I grew up in a mostly white community. Everywhere I was, I’d be the only black person or black girl. However, I’d never given much thought about it because it had never dawned on me what it meant to be black and how much black rendered fear, savagery, and unattractiveness in American society.
I would sometimes recognize the contrast of my arm’s deep caramel color to that of my white classmates. I noticed my brown skin compared to their milky white exterior, but it was the least of my worries because being black was not an issue for me. I would proceed throughout my day, perfectly fine being colored in a brown coat of paint that wouldn’t come off. When I had play dates with my white friends, they wouldn’t draw attention to our color differences either. At only seven years old, all I cared about was watching the latest Arthur episode when I got home from school and trying to be first in line for lunch.
My family was one of the three black families on my street. Being one of three black families was not that big a deal to me partly because my parents did not make an effort to distinguish themselves among my white neighbors, so it made no sense for me to. My parents didn’t allow racial demographics in my hometown to dictate the way they viewed themselves as black Americans. Their actions contributed to why I did not make an effort to distinguish myself among my white peers. My childhood also consisted of playing with many toys, mostly white Barbie dolls. I don’t remember ever wanting to be white at a young age. I knew I could never change who or what I looked like, no matter if I was satisfied being Ashley, or not.
For the first time, I had gotten a set of braids. It wasn’t my real hair, so my second grade class would ask questions about how my hair grew significantly longer. I even caught two best friends pointing at me across the classroom and laughing. What was wrong with me? My parents thought I looked okay. I didn’t receive any negative comments from my teacher. After that, I didn’t think much of my hair in relation to white girls’ hair. I took pride in being me. I’d walk around with my straight, permed hair with curls and pigtails my ma did for me. Grade school wasn’t too bad, mainly because it was a time I actually remember being proud of whom I was.
Learning about black history month as an eight-year-old was intriguing to me, but it wasn’t significant enough for me to really think about what would happen if the accomplishments blacks made hadn’t been achieved. It wasn’t until the third grade when we studied our heritage and every white kid in my class knew what country their ancestors were from that I envied their knowledge. They knew exactly where their family originated from; all I knew about my family was that we were from the continent of Africa. We knew nothing about which country or which tribe or which slave master our ancestors were sold to. I began to feel deeply inadequate and different from my peers at this age, which wasn’t healthy for me at the time.
In my free time, I would spend time reading children magazines my parents subscribed for me. Too much of my time was devoted towards magazines that portrayed much of the white race. I remember my dad came in my room saying,
“Ashley, your mother and I purchase Jet and Ebony magazines so that you can see more people like us in magazines and appreciate who you are. Don’t forget to read these.”
Then he would leave me to the rest of my magazines. But I wouldn’t listen to them. I would let dust pile on top of the covers on my desk instead. I wanted to be so immersed with white culture. I’d flip through those magazine pages, gazing deeply into the girls’ eyes, wondering what’d it be like if I were white and had eyes where you could actually see the pupils, and not some dark brown hole sucking the joy out of everyone around me.
Fifth grade was the year most of my classmates grew more mature while in grade school. It was also the grade administrators thought it was academically appropriate to talk about slavery in our social studies class. The day we talked about slavery for the first time, I distinctly remember the sad, pitiful eyes an Asian classmate of mine gave me. That look made me feel bad for being black. I was ashamed my ancestors were slaves; why they were the ones cruelly belittled in society, stuffed in confined spaces on a human cargo ship for months on end. On the other hand, my white classmates were proud of their heritage. It made me think back to our heritage project two years before. Their ancestors “discovered” America and had the ability to choose the widely recognized American traditions we were so used to celebrating.
I wanted so desperately to be proud of my heritage I had yet to define, but because I was unable to from the lack of ancestral documentation, I continued to ignore the black-dominated media and magazines my parents paid for. This was my way of coping with my loss of identity. It was already known among blacks how difficult it is to trace back our family ancestry due to the vestiges of slavery, so I remember growing increasingly jealous of my white classmates who knew they were 50% Irish and 25% German.
