- Posted July 16, 2013 by
Silver Spring, Maryland
Team iReport featured this story
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
"Why did you make my skin so dark?”
'We lose so much when we relegate people to just the color of their skin and conversely, we gain so much when we embrace the breadth of humanity rather than focus on people's appearance.'
- dsashin, CNN iReport producer
Ilsa was in the first grade when she hurled the question at me. She had been in America for only a year and was newly conscious of her black skin, it seemed. Suddenly, she wasn’t just feeling like something was wrong with her, she was blaming me for it.
My soul wept a little. No child should feel that anything about her—anything about the way God made her—made her less than anyone else.
But, I am a black woman too, born and raised in a post-colonial culture where great significance is attached to skin color. And, long before I ever set foot on American soil, I knew of its history of racism, manifested in segregation and Jim Crow laws that until a few decades ago, defined the preferred form of human interactions.
Otherwise, I am profoundly aware of a preponderance of attitudes in Western culture that do not honor the humanity of non-white peoples—a reality that I wish my sweet little Ilsa would not have to confront.
Momentarily, my sadness was overtaken by dread at the thought that by moving to the United States, I had contributed to any sense of confusion on my child’s part and that rather than growing up with a healthy self-concept and a sense of herself as the extraordinarily beautiful child of the universe that she is, she would end up loathing herself as so many people of African descent in the Western world seem to do.
I thought of Pecola, in Tony Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, and her futile longing for attention—for the golden hair and blue eyes that she thought she needed—and how, when that attention came, it devastated her in ways she had not imagined. I thought too of Frantz Fanon’s contention that:
A normal Negro child, having grown up within a normal family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world.
In Jamaica, Ilsa’s contact with the “white world” was significantly limited. Further, she had the psychological advantage that came with being a member of the majority race and culture instead of the minority, which in some ways neutralizes the significance attached to skin color and ethnicity.
What had I done, taking her from there to here? I groped to find clarity within the blankness my mind had become.
Ilsa was six years old. Mercy, a Ghanaian who looked just like her and Taylor, an American, with pale yellow hair and gray-blue eyes, were her best friends. When Mercy moved away, tiny nymph-like Taylor became her best friend for a while. I observed their interactions—silently marveling at the bond between two little girls, who up until a year before, had never set eyes on each other. More than anything, I was relieved that having taken my girls from their native land, they seemed to be adjusting very well and experiencing, in some measure, the same kinds of deep friendship that I shared with my countless cousins and childhood friends in rural Jamaica.
Then she began to complain about her hair.
“Ouch! That hurts!”
Her protests became more exaggerated, no matter how gentle I was. I tried harder, determined that neither hot comb nor cold cream would touch her hair, especially since it was already quite thin. Someday, when she was older perhaps, I would consider it for ease of style—someday when I knew she had fully grasped that the sum total of who she was, the depth and breadth of her humanity, had nothing to do with the color of her skin, or the texture of her hair, or the shape of her nose. At that point, it would no longer matter how she wore her hair. Until then, she was my little girl and perfect just the way she was.
“Mommy, why did you make my skin so dark?”
I tried to…to give her an answer that then, and in the years to come, would help to steer her clearly, firmly and decisively away from the confused abyss of self-hatred.
“First of all,” I began slowly. “I did not make you even though you came through my body. God did, and he wanted your skin dark and beautiful just like mine. Don’t you like Mommy’s dark skin?”
“Ye-eh-es,” she drawled thoughtfully.
“Well, yours is just like mine, and there is nothing wrong with it. In fact it is quite lovely. I have never seen anyone with skin as strong and rich and beautiful as yours. I really couldn’t have made it either black or white, but if I could, I would have made it just as it is—just like mine because that way you could look like my baby just the way you do now. I love your skin baby, and I know you too.”
“I do love my skin mommy, but sometimes I wonder how comes daddy is yellow and Alya is yellow, and sometimes I think white skin is better. Sometimes I want my skin to be like Taylor’s… And yesterday there was a boy on the playground. He was calling me ugly…and darky and names like that.”
I plopped down on a fallen tree nearby and pulled her unto my lap.
“Let’s get a few things straight here,” I said. “First, there is something profoundly wrong with anyone who thinks that something is wrong with you because your skin is dark. Apart from the fact that you are lovely inside and out, you have no control over what skin you would enter the world in. Blaming or hating someone for something they cannot control is ignorant and stupid. Second, white skin or light skin is not better. It’s just different. Don’t ever confuse difference with better. Do you understand?”
I spoke earnestly, conscious that to some extent, she was merely responding to her new surroundings and that around her new friends, she was becoming more cognizant of the real issues that black women face —like our hair and what to do with it.
Still, I was mindful that she too was responding to a composite of attitudes that not only define an ideal of beauty in ways that are non-black, but also reject the notion of blackness generally.
The Western worldview, anchored in Christianity and Eurocentricity promotes fear of blackness as a construct—Satan, the Prince of Darkness, black magic, black sheep, black Fridays, black market, blackmail, black cats, black people—all inherently bad.
Although I have always been comfortable in my skin and with my place in the world, I have never been oblivious of the issues around skin color. Indeed, I could not have been, growing up in Jamaica, where skin color, since slavery, has so closely correlated with social class and status.
After emancipation, color and social class largely became a function of each other with white/ light-skinned people having more status and more opportunity for social mobility, while blacks languished in disproportionately large numbers at the bottom of the hierarchy.
If you black, stand back; if you brown stick around; if you white, you alright.
The oft used expression aptly captures the relationship between one’s skin color and one’s chances in life.
Change has been slow in coming.
Against this background, my challenge as a parent was to raise my daughters to be human beings first, and to see their dark skin for what it is—a natural and unquestionable part of that humanity.
Ilsa’s question was a timely reminder that our children, at a very young age, become keenly aware of the premium that society places on race and skin color. Bombarded as they are by images and real-life attitudes that define the ideal in ways that are non-black, it isn’t difficult to process the message that, if white or whiteness is it, the farther away one happens to be from it, the less acceptable one will be.
Long before my daughter’s question, I knew I had a responsibility to help her understand the value of her humanity, separate and apart from variables like gender and race that society places so much emphasis on. After her question, I knew only that I had to try harder.
Ilsa is now a teenager. She is a kick-ass kind of gal who does not think for a single moment that the universe is not hers for the taking.