I grew up hating myself. Each day I didn’t wake up with pin-straight hair and a narrow nose was a reminder that I wasn’t beautiful. After all, a girl’s appearance is the sum of her worth, and without European features I was useless. I thought I was born cursed, and my life’s mission was to reverse it. So began my years of pilgrimage running away from myself and toward a better, whiter me.
Summers were spent refusing to go outside in fear of the sun. Instead I burned my skin with lemon juice in an attempt to scrub away the darkness from my complexion. My scalp was doused in burning chemicals to “fix” my kinky hair. I scraped the vernacular from my tongue and sucked in my lips. But no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t suck the color out of my flesh. I had to look elsewhere, going outside of myself to find a solution.
You see, my blackness doesn’t exist in a vacuum; the edges of my racial identity are molded by white people, just like my femaleness is informed by men. I resided within this double-sided trap, looking to both to tell me who I am. Without one or the other I had no boundaries, a shapeless lump with no substance. As a black woman, I thought only one group of people could reunite these two disparate parts of myself.
I lost my virginity to a white man. He was the son of an advertising mogul, schooled in Switzerland and living in the gentrified London district of Shoreditch as a university student. I, on the other hand, was from a lower middle class household headed by a single mother. The only reason I could afford to be in Europe was a scholarship that allowed me to study in France for a year.
He told me many things that evening, how lovely my skin color was, how racist the U.S. could be, how it was impolite to question people about money after I asked if he was rich. Looking back the imbalance of power is obvious, and the fact that he watched The Wire should have set off alarms. But I was too in awe of the attention I was receiving; when a mortal gets to sleep with Zeus, does she have a right to question the circumstances?
There were more men like him. I was often the first black woman they’d sleep with, a feat that they eagerly let me know. One, another Englishman, asked where I was really from. Like many black Americans I had no idea. After eyeing me up and down he decided that my ancestors were probably from Ghana, a once-popular slave trading center and former British colony. Judging from his blonde hair and blue eyes he could’ve been Scandinavian, the absolute pinnacle of whiteness.
Before we had sex he turned on some West African music. He assured me that it wasn’t because I was black, that he just liked it. I told him to turn it off. He refused. Afterwards he complimented me, a much better selection than all the “fugly” girls he’d slept with, which made my heart jump; I still wasn’t used to men praising me and belittling other women in the same breath, but I’d eventually adjust. While we were getting dressed he said we made quite the contrast, his pasty skin so different from my own. He too loved the color of my skin, said I was exotic and admitted that he was sort of racist towards black people.
I didn’t view these experiences as exploitive in the moment. The only thing I felt was reassurance, happy to have my looks validated by those I had so desperately wished to impress. But whatever exhilaration I got from those encounters were brief, like flashes of lightening giving bursts of clarity before plunging back into the darkness.
Part of my discomfort stemmed from an awakening I was having that year. France put me in close proximity with other black kids, much closer than my Midwestern prep school did, and I was slowly becoming aware of my race. Here were boys and girls who weren’t ashamed of their blackness, not wanting to shirk away from it. This was radical for me, and seeing them embrace what I had so long avoided was liberating. Around them I no longer felt the need to perform or hide anything that might betray my otherness. It was as though I was being told that it was o.k. to be black, that I didn’t have to feel shame in my broad nose or corkscrew curls.
At the same time, I was becoming uncomfortable with the way white people often viewed their black counterparts. My host mother, a French bobo, supposedly espoused progressive values from her every pore. Yet she’d click her tongue at my natural hair or say things like “a black flirted with me today!” I started to question whether my behavior in front of white people even mattered. I couldn’t solve whatever racial hang-ups they had, and I began to wonder if it was my place to do so. How painful it was to strip myself of the flesh that held me together just to please those who looked down on me.
When I returned to the U.S. I finally had a revelation, or maybe I was just tired of the burden I felt weighing on my shoulders. The obligation to look attractive for men was already tiring enough. Trying to sell myself to white ones was plainly humiliating. I figured that the only reason I felt so compelled to sleep with white men was because I viewed them as above me and needing their acceptance. It was the one thing that proved my blackness didn’t make me unsalvageable and ugly.
In retrospect their extent to which they fetishized me was as disturbing as my warped convictions. I don’t think they saw me as fully human, but rather as an exotic treat to have before settling for the main course. Maybe I was their Hottentot Venus, a freak they could marvel at and play with before throwing away. I felt horrendously guilty for participating, as though I was cosigning their racist fantasies. Am I just as bad as them.
Today I realize that I’m worthy, but I will never be the classic beauty the west worships in women. Straight hair will never grow out of my scalp and my skin won’t miraculously become lighter, and a white man’s approval will not change that. No, I don’t worry about being othered in this society, as I’ve already accepted that although my black is different it will always be beautiful. But my heart aches for the little black girls who will be disgusted by their own image, who’ll go looking for affirmation in all the wrong places.