I never wanted to be white per se. I mean, I danced around the house with the long, yellow bath towel on my head pretending to have swaying Goldi-blonde locks, and I played with white Barbie and her dudebro, and I wanted to be some amalgamation of Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown, and Nancy Drew. But being white seemed entirely out of reach like being a dragon or a ghoul – something impractical. I would have settled for the next best thing though- being lighter skinned.
Skin as light as caramel or cafe au lait (which just sounds better) instead of dark like milk chocolate. Skin like my mother’s or the Twin. “Your mother is beautiful,” people were always telling me. They’d peer at my dark brown face trying to find some resemblance of her red-yellow beauty in its contours. “You don’t really look like her,” they’d conclude after close scrutiny. I learned early on how to stave off the comparisons. Even now, the innocuous about-me phrase: I have a twin sister is quickly followed with butwedontreallylookalikethough. I set the stage before they see us together– I prepare them before showing our picture –because it’s easier that way. Because there’s less peering at my darkness in contrast to her lightness. Less talk about the randomness of genetics and how strange families are. This way I never have to draw a Punnett square.
I am dark, but not *too* dark. Not the kind of dark that inspires you so black jokes or African booty scratcher references. Not the kind of black that gets compared to oil slicks or or moonless midnight or the color purple. Just dark. A basic black. The kind that shadows in the absence of light. The kind that is darker than a wet paper bag with no colorful eyes to make up for its monotony. The kind that makes me visibly — unmistakably– black.
The kind of blackness that I am pretty in spite of.
In college, a big tree of a man loved me deeply. He was beautiful with skin like polished onyx and he treated me with a kindness that startled me. I ran a continuous cost-benefit-analysis in my head about us. Loving him was risky. We could end up married with kids who might be too big and too black for this world. No one taught me to make such calculations. No one had to.
The part of me that makes Punnett square predictions is the part of me that understood the coded compliment of a (white) friend’s advice to “not limit myself to only black men because I could do so much better.” When the master chief turns to me unexpectedly and points to the Bestie (she of bronze skin bi-racial beauty) and says “now that’s the perfect skin color,”*that* part of me knows exactly what he means. That part of me understands the you-are-the-exception-subtext of dating black men who normally only date white women or light skin Latinas with curly hair. It understands, without ever saying it aloud, why black women on t.v are so often represented by light-skinned biracial women and why mixed and imperceptibly black babies are so desired. It understands exactly why black women celebrities have nose jobs and why lil’ Kim looks nothing like she did in the 90’s.
That part of me knows–without ever being told– that staying out of the sun and not getting *too* black is the best course of action. It understands that using the word “preference” is just a another way of not saying any of this out loud. It is the very same part of me that can never finish reading the Bluest Eye because there is something desperate and heart-rendingly like me in Pecola Breedlove.
I talk incessantly about White Supremacy — about the racial hierarchy of power that posits whiteness as opposite and superior to blackness in ever measurable category. I talk about mass incarceration and the criminalization of black skin and the surveiling and control of black bodies. I loudly declaim systemic oppression and describe how its embedded in all of our institutions. But I never talk about what drinking from a poisoned well does to me internally.
How it perverts the mirror’s reflection. How all of that wrestling and fighting with what it means to be black so often gets projected outward onto other black folks. How hatred becomes an inside job. How you make a bargain with yourself – be faster, smarter, stronger, skinnier even, nothing like those other black people--anything to make up for the deficit of having black skin.
In a FB conversation with a friend about Colin Kaepernick, I said this:
As black people in an a white supremacist, society, I think it’s important that we address and acknowledge the ways that *all* of us are affected internally by such a system. How it affects our “preferences” and even how we view one another. We’re all drinking out of the same poisoned well. Do you really expect a black man raised by a white family in white America to *not* have issues with race? As a recovering Republican, I realize how far I’ve come in my thinking and growth in theses issues but it’s been a process. I couldn’t speak “thoughtfully” for some time to tell you the truth, but I could no longer remain silent and so I spoke (clumsily) as I learned. I think we’re all trying our best to figure this out as we go. And we’ve all (black folks) stumbled in figuring out the best way to address this issue in our own spheres of influence. Perhaps, we can extend grace to the people around us who are still trying to figure it out. Wokeness is a journey not an end state.
I had this conversation out loud for the first time with a friend this week. And as I listened to her struggles with accepting and loving her blackness, I saw the beauty that Ossie Davis spoke of:
To be unapologetically black in a world that describes your natural hair as unprofessional and maligns your God-given features is a revolutionary act. It is a demonstration of great love. In the words of Deray:
I love my blackness. And yours.