I won’t pretend that I was always woke —that there was never a time when I had smiled to myself when someone asked me if I was mixed, as if that somehow would make me unique — a question I eventually came to hate. I won’t act as if when I was getting my hair relaxed I didn’t try to get it as bone straight as possible, not knowing of the beautiful array of textures that I was hiding. I won’t pretend that I didn’t select a slew of races to show on my Myspace/Blackplanet pages growing up as if that made me appear to be anymore interesting. Despite my mother telling me we had Native American and Irish in our family and the obvious lighter skin and blue eyes of my grandfather, my reality was that of a black girl. My family was black, our culture was black, everything about me aside from my lighter complexion was black, a complexion I had a love hate relationship with. I hated being so light as a kid. I hated the attention it brought. I hated being teased for being so light, and the middle school nickname of Michael Jackson, which now is hilarious to me looking back, but as a thirteen year old girl going through puberty, yah not so funny.
In high school the difference my complexion brought was challenging. I remember a specific story where my best friends were hanging out with a group of guys they met outside of school. Almost every weekend was spent with them, and me wanting to be with my friends, was never invited to hang out. When I questioned them about it, I was told it was because I was light skinned and they didn’t want to “lose” one of the boys they liked to me. As much as I wanted to be upset by this, a big part of me understood it.
I understood about the self-hatred many African Americans felt dating back to slavery and how many black boys felt it was almost an accomplishment to get with a lighter girl. I understood that society had a way of telling us that light was in some way equivalent to better. I understood that girls and women alike with beautiful dark complexions had to wake up every morning and gather the strength to love themselves that much more after society, the media and even the black men who they thought were supposed to love and protect them didn’t.
I would often wonder if the guys who liked me really liked me as an individual or was it my complexion they were after.
It wasn’t just the guys who had fallen victim to this form of self-hatred. I had a friend who was as light as me, when we were as young as nine years old tell me she was going to marry a light skinned man so her children would be light, years later she did. I had more friends tell me this all the way up to high school. As I scroll past my Facebook timeline and see pictures of their children all lighter than them with long stretched curls, I wonder if they remember. I wonder if they stuck with that mind frame throughout life or if they just so happened to fall in love with a non-black or light complected black man. I wondered who brainwashed them, that at nine years old she had already decided that somehow being less than black, would be better for her children.
My parents didn’t teach me about race, slavery or the aftermath. I had a hunger inside of me that wanted to learn more than the little I was taught in school that was fueled by my older sister. I watched her in confusion as she went from relaxed and extensions to a natural kinky 4C texture at a time before it had became as popular as it is now. I saw her rent books from the library about black history and the many men and women aside from the four or five names we learned in school that were complete bad asses and risked their lives for equality. I shuttered in disbelief as I overheard an adult family friend say that we all knew my sister was black so there was no need for her to wear her natural, as if the only reason for no longer getting relaxers was to show that she was a black woman.
It took a family member pointing out how damaged my relaxed hair looked due to the excessive heat I was using, tons of youtube videos, and watching my grandmother lose all of her hair to chemo therapy, for me to finally become brave enough to cut my own, a decision I never once regretted.
Being a writer it’s also been easy for me to be an observer. An outsider curiously watching people and wondering why they were the way that they were, what circumstances got them to that point, myself included. Though i’d like to say that I always was consistent and always empathized or tried to understand — I didn’t.
I scolded black mothers for putting heat in their children’s hair and friends for not going natural, as if my hair had always been natural. Encouraging women that it was so easy and that caring for my hair was a piece of cake. Writing them off and charging it to ignorance when they referred to my hair as “good hair” and confessed that they were afraid of what their natural hair would even look like, pretending I didn’t know that my hair was in fact easier to maintain than my own sisters and many of my friends.
I won’t pretend that I haven’t had two identities as a black woman and a light skinned black woman —that I didn’t notice when I got opportunities that my friends of darker complexions who may have been more qualified than me did not, that I had never been considered “one of the good ones” that I didn’t sometimes feel the guilt of being born with lighter skin in a world that sees being darker as a burden. I won’t pretend that I never felt the need to “act blacker” in grade school, that being made fun of for speaking proper made me emulate the “black girl voice” in hopes of fitting in. I silently vowed to never marry a light skinned man the same day as my friend vowed the opposite, not truly understanding why but feeling it made me more righteous than her. I’m now engaged to the most beautiful brown complected black man, and a part of me hopes our children will look just like him.
Despite the challenges i’ve faced dealing with the guilt of my own complexion, I realize that God makes no mistakes. I can be a light skinned black woman and still be a black woman without having to explain my complexion or answer questions about my hair. I can love who I am fully and still attempt to educate people who compliment me based on my less than black features as if those are the only reasons for my beauty. I can empathize with my friends who deal with being overlooked for someone lighter and not hate myself because of it. I can speak my truth as a black woman and recognize my story is inherently different from my eldest sister of a darker complexion. I can understand that the roads that she, my aunts and family members faced from conception has been more difficult than mine. I can empathize with them without pretending as if their problems are no different from mine in order for me to feel more comfortable.
And I can smile. I can smile at every black woman I meet and understand the bullshit that she faces every day as she goes to battle with the world, as she has to be twice as good to be considered competent, as she puts on a brave face while worrying about the future of her own black children, as she encourages black men and prays that her father, husband, brother, boyfriend or son doesn’t end up a hashtag, as she carries their burdens with her, while ignoring her own, as she still has the audacity to smile, and laugh and be as bold as she pleases. I can smile, because regardless of her shape, complexion or hair texture, each time I see her, I see a part of myself.
Ashley Renee is a soul food enthusiast, sometimes vegetarian, spoken word poet, who doesn’t trust boxed macaroni or cats. keep up with her @ashleyreneepoet on twitter & instagram also check out her website.