I can’t remember the first time I became vividly aware of my skin color. I don’t think I thought about it too much when I was younger because my family never mentioned it when talking to me or about me. True enough I could see that my skin was brown but it never occurred to me that it was something that would make people automatically dislike me or talk about me. Truth be told, the first time I explicitly remember feeling like something was wrong with my skin color was shortly after I moved to Georgia when I was 16. I was at a new high school, trying to get used to my surroundings, and minding my business for the most part when I overheard a conversation between two Black boys one day.
The high school I initially went to had a large population of Black and Hispanic students. What I would quickly come to realize is that the Hispanic girls or racially ambiguous girls were preferred more unless you were a standout Black girl. The two Black boys were discussing their love for the Hispanic girls in the school and talking about the fact there weren’t a lot of pretty Black girls around. It was at that moment I began to become extremely uncomfortable and hoped like hell they wouldn’t notice me. Of course that’s not what happened. Not only was I noticed but one of the guys pointed to me and said, “she’s pretty but she’s too dark.” At this point I turned my head to get a good look at the guy who said this and saw that he was shades darker than I was. It would be years before I realized he was probably projecting his own feelings about his skin color onto me. All I knew was that it hurt and I remember going to the bathroom later to see if there was something truly wrong with my skin color. I started obsessing over how I looked and thus began the nasty comparison games.
I can’t tell that story without telling how I started to dislike Hispanic girls or girls who passed the automatic attractive meter. I had a chip on my shoulder and it became justified when I learned other Black girls felt the same way I did. It took one extremely hot day outside during my Aerobics class and being too tired to hold up the tension between the Black and Hispanic girls for me to realize disliking other girls based on their race or skin color didn’t make sense. They hadn’t actually done anything wrong to me and became allies as the school year progressed. By the time I left the school at the end of my 11th grade year I was friends with people from different backgrounds like I’d always been. And I almost forgot that I felt uncomfortable with my skin color and didn’t take the boys or their opinions so seriously.
The school that I went to my senior year of high school is where I remembered how uncomfortable I was with my skin color. I was reminded pretty much every day until the months before graduation that I wasn’t attractive in some way. I was also labeled as “easy” because trauma tends to make you act out and I’d gotten a little too comfortable with two popular football players. There was a lot of frustration and hating myself for the way I looked + the way I acted. Now, fast forward to my college years and I managed to see some familiar faces from high school that I virtually ignored. Although they didn’t seem to be interested in being the mean people they were in high school, I didn’t care. That’s when the pettiness I have to work on started developing. I was doing a little better in terms of not thinking my skin color was a curse but I still had esteem issues and allowed my “I don’t like fake people” attitude to be my shield for a long time. (Let’s be clear, I still don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to handle this kind of behavior but I’m not as vicious as I used to be).
The next experience I dealt with that made me self conscious about my skin color was my during my previous relationship. It’s no secret that I struggled with acne and dark spots (hyper-pigmentation) on my skin in addition to being darker and these were brought up more than once during my last relationship. There were little quips and remarks that made me want to crawl out of my skin if I could. Remarks about why I have color tattoos as a dark skinned woman or why do I have so many dark spots. The one that took the cake, and made me realize I had internal biases as well, was being told that I looked like actress Viola Davis with a snicker. I assumed my ex was basically telling me he associated the way I looked with someone he didn’t necessarily find attractive. I felt like if I spoke up about my discomfort I would be met with, “you can’t take a joke” which is exactly what happened. This led to me trying to stuff my discomfort and anger down. As an adult who is in her late 20’s opposed to her early twenties, I know I should have ended that relationship well before the breakup occurred but at the time I thought I didn’t deserve my ex. I kid you not, I felt lucky that he was even in a relationship with someone who looked like me. That I wouldn’t be able to thrive in life without him by my side.
It took a long time for me to acknowledge I did in fact have issues with my skin color and this acknowledgement wouldn’t be fully realized until I met my current boyfriend. I rejected the way he would compliment me at first. At some point during one of our first conversations he said, “I love the way your skin looks. It’s gorgeous” and I replied, “but I have acne and dark spots.” Again, my skin color was either not mentioned or used as the butt of someone’s jokes or taunts. There was silence between us for a few seconds and he finally said, “I know that but your skin is still gorgeous and you are too.” Knowing who my boyfriend is now he probably was wondering why I was allowing self depreciation to be my response to his compliments.
This is a man who thinks Lupita N’yongo is incredibly beautiful. Truthfully, I wasn’t used to being with men who were attracted to women with darker complexions or weren’t the typical women that are placed on a higher pedestal than dark skinned women. It took me really looking at her to see what he saw which led me back to looking at Viola Davis. Really seeing her and listening to her story. The way she embodies her creativity and lets it make room for her. Looking at all dark skinned Black women in the media. Women like Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Gabrielle Union, Issa Rae, Kelly Rowland, Aisha Hinds and more. It was painfully hard to accept that I had a lot to unpack about feeling like I wasn’t good enough as a Black woman with dark skin. Admitting that I’d held some of the beliefs about dark skin that’s been passed down for generations was a tough pill to swallow but I knew I had to in order to start this long journey to loving myself.
While I’m not the same girl that I was in high school, or even a few years ago, I’m not immune to the way colorism and Anti-Blackness rear their heads. It takes real work to feel good about myself and I don’t take that lightly nor do I take it for granted. The difference between when I was younger and now is that I take steps to determine if I’m going to internalize, ignore or read someone their rights with cultural/historical context if I need to. Taking care of myself is not just an act of self-love. It’s very deliberate. It’s a defiant move in a world that tells Black people that we do not have a culture, are nothing more than animals or savages, and are unworthy of being looked at or respected as human. It’s an even bigger defiant move when fellow Black people feel like a dark skinned woman can’t possibly be deserving of good things because of her skin color.
The effects of being an enslaved and oppressed people are very real (read Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome when you get a chance) but I know it’s not impossible for Black people to heal, prosper and pass down positive things to our future lineages. All of this work I’m doing isn’t just for me. It’s to help break generational patterns and mindsets. I often see the work of other women who remind me of myself helping to do the same. I look at sometimes simply stepping out into the world as a dark skinned Black woman who doesn’t always have her head bowed down as a part of continuing to lay down the ground work too. Some days are sure as hell better than others but I’m getting through them. This includes the days where the familiar feeling of wanting to be invisible or use a standoffish attitude as my shield pop up.
Moving forward, I’m not interested in conversations about “not seeing color” because we don’t get to pick and choose which parts of people are worth acknowledging. Too many people still don’t want to talk about race or skin color but choosing not to acknowledge either is a form of erasure. I can’t pick and choose when I’m going to be a dark skinned black woman. They are two very large parts of who I am and, at this point in my life, I am not interested in laying them down or forgetting them. I’m a combination of all of the melanin that runs throughout my family and I’m finally getting comfortable with what that means to me. There’s so many dark skinned little girls out there who will grow up to be women one day and I hope they feel seen when they see us older dark skinned women living, loving, breaking glass ceilings, jumping over hurdles and paving the way for them to weave their own paths in life.