Personally, I get a thrill when I see any of the fabulous Ogwumike sisters on TV playing basketball for Stanford, because I know they are as intelligent as they are powerful and graceful on the court. Likewise, I am dazzled by the emergence Lupita Nyong’o as she freshens up Hollywood with her poise, beauty and consciousness. Then there are the extraordinary and prominent women who all model life lessons for a society in need: Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey. I could go on, but the point is, we still need more everyday role models because, simply put, the media does not love our young people of color. We have to love them ourselves. We have to be close at hand, comfortable in our skins, strong in conviction and lovingly compassionate. While I’m happy that we have these ebony stars in the limelight, I know that’s not enough for our girls, because it was not enough for me. Our young people of color need to see real women—of all colors—neighbors, friends, aunts, and sibling keeping it real.
It’s very painful for me when people casually deprecate dark skin. For one, I have dark skin. For another, humans are diverse. We shouldn’t be judged on hue. That said we do live in a world dominated by racialized identities in which white-skin tones are highly privileged and prized. It’s a heartbreaking shame that an entire segment of the human race is made to feel inferior because of their skin color. For example, the recent Dencia media blitz has quite a few more people than usual thinking about skin color. That’s not a bad thing. For many conscious black women and our allies against oppression and discrimination, Dencia’s skin-whitening cream registers as the most current and blatant symptom of internalized racism. With the constant and continuous overt and covert messages about the inferiority of dark skin, it’s no wonder that even successful and wealthy people like Dencia and poor Michael Jackson went through such great lengths to erase the “stigma” of their birthrights. That’s why this post is so difficult to write; that’s why it’s so critical for me to write it.
(Here’s the link if perchance you are not aware of the story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2586963/White-means-pure-African-singer-defends-Whitenicious-skin-bleaching-cream-accused-encouraging-people-change-skin-tone.html)
Over the years, I have personally received numerous messages about the undesirability of my dark skin—even from family members. Implicit and explicit messages such as, “Lighten your skin if you want to be more attractive,” have been delivered and received too many times to count. (I won’t even get started on hair!) Now I see just how insidious these outrageous messages really are. They undermine the peace, happiness and self-esteem of young girls and boys. American Black girls especially, because they are seldom regarded as beautiful even while they are hyper-sexualized in our media; black boys are too often criminalized and vilified for their dark skin though they are little innocents. It took me over three decades to deconstruct the bombardment of the harmful messages leveled against me and to learn to embrace the woman in the mirror. That’s too long for a young person to wait to feel accepted, loved and respected based on their individual merits.
I’m beginning to understand just how urgent it is to counteract these messages. When I teach, I’m entirely conscious that for most of my students, I am the one and only woman with dark skin who has ever stood in front of the room as an instructor. For others, I’m the first and only woman of color with whom they’ve come into close personal contact. That’s quite a bit of pressure, but it’s also a reality that I’m committed to disrupt. I’m conscious of the ways certain people feel uncomfortable with my limited authority and of the challenges to it stemming from the resistance to my presence as a woman and person of color in the academy. My answer is to name those places where identity and societal values intersect and to remain in that uncomfortable place until it is normalized in our classroom and the other spaces we collectively inhabit in society. It sounds audacious and ludicrous to admit it, but it’s one of my ambitions; it is one of the reasons why I teach—and it’s exhausting.
Clearly, however, holding space as the teacher in my classroom is not enough. I’m just one woman, and God knows I’m far from perfect. Yet, there are far too many people who will never enter that space with me or some other person of color, or experience me as a teacher or person. Too many jaws drop open on the first day of class. Why should that be the case when we live in the great USA?
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said, “There’s nothing to you until someone sees something in you.” He’s right. In a way, redemption can be found in each other’s loving gaze. Therefore, we need to affirm the beauty of our young friends—no matter their skin color—but prioritize it for the ones who do not receive affirmations of their beauty and goodness from movies, magazines and television. The countless stereotypes about dark skin should not form the basis of individual identities. Positive reinforcements to counteract them are needed. Diverse populations are too often collapsed into the singular label of “blacks,” which is woefully lacking in the complexities of origin, personality and identity. We all need to take a stance in the situation. If people willingly relinquish their identities for the privileged mantle that whiteness provides, then it is essential to define the other in opposition. We are caught in a brutal binary.
I want to leave you with hope, because this is not a doomsday post. I have, after all, been accused of being an optimist. I do believe that I look for the fullness in situations, for while the pragmatist in me wants to shatter societal dysfunction, I also want to be soothed and jettison my own heavy cares. I find inspiration in poems, beauty in people and magic in books. For a dose of enchantment, you can watch (and share) this clip of White Teeth author Zadie Smith interview writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about her latest book, Americanah. It’s utterly refreshing to see the space created by women of color comfortable in their own skins: