shop at Aeropostale without worrying if the clothes would fit. I wanted more freckles than I already had, and I dropped my southern twang because it made me sound “uneducated” and picked up a somewhat neutral accent. I listened to mainstream music as opposed to rap and hip-hop. I studied romance languages instead of ebonics. I wanted to try to assimilate in every sense of the word. This was not healthy. I was turning my back on my family and many heritages, and I wanted to be someone that I was not.
I did not do this because of how I was raised; my parents loved me greatly and made sure that I knew all about African-American history and the struggles that our ancestors have faced. They tried to instill a sense of confidence and pride, but I was already battling the media and peers.
When I was in high school, I radically changed and started going in the completely opposite direction; I used skin tanning cream during my freshman year, which lead me to spend more time in the sun instead of using chemicals to artificially darken my skin. I wanted to not be seen as white; just because my skin was lighter, it did not mean that I wasn’t black. I wanted people to see who I was without worrying that I wasn’t like them. They had a lot of thoughts about who I was: lame, white, arrogant, and too smart to be black. They thought that I couldn’t dance, that I was weak. They thought that because I had longer hair, that I was mixed and not black enough. With darkening my skin, I was starting to accept who I was (and everyone else was too), but acceptance is not solely enough; you need to embrace things for you. I was tired of trying to appease other people, so in college I embraced the vernacular. I embraced my butt. I embraced my skin tone.
In the middle of my college years, I learned that in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Dr. Kenneth B. Clark and his wife Dr. Mamie Clark conducted a study on children, examining self-perception in relation to their race and seeing if segregation had the effect of internalized racism. Children were asked the following questions: “Show me the doll that you like best or that you would like to play with. Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll. Show me the doll that looks ‘bad.’ Give me the doll that looks like a white child. Give me the doll that looks like a colored child. Give me the doll that looks like a Negro child. Give me the doll that looks like you.”
For all of the positive sounding questions (“Show me the doll you would like to play with” and “Show me the doll that is the ‘nice’ doll,”) the children pointed to the white doll. For all of the negative sounding questions, the children pointed to the black doll. By the time the Clarks had reached “give me the doll that looks like you,” the children had already placed negativity on their skin color and thus 44% of the children picked dolls that were lighter. The study was conducted on children between the ages of six and nine, which means by that time, they had already internalized self hate. The results of Clark and Clark’s study was then used in arguing against segregation in schools in the court case of Brown v. Board of Education. Also, when Clark asked the children to color a picture of themselves, the children colored the picture multiple shades lighter than they were, again alluding to a point that I felt: to be white is to be better because black people were “bad.”
Now I am embracing my beauty, my gifts, and my curves. I am embracing who I am and what I have to offer. I wear an afro now. I am no longer trying to “fit in” with my majority white college. I speak out against racism instead of internalizing it. I tried so hard to be one thing for such an extended period of time, I no longer knew how to be myself. When I am around some of my black friends, I am “too white.” When I am around some of the white students, I am “too black” (although they would not necessarily say it in those terms). I have stopped caring what they think, and I refuse to let anyone else dictate my life; I have let that happen for way too long.
With the help of mentors and older black students that attended my college, I have come to the realization that I am a beautiful black woman who has every right to be herself, but I still have a lot left to learn. Just because I am not white, it doesn’t mean that I am not special or intelligent or anything else that I thought was a valuable “white” trait. They taught me that identity is about discovering yourself over and over and over again depending on where you are and how you are. It is not stagnant or unmoving. You will not be the same thing forever. You will not fit into a box. Life is about learning and growing, and to grow you need guidance. And remember, you are not alone in this journey; other people are growing too.