Layer 1: Heritage – Example 1
It was the last day of second grade, and I proudly walked home from school wearing a beautiful yellow and polka dot dress that my mother had chosen for me the night before. Just earlier that morning, my mother had managed to neatly part my thick, frizzy dark brown hair into four sections. She had adorned each section with twists and petite white bows, and somehow, by the end of that day, I had managed to keep my hair done as neatly as she intended. I wore my shiny black patent leather shoes – shoes that were generally reserved for church – and they were complimented with white ruffled socks that had tiny yellow flowers on them. Though I was quite the tomboy and generally shied away from dresses of any kind, I felt special – pretty even – as the bright colors and the reflection of the sun danced in beautiful contrast to my brown, milk chocolatey skin.
As I took the half-block journey to my home, I held my head high. Certificate in my hand, not only did I feel pretty, but I had just completed second grade and I would be going to the “big kid school” in just a few months. Nothing could steal my shine.
And then I saw her.
She was the mother of a little girl who also attended my school. She wore a plain white t-shirt and fitted blue jeans. Her short, relaxed hair was slicked back, and her bright red lipstick stood out in contrast to her dark brown skin. She was walking on the same side of the street as me, but in the opposite direction towards school. As she approached me, she stared at me; I looked back at her with a small grin, assuming she would compliment me on my pretty outfit. But the closer she got to me, the more I noticed the grimace on her face. Just as she was about to pass me, she looked straight into my eyes.
“Ugly little girl,” she snarled, rolled her eyes, and kept walking in pace.
I wanted to hurl over from this gut punch that she had just landed, but I kept walking. Every step, her words resounding in my head. When I arrived home, I did not repeat the story to anyone. It was too painful. It was not as if she was another little kid telling her opinion about me. She was an adult: Someone whose opinion I was taught to trust. Was she right? Was it true? Was I… ugly?
It was in that moment that I began to become keenly aware of my own beauty and place in the world, and the further that I explored, the more I began to understand the large impact that something as slight as my skin tone had in the way that others perceived me.
One of the things that I learned very quickly is that to be “Black” in the United States of America was not about one color; it was about a spectrum. My mother is the color of caramel. Her skin, smooth and flawless, has always been lighter than mine. In contrast, my dad was the color of dark chocolate. Complexion wise, my sister and I are right in the middle of the spectrum with my sister closer in complexion to my dad, and me closer in complexion to my mom.
Growing up in Northern New Jersey in the 80s, my parents raised me to be confident in who I was. Much of my childhood came with affirmations of how smart I was and how beautiful I was – and none of those affirmations ever came with the caveat of my complexion. In fact, we did not talk much about complexion in my household, but just because we did not talk about it directly did not mean that the stories we told, descriptor words used, and the connotations that I observed from those stories and descriptions did not guide my opinions about complexion. Through storytelling, television, media, and my own experiences, I learned about race and color at a young age. And with color came beauty and privilege. Here were a few of the lessons I learned about the complexities of complexion as a Black American:
One of the most desirable features in the black community was to be light-skinned. However, if you were light-skinned, with more euro-centric features, pretty hair, and light eyes, you literally had it made. This could get you more favor among both whites and blacks, both inside of the home and outside of the home. As a rule, the more “white” a black person looked, the prettier they were.
In contrast, the most undesirable feature in the black community was to be dark-skinned. As a rule, the more “African” a black person looked, the uglier they were. Looking “African” included features such as coarse “nappy” hair, a wide nose, and big lips. With these features came the stereotypes of being angrier, more violent, more likelihood to be guilty of a crime or to inflict harm.
There seemed to be an unspoken scale of what it meant to be a “pretty,” and even if you were darker-skinned, having different features on this scale, such as long silky hair, a smaller nose, or lighter eyes would give you notches up or down the scale. However, if two girls had the same exact features, but one was light-skinned, and the other was dark-skinned, by default, the light-skinned girl was automatically seen (both by black culture and the larger society as a whole) as being prettier than a dark-skinned girl. Though there were some outliers, this was pretty much the rule.
If I had to recreate this scale, it would look like this:
• Fair skinned = Extremely light – like the color of one’s palm
• Light skinned = From the shade of café con leche to the color of caramel. Sometimes Fair Skinned and Light skinned are lumped into one.
• Brown skinned = the color of burnt caramel to the color of milk chocolate
• Dark Skinned = all of the shades of Dark chocolate; sometimes brown skinned and dark skinned are lumped into one.
Accepting my place:
In the fifth grade, my art teacher taught us how to draw the features of a person’s face, and then as a big project, we were to draw self-portraits. I drew a beautiful portrait of myself, and worked intently until I felt that I had gotten each facial characteristic just right. My best friend at the time, light skinned with long silky hair, came to observe my self-portrait:
“Wow! That’s really pretty!” she exclaimed.