A hardened pit in my stomach would form from my parents not knowing which African tribe our family originated from. I found nothing to be proud of in my black culture other than the occasional discussions of Dr. King and his contributions to Civil Rights America. It made sense I did not want to be me. I was a black speck on a white board; a black doll in a store full of white plastic Barbie’s, and a black person in a pool of white students in my school.
Because of that, white culture was all I knew. Most days, I’d find myself wanting my hair perfectly straightened and permed so that my physical features could align and appeal to the white race. At the time, I thought it was for my own benefit. I wanted to look pretty enough for my parents, for my friends, and for myself. I’d wear outfits from designer stores, trying to wear the same clothes white people wore and be interested in the cheesy pop music and hot celebs that deserved none of my attention. I’d walk into stores and notice the way people looked at me; the sly smiles but stares that extended pat our encounter. I’d feel as if I was under some magnetic pull that wouldn’t let me go off the manager’s radar. Over and over, I’d feel this pressure that just kept building up as I tried to let go of others’ prejudices. I didn’t want to be viewed as the ghetto black girl who couldn’t be trusted in a high-end department store. Me trying to “be white” was only meant to morph myself into another person I could never be; to not be the unusual and exotic girl in the room everyone questioned because she looked so different and came from a dissimilar background. Yet again, I was a black dot in a room full of white people.
After being around whites for so long, I became so deeply attached and rooted in the Caucasian ideas that I lost sight of what made me unique as a black American in the first place. I didn’t know the good qualities of African Americans as a separate group in society. This continues to be my problem because I am unable to force myself to believe my original and distinct blackness is just as beautiful and worthy and admirable as society’s whiteness; that me choosing an Afrocentric lifestyle over western ideologies is an okay choice to make.
Unfortunately, middle school came around. That was when everyone changed because all of a sudden, it was in a girl’s best interest to start buying designer bags and dressing up in extremely expensive clothes with a face full of make-up. I was still in my tomboy stage. My insides would turn and my mind would go completely berserk trying to understand why the hell my good friends from grade school turned into underdeveloped Barbie dolls. My body began filling out the summer before seventh grade. My hips grew wider, my height extended, and I went from a size ten to a size twelve in men’s. My feet would not stop growing. My boobs were these enormous, inconvenient blobs that took up space, as my female classmates would stare at me while I unchanged in the locker room. Every other girl was playing catch up when it came to puberty, so I was mostly alone in the process. I knew that blacks had the tendency to physically mature sooner than whites, so it was bound to happen—I just didn’t think so many girls would make such a big deal over it. Even though this seems so insignificant, it was yet another event that pointed out how unalike I was in my community. I would try to fit in, saving up for a Dooney & Bourke handbag and asking my parents to fork out seventy dollars on a pair of jeans from Abercrombie. But it was so pointless because I tried to envision myself as a white girl. I wanted what they had—the slim fitted bodies, the tiny waists, perfect hair with just the right amount of body, and the porcelain skin that seemed to make every boy’s eyes pop. I wasn’t getting attention from anyone, so I felt the need to change who I was so that I could end up with some relationship. I was looking in all the wrong places, forcing myself to like the cheesy teen magazines with Miley Cyrus on the cover and trying on excessive pairs of jeans to find the right fit over my shapely butt. My eyes would start to water as I grew frustrated that certain clothes wouldn’t fit me. Why can’t I be smaller? This blockage of air would form in my throat as I tried to hold my tears back. Spending minutes scrutinizing myself in the mirror and picking out everything that was wrong with my stomach and my thighs only made my self-image worsen.
