When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be white.
Admitting that leaves ashes in my mouth. But there it is. I went to a small Christian school called New Life. It was a 20 minute drive from my house. We would have to cross train tracks to get to the next town over, and sometimes, if we were lucky, the light would be red, and so we’d sit, waiting, until the freight blasted through the intersection, bells blaring, steam puffing into the air. I loved the brazenness of it, this enormous train barreling right through the street, somehow majestic in its noise, in its danger. It would be so easy, I would think, as the light changed and the white railing lifted. So easy to be crushed.
My memories of the day-to-day are hazy: multiple teachers across multiple classrooms, alphabetical seating arrangements by last name, snack times, nap times, bathroom stalls we were forbidden to lock. And all the little boys and girls I laughed and played and read and counted blocks with, in Osh Kosh B’gosh denim overalls, turtleneck sweaters, white ruffled socks. Every day, I would sit in class and watch one of my white classmates whip her head around to talk to a friend, and seethe with quiet jealousy at the liquid-smooth movement of her hair, so long and blond. I would peer at my seat mate’s ivory hands as they traced giant letters on his paper, and wonder why mine had to be so dark. Light things were better, I thought. Straight hair is better than puffy hair. Blond will always trump black. These were not conscious thoughts. I did not even know I was thinking them. They felt like indelible truths of the universe; the notion of disagreeing with them was unthinkable. Fairness was not a factor to my five-year-old mind. This was just how it was.
I kept finding evidence of this empirical truth: in the movies I loved, the shows I loved, the books I loved. All of the white leading ladies and their white boyfriends and husbands, cooing in delight with their white babies. There were so many shades of white to imbibe, so many combinations within this realm of dazzling beauty. The characters who looked like me were the token, and thus less important. The voice of support, the helping hand. The sounding board and criminal agent with no plotline, no complexity, no enduring voice. Any departure from this norm was exceptional, which rendered its impact minimal on my developing mind.
I thought of my body the way toy stores sold black dolls: as long there’s one, the quota is fulfilled. I earned a PhD in tokenism by age fifteen: being the “only” was as commonplace as getting a perm, as applying lip gloss. I would hear “black is beautiful!” and nod hollowly, because ‘beautiful’ as applied to us meant ‘over there, separate from them’. You could not compare a white woman to a black woman because they were on two different planes. Two planes: one higher, more desirable and desired than the other. Given the choice between white skin and dark skin, what is preferable? We’ve all seen the video: little girls, white and black, all point to the same doll. It is the same doll I would have chosen, at 5 years old, 8 years old, 10 years old. It is not the doll that looks like me.
Coming to terms with years of societal indoctrination is a long, slow, and painful process. I am still trying to understand the complexities of my own identity and all of the influences that have molded it. I’m trying to unlearn my ‘default to white’ mentality: the knee-jerk imagining of a white person when someone simply says “a person”. I cannot fathom the deep psychological scars that result from years of implicitly referring to yourself as ‘other’, and I try not to think about the effort I still sometimes consciously exert to shift my perspective from ‘white’ to ‘me’. I am not white. And despite the thousands of years of rape, pillage, subjugation, and humiliation that communicated to not-white people, you are less; despite the legacies of those legacies snaking their cold, cold hands around the necks of little girls like me in 1993 and whispering, you are still less; despite the lunch counters and the firehoses and the strange fruit and the Skittles and Arizona iced tea, despite all of this, I am ready to not just accept, but to revel in, my unfolding understanding and appreciation of my blackness.
Viola Davis revels in her blackness.
She won an Emmy for best leading actress two nights ago, and that is both the point and extremely beside the point. Viola is a revelation to all but herself: she always had the talent, always had the drive, and is just now receiving her due. There is an unshakable pride, a gleaming awareness of her own worth and desirability that radiates from her pores, from her dark, dark skin. She is utterly committed to her history, to her struggle, and to the authenticity of her black body, in so that she transcends that awful plane that I learned to relegate her, and myself to, all those years ago. Her insistence on keeping her character a human, not a mascot, cheerleader, or superwoman, flies in the face of the single story media has been shouting for so long. Annaliese is ambitious, and vulnerable, and sensual, and these qualities do not negate the myriad others she is wont to express. She is beautiful because she is beautiful and because she knows she is beautiful, a conviction I lacked because the lie was so much easier to believe. And even now, at 27, I am that five year old girl, watching Viola and watching Taraji and Regina and Nicole and Uzo. And they are so beautiful.
And I am learning. I am learning that I am so beautiful.