I learned about myself the hard way.
Now I could recount personal tales of woe and all things experienced but who has time? And even after spilling the sordid details, there would lie nay specific answer. I will dive right into it. Race. Who I am. My purpose, feelings of exclusion– kept me within a shell most of my life.
Race has always been a point of interest for me. Not as a source of pride but of curiosity. When I was a wee little girl, we’d sing all sorts of Black pride songs at school. Black is Beautiful chants, Young, Gifted and Black, yada yada. I suppose those songs were meant to promote high self-esteem and morale. I think I was too young to understand their importance but I can say with much certainty that they do not work. They were just songs. Like, the marching ants song (loved that one) or that ditty about twinkling stars. The lyrics along with the tune were quite easy to recite in chorus.
I didn’t feel empowered by those songs. Black History month never made me feel like I truly belonged. I couldn’t relate to the valiant beings that came before us, who paved the way so that I could partake of a mediocre educational and societal system in the grand city of Chicago. Who gave me…what? The right to sit wherever I like on a bus? Okay okay, so I know it was the principle and not necessarily about planting one’s boo-tay on a bus seat. Equality and what not. True privilege for me would be to plant my ass in a nice car without worrying about accumulating mass tickets. There is absolutely zero parking in my North side neighborhood! Hmph.
When I was around eight or nine, my grandmother gave me a gift. It wasn’t a birthday gift or pertaining to Christmas. She was a Jehovah’s Witness and I grew up within the grip of her faith. I’ll get into that at some other time, don’t you -worry-. Anyhoo, what she gave me was a doll. Now, this wasn’t just ANY doll, this was a monstrous life-sized doll with curly golden locks and big blue fiberglass eyes. This monstrosity was as tall as I- I loved her! Its name is engulfed in the past, forgotten, but wherever I went, she went. Tried to take her to class but surely the other kids would have been much too jealous and I couldn’t have them ripping her poor plasticky arms out or something equally dreadful. One night I was lying in bed resisting sleep and was consumed with a desire to comb her golden hair. I crept out of bed and into the bathroom where I hoped to find a comb or brush- brushes are better suited to such purposes. Doll hair can become matted so easily. So I acquire a comb and here I am combing, combing away when it dawns upon me, that this doll, like every other doll ever received, looked nothing like me. Why hadn’t that mattered before? Did it even matter? I didn’t fully grasp what was felt but I wondered why my hair wasn’t so golden, so silky. I wondered why my skin wasn’t as fair, my eyes not as blue. If my doll was pretty, did that I mean I wasn’t?
I started to envy my doll. Not in a vengeful, angry way. I grew up appreciating the small things, I wasn’t an angry child. Just confused and sad. Wistful. From that point on, I became invisible to myself. White dolls, white girls…hell even white boys, became the standard. Every book I read, and I was quite the reader, was stock with tales of dashing heroes and beautiful fair-skinned maidens and damsels in distress. The emphasis on the ‘paleness’ of one’s flesh, the pinnacle of beauty. I didn’t own a single dark-skinned doll. When I outgrew my life-sized dolly, I ‘graduated’ to the more grown up and sophisticated Barbie dolls. Now those plastic ladies were hot! Obscenely perfect proportions, long blond or brown hair. Big huge green or blue eyes. I would dedicate hours to playing out their wonderful imaginary lives within makeshift dollhouses made of milk crates and other fixtures constructed out of whatever trash I could find around our apartment. It was an unhealthy fascination perhaps- living out the life I should have had through my dolls. Obviously I should have been born white and beautiful, not brown and boring. Any other life would have been better, put to a side-by-side comparison. But never mind all that, I had my dolls, my books- I was set. I sank into a false reality only snapping to when faced with the actuality of my situation.
My school, set within a violent, poor and urban backdrop, was filled with black kids. The only white or Hispanic people I saw were on TV or at annual JW conventions. In a world so black, so…like me, I missed the mark somehow. We were not a necessary component. Some cosmic farce or case study for others to observe. Hardly ideal or beautiful. Sure, there were many pretty black girls in my classes but somehow they paled next to the women described in my books or those shamelessly perfect Barbies.
With more clarity, I now realize that we weren’t the only group left out of those fairy tales. I did not read of Chinese or Indian princesses. Such material wasn’t so readily available. Jasmin was gold- the love of Aladdin, a brown skinned princess that one could admire. Otherwise, the majority brown people of the world were left out. Either they weren’t pretty or interesting enough or perhaps, they weren’t the standard. Whiteness, being the standard by which all others are compared.
I’ve grown quite a bit and have tried to level my fears, reason with myself. After all, there is scientific data that explain the reasons for the physical differences that exist between humans. All of us belong here. All of us are equal. There have been numerous reports that support the theory that environment and not genes play a huge part in our overall mental and social well-being. Still, none of that matters when I enter an upscale boutique or restaurant with a predominantly white clientele and feel like running for the hills. In tears. Nothing explains that irrational fear and insecurity. Not as adequately as I might like.