A few days ago, Ashley Lee wrote a piece, “The Color of Beauty Is Hard To Imagine: Growing Up Black In A White Community.” It’s a piece that I think many Black females who find themselves assimilated in America’s White mainstream culture can identify with. As a Black African, I could still identify with that piece despite having grown up in diverse schools and communities. And after living in the United States for six years, it was very easily relatable. White, Western, and particularly American popular culture and standards are not limited to borders of Western countries; it permeates almost every corner of this earth.
I, however, as an African do not pretend to understand what it is to be American, and especially to be African-American. I engage in race and privilege discourse a lot but I do so mostly with a critical academic lens and a limited personal narrative. I think it would be as aggravating for me as a Black African to purport to completely identify, understand, and experience the Black U.S. American experience, as when non-Black Americans attempt to do so. Still, when I read Ashley’s article, I was a little stuck and heartbroken. Not only for her but for the many women and girls like her who have had to go through or continue to go through an experience of thinking that they are not enough in one criteria or another based solely on the color of their skin.
For some reason, the Clark Doll Experiment of 1939 came to my mind when I read the piece. The one where little Black children preferred White dolls to dolls who looked like them; dolls who looked like them – Black dolls – were bad. This experiment has been re-done many times and despite living in (theoretically) less prejudiced times since the first experiment, the results have more or less been maintained. However much change American society has undergone in its race relations, there is still a lot of repression to alleviate. There is still much healing and much more change in thinking, that needs to be done.
After thinking about this experiment, I emailed my Dad and asked him why he bought me Black dolls growing up. He sent me a script of this speech by one of our favorite popular Nigerian authors, Chimamanda Adichie. In the speech she talks about the danger of a single story about any place or people. Additionally my dad wrote, “I wanted you to be able to tell your own story, to be you, and to stay proudly yourself.” I am not too embarrassed to admit that I got a little teary-eyed because I became very grateful for my parents. And reminiscing, my parents – both my mum and Dad – despite knowing that I would grow up in a world where I might have to be conscious of my skin color, they wanted me to know that I never had to want to be someone else because of it.
Yet as a child and as a teenager, because of my darker shade of brown, I endured a lot of repugnant remarks. And I think without the deliberate parenting of the two people who raised me – I think it might till this day, have negatively affected how I thought of myself. Because the truth is once I became aware of the standards of beauty as a child; away from the happiness and comfort at home, I did feel ugly because of my skin. I wasn’t comfortable in it. I don’t recall if I ever wanted to be White but I recall wishing I could be lighter, which would make me closer to being White.
I grew up, however. And from time to time, I would remember being happy as a little kid that I had a doll to play with that represented me. And I grew up thinking about my mother who is without a doubt, my biggest role model and a true classic beauty – both inside and out. I think of how wonderful it is that people think I look like her – a little bit or a lot. And I grew up and looked for images of beautiful women like Iman, like Oluchi Onweagba – women who looked like me but were famous for their beauty. And I grew up and I sought authors like Chimamanda Adichie who encouraged me, just like my dad always had – to tell my own story; to tell the world my own story.
When you’re a girl, you are born into a world that judges you by your physical attributes, which are mostly based on arbitrary standards. I suppose some people would say I have nothing to complain about now – my physical attributes are appealing to some, to many, “despite” being Black. But I would rather live in a world where race didn’t play so much of a role into what one thinks of themselves – in terms of beauty or intelligence or one’s capabilities. I would rather we learn to see the different colors of people as beautiful in their own right. But till that day, I urge that every little girl is given role models who look like her. So that even if the world tells her otherwise, she will know that her shade, her color, her story, is absolutely beautiful. Because knowing this can save her; at least, it saved me.