“Thanks,” I proudly beamed, putting the final touches on my masterpiece.
“But you’re not pretty like that in real life… You know that right? It kind of looks more like me,” she declared confidently.
I cannot remember my response. I just remember feeling deflated. Yet again, my own beauty was brought into question by someone I was supposed to trust.
Despite how many times my mother or other family members told me how beautiful I was, the world around me constantly told me how beautiful I was not. From the pretty, light-skinned girls on the toy commercials to the sea of light-skinned women featured in hip-hop music videos, I realized that on the spectrum of beauty, I was not at the top. In fact, at a certain point, I acquiesced to the idea that each of my lighter-skinned friends were prettier than me. It was less of a lack of self-esteem and more of an acknowledgement of my “place” in society.
Moving to rural Pennsylvania with my mother and sister after my parents divorced only deepened my understanding of what it meant to be a black, brown-skinned girl in society. From our first day of school, my sister and I experienced racism and discrimination from our mostly white classmates. And there was no hiding or blending in. We were black and our skin was dark brown. Not only did some of my classmates not like me because I was black, none of the white boys were interested in dating me. As a result, throughout the end of high school, I continued to be quite the tomboy, hiding myself in sports and focusing on my school work. It was not that I didn’t see myself as pretty, I just understood my “place” and how others likely perceived me in the community where I lived.
A Hair Discovery:
The day I discovered that my hair was curly was a magical day for me. I was in the eighth grade. Because my family had moved so far away from my hair dresser in New Jersey, the relaxer in my hair, a chemical used to straighten thick, coarse hair, had completely grown out. I was in my friend’s bathroom playing with one small section of my hair. I put gel in it and instead of slicking straight, it curled into a corkscrew curl. Excitedly, I ran to my friend’s bedroom and showed her:
“Look! Look what I did to my hair!” I exclaimed.
“How’d you do that?!” she asked.
“I just put gel in it and it did this!”
“Oh wow!” she exclaimed.
To her, my discovery was something “cool” that I could do with my hair, but for me, it was a notch up the spectrum. To be brown-skinned with long hair was one thing, but to be brown skinned with “good” hair made me more desirable in society. My discovery was a big deal to how I saw myself and my place in the world.
Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl:
It took me by surprise when I got a lot of attention in college from the opposite sex. When I got to college, I was grouped in with a group of women – across all shades of the color spectrum – who were considered “pretty girls.” One friend in particular received a lot of attention – perhaps the most attention in the group! She was a dark shade of chocolate with big doe eyes, a cute button nose, and a beautiful smile. She would often get the “compliment” of being “pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” I never understood why she would scoff and roll her eyes when receiving that compliment, so one day I asked her. She said, “Why do they have to say pretty for a dark-skinned girl, why can’t they just say ‘pretty’?”
Her statement made me reflect, and it ultimately empowered me to embrace my own beauty. Maybe color did not have to be as limiting as I had made it out to be. Maybe I could be beautiful in my own right – without having to place myself in a society-created and self-governed hierarchy of beauty. Watching her hold her head high and turn heads in the room only highlighted the self-inflicted limitations I had created for myself. Maybe I was enough just as I was.
From the revelations in college emerged a rebellious, confident, beautifully brown and unapologetically black woman in her adulthood. A woman who now understands that the mother who called her an “ugly little girl” was only projecting her own insecurities. A woman who understands that the color spectrum still exists, but does not use it as a tool to limit or govern her potential. Like race, complexion in the black community, was and continues to be a nuanced, socially-constructed vehicle used to divide and conquer people of color. My story is about breaking free from chains of colorism and embracing my beautiful life in full color.
I was thirteen the first time I looked in the mirror and saw someone I thought was “pretty.” Maybe it had to do with Brandy, a popular brown-skinned R&B and Hip- Hop artist who had similar features as me. Or maybe it had to do with the three guys at my church who had a crush on me, but I remember the moment. It was like an epiphany, I remember looking at my smooth chocolate skin and almond shaped eyes, and saying, “Oh… I am pretty.” But even though I felt that way, it took while for society to catch up.
Growing up, I would repeatedly hear a funny story of the day I was born. The story went as such: When I was born, my skin was the color of white chocolate and my eyes were slightly slanted. My dad took one look at me and accusatorily asked my mom, “Whose Chinese baby is this?!” and proceeded to “disown” me until my skin started to become browner. (Much later, when I was about twenty years old, my dad confirmed this story and apologized for ever wondering if I was his child). Ironically, I now look the most like him. ]