"Can you believe that's his cousin? Look at how black she is." Those words, delivered by my third-grade teacher jolted me from the idyllic world that children should be afforded, and catapulted me into a world where the issues of racism and colorism would often consume me. This is the story of how an attack against a "dark girl" left a light-skinned black man emotionally scarred.
Before going any further, let me say that I speak of my experiences only, and the complexity of my experiences and sentiments would require much more space than the Huffington Post would allow. Also, that expressed may leave you baffled, and uttering "That's crazy!" Indeed, constructs such as racism and colorism can reduce one to a state of frustration, confusion and despair, one that when trying to explain their impact, leaves you vulnerable to those who don't understand, and stuck constantly trying to make order of the internal conflicts one may experience.
My mother gave birth to eleven children, with me being the baby of the bunch. My siblings range in skin tone from Denzel Washington to Grace Jones. Then, there's me... someone who is often said to resemble Steven Seagal, or thought of as Samoan or a fair-skinned Latino. I often seemingly disappoint people by answering "Black" to the question "What are you?" Over and over, I find myself having to defend my answer, with me usually wanting to exclaim: "I'm not choosing to be Black you nitwit, I am Black!"
At the age of five, my family moved into public housing in Fort Pierce, Florida. Our residency there was a magical time for me. In addition to the housing being a huge improvement over our previous abode, it gave us an opportunity to mingle with our extended family, who lived across the street, on a daily basis. The same age as I, my cousin Kim, whose hue is the darkest ebony you can imagine, was my constant companion during this time. I recognized I looked different, but within my family, one looking different didn't equate to one being better.
In third-grade, Kim and I were assigned to the same classroom. I couldn't have been happier because this meant I'd have family with me all the day long. One day while walking down the halls of Chester A. Moore Elementary School while being escorted by our teacher, Mrs. Logan, we had to yield to the oncoming class passing in front of us. While stopped, our teacher and another teacher had a brief exchange, which at one point, Mrs. Logan summoned Kim and I out of the line. In front of the other teacher and our fellow classmates, Mrs. Logan asked the other teacher, "Can you believe that's his cousin? Look at how Black she is." At that time, I wasn't able to process this on my own, as I had never been taunted because of my skin color. However, closely eyeing my cousin, I could see a look of shame and hurt come across her face; she obviously had been taunted. It was through her that I realized what Mrs. Logan said was mean and disparaging. From that day on, I decided to give her hell, so much hell that I became a constant fixture in the principal's office. In one day, she single-handedly halted my age of innocence. She taught me that the world thinks black is bad, and I hated her for shattering the belief I maintained of looking just like my brothers, all of whom my neighborhood thought was the cat's meow.
That moment in the third-grade launched me into a life-time of pain. While stopping short of saying it caused me to hate myself, it did cause me to question if I was worthy of being Black. It was in that moment that I became closer to my people, but also began distancing myself from who I am. It is (I want to say "was," but alas...) a pain that I've endured since that day. At much too early of an age, I found myself assessing how I was treated versus my darker-skinned siblings; I started being consumed by how total strangers were treated at the supermarket, church or department stores; I began obsessively looking for dark-skinned people on television (wrote to Black Entertainment Television as a kid because Donnie Simpson was the only "dark-skinned" person on air, and truly thought I was responsible for Bev Smith appearing a few years later with "Our Voices"); and, lastly, I began to shun any semblance of kindness extended to me, because I just knew it was because I'm light-skinned. I still cringe when I receive compliments about my skin or hair, and still feel very uncomfortable with anyone referring to me as handsome. It's not that I don't think I'm worthy of a compliment, but more of a belief that those of a darker hue are not as apt to receive such random praises.
Oh yes, for years, the impact of that day wreaked havoc on my psyche and spirit. Upon seeing a light-skinned couple holding hands, I would go as far as to question the legitimacy and sincerity of their union: Were they together to have "light" babies? Do they think their better than others? It was rare that I'd allow myself to entertain the thought that they could simply be in love with each other. No longer with any desire to be a parent (that may change again), I once dreamt of adopting five dark girls, and raising them to be proud queens who would be brave enough to challenge anyone who questioned their beauty or ability. I use to joke that no one would like my little girls, because they would be so unaccustomed to a clan of unapologetic fierce "dark girls" that it would frighten the heck out of them. Of course, I was giving myself too much credit in naively thinking I could raise five little dark girls without having them experience the sting of racism and colorism, but I wanted to rear five little Kims (referring to my cousin, not the rapper who clearly is a victim of colorism) who would never hang their heads in shame. Fortunately, I've known "dark girls" who exemplify everything that I once dreamed of; if only they could visible more (hear me media), the work of inspiring other ebony sisters would be seamless.