I had turned fourteen. Freshman year, I was so excited because I knew I had a chance to start over after being that weird, awkward black girl from Crone. That was a joke. All girls cared about were pleasing guys, the latest fashions, and tanning. All the girls wanted to be darker! Why? It was so frustrating because for the longest time I had been wanting to not be black that to find out white people wanted to be darker, despite all the racial issues we’ve had in this country, I was pissed. I grew irritated. I would criticize the girls and ask what was so special about tanning. Yeah, I wasn’t pleased with my skin, but I wouldn’t go and bleach it. I don’t want to cause any physical harm and put any toxins in my body. I couldn’t make me love myself. I wasn’t able to understand why guys didn’t like me, and often, I blamed it on the fact that I was black. They probably don’t like me because I don’t look pretty enough or like some skinny white girl. I honestly believed that because all the “attractive” people at the time were mainly rich, wealthy white girls. No one said how much a black girl was hot. I would slouch in class and feel a heavy weight over me as I tried to stay sane.
The night of school dances was such a pain. My group of friends would go out of their way to look their absolute best, which I did too, but not the extent they did. With the exception of my Indian friend, I was the only black person there. The comparisons between my friends and me grew even more difficult as I wished my hair was easier to manage and my physical features were less obvious. They’d take their time putting on eye shadow and blush and eye liner, and I’d be by the edge of the mirror, uncomfortably twiddling my thumbs and wishing for time to just fast forward so we could move on with our night already. No one did my make up because of the difference in skin tones, the make up would have looked like a clown’s mask on me. Again, I felt detached from my white friends, and I no longer wanted to be the “off” girl in the group who wasn’t white, who didn’t have long silky hair or a tiny waste and huge man feet. I felt like a disgusting plague that wouldn’t go away; this nasty blob that had no business being around pretty, still flowers, also known as my friends.
I wish I had not let my white counterparts persuade me into thinking I wasn’t good enough because it hasn’t done me any good. Here I am today, still discontent, still worried, and still caught up in how I’m perceived as a minority by other people, mostly whites. We are all constantly judged as a human race, but I feel as though I’m judged even more because of my darker complexion. I don’t know how to maneuver through my life feeling proud of who I am, while still feeling inadequate because I’m not a size seven at American Eagle or because the only black hair products is 1/8 of the shelved space at the nearest convenient store. I feel like a lifeless machine that keeps traveling in midair, trying to find its meaning and why it was created to begin with. My family has been of some help. But my parents are still disappointed in my way of thinking, and the media isn’t helping to make things any better. My thoughts have gradually grown more accepting of who I am, but I still find myself depressed because there’s no bit of hope inside me that could morph me into some gorgeous, attractive white girl with a size two waist and just the right amount of boobage that won’t come off as too provocative.
“I pray that you’ll stop thinking that way, Ash.” It’s the one quote from my parents that’s stuck with me.
Being black is never going to change. Gone are the days where I didn’t mind being a dark skinned black girl. I don’t want to be black because I can’t find anything special about it. It seems like everyone already has a preconceived notion of who I am, so why waste time trying to change their way of thinking? Me going to a Big Ten school still doesn’t mean squat to some people. I’m still that girl who probably got in because someone felt sorry for her because she’s black.
All that word renders to me is pure and utter darkness. It makes my stomach squeeze together and my sides tense up as I try not to think about that word. But I can’t get it out; it’s always there. Every time I look in the mirror, I’m reminded of who I am. So when I think back to those glory days when I didn’t mind being different than my mostly white counterparts in my hometown, I long for then. At least I wasn’t as miserable as I am now. Well now, now’s just complete and utter crap. It’s all because I had to grow up; I was forced to see that race is such a problem and continues to be such an issue in this country. If I had not been intrigued by white culture, things might be different; I might actually be happy with who I am. But I had to go on and compare myself to the gorgeous models and white girls in class with white porcelain skin and lanky blonde and brunette hair.
It’s so easy to say be proud of who you are, but when you’re surrounded by a dominant culture and your physical traits defy that, there’s nothing left to do but cry. I find myself doing this a lot due to the color of my skin. I wonder if beauty has a color, or if it’s just the color behind these words.