In my desire to prove to others that I was worthy of being Black, and that I wasn't one of those Negroes (you know, the kind often referred to as uppity), I have had to work very hard to deny the privileges that come along with being a light-skinned person. To convince others, and myself, I wasn't "one of those," I found myself bashing those who looked like me, and after almost thirty years on earth, I realized I was bashing myself as well. That realization, instead of being an opportunity to overcome the pain of colorism, proved to be a revelation that required even more work to navigate. While no longer putting myself down, what I see others experience still takes a toll on me.
Consciously, I rebelled against the notion that "light was right," something that wasn't so difficult because subconsciously for as long as I can remember, when I closed my eyes and imagined beauty, I thought of those who were of a much darker hue. I remember finding one of my brother's girlie magazine and seeing a picture of a nude Grace Jones. She became the beauty standard of ALL women for me, not just black women. Hell, looking back, I'm most positive she became the beauty standard for men in my life as well, only supplanted by a strappy fellow named Michael Strahan in recent years (Shhh... don't tell my husband).
Once while hailing a cab with my best-friend, a brown-skinned brother, we experienced taxi after taxi bypass us only to pick up passengers just beyond us, something most visibly black people can relate to. Finally, he said, "Let me back up and let you get the cab." I responded by saying that wasn't the reason, knowing good and damn well it was, but did so because I wanted him to know that I didn't enjoy being the one able to get the cab. I didn't want him to think that I reveled in the privilege of my light, bright and damn near white complexion. I'm married to a man shades darker than myself, my heart aches when others choose to look right through him only to address me. Fortunately, my husband has informed me that this type of behavior is not his problem, nor should it be mine. He's made it clear that I don't have to apologize, or get angry for the ignorance promulgated by others. I wish I could say I take his advice, but his words have served as a calming force.
I remember a time in the '90s when there were a bevy of black models that emerged upon the fashion scene. Those like Roshumba, Naomi Campbell, Beverly Peele, Cynthia Bailey and Tyson Beckford were ever present. I remember folks joking about "light-skinned brothers making a comeback," a quip that was a nod to the undeniable interest in all things dark chocolate. This was an era, at least in New York City, where light-skinned brothers were constantly teased about being "out of style." I remember sitting in a bar on Christopher Street when a beautiful dark-skinned brother through the door, and every head turned in unison to behold this fine specimen of a being. I recall thinking, "Oh, how the tides have turned;" so thrilled that a dark-skinned brother could command that amount of attention. It was around this time that I decided to finally give a light-skinned brother a shot. I dated a devilishly good-looking fellow who was also a Southerner like me. In that relationship, I found myself a part of the very charade I mentioned earlier in this article. My partner was color-struck, which revealed the real reason he dated me: Somehow, the fool thought two broke ass light-skinned men made a power couple. Go figure! He would say things that would make my skin crawl; things that would take me back to the third-grade, and eventually, I "proved too Black for his taste."
Though neither dark nor a girl, I've never forgotten the struggle of what it is to be dark girl. The pain they experience has, in many ways, become my own. In attempting to explain this once, I likened it to the pain the sister May, from the book and movie "The Secret Life of Bees," would take on upon hearing of another's tragedy. All these years, I've been trying to take that pain away from Kim; trying to take that pain away from all black girls.
For weeks, I had been waiting to watch what appeared to be a fascinating and brutally honest discussion about skin color in this country, specifically among Black Americans. In preparation for watching Dark Girls directed and produced by D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network, I found that all-too-familiar knot returning to my stomach. It has been ever-present since Mrs. Logan walked into my life. Knowing what this topic can conjure up in me, I decided to "do the work" before watching; reminding myself that it would not send me back from whence I came. Hearing that little girl featured in the documentary and commercials saying "I don't like to be called black," elicited so many emotions from me. So, almost two weeks after watching the documentary, and even with the hoopla surrounding Paula Deen, the intrigue of Edward Snowden, the tragedy of the Trayvon Martin case, the illness of Nelson Mandela and the fall of DOMA, I found myself coming back to that little girl. She gave me the courage to share this story, this part of me that's so difficult to talk about, with the world. That little girl and all the others featured in the film, by simply having the conversation in such a candid and "keeping it real" kind of way, allowed that knot in my stomach to loosen, even if ever so slightly.
In the work I do as a social worker and community activist, I partake in many conversations revolving around white privilege, something many, including other light-skinned ethnic people can commiserate about days on end, but when I dare mention the privilege experienced from being a fairer hue, the discomfort and denial, though unspoken, is quite palpable. This paradigm is global, and the pervasiveness of it around the world in some odd way helped me with the healing process. Once that was revealed to me, it was a relief to know that such a mentality was not solely indicative of black Americans; it was not something we were necessarily choosing to perpetuate, rather something we are struggling to emerge from. What I have learned through my own life and conversations with others is that a privilege is only such if there is some type of pleasure derived from it. For those of us with a strong affinity for our cultural heritage, a crack anywhere in mirror projects a painful image of ourselves. So, when I hear of a "dark girl" being broken by the stupidity racism and colorism produces, my world seems shattered, too.