My father is from Nigeria and my mother is from New York. I am much darker than my straight-from-Africa father, and it has impacted me much in the way most people who suffer from colorism are impacted. There is a feeling that comes from realizing that you’re different and the cultural stigma and oppression from being black is only worsened by being darker skinned. Regardless of whether that is fair or not, every dark skinned black person in a melting pot of other skin tones has felt what I feel. And we have all had to go through our own journeys to come to terms with our feelings about race and colorism within our own race and the general community.
I grew up on the north side of Chicago, so I went to a predominantly white elementary school. Like many black kids my age who find themselves in a similar situation, I thought that by acting as “white” as possible, I could keep my classmates from believing stereotypes about black people. I became conscious of my race and the fact that people saw me as different in third grade. There had been only one other black kid in my grade who was a light skinned, badly behaved bully.
Unlike me, he was African American. Seeing him and being able to judge him and his behavior gave birth to one of my first acts of self-hatred towards my own race. I decided, and I distinctly remember phrasing it this way in my head, that “Africans were the classy blacks”. I remember wanting to separate myself from him, and the racial stigma and oppression he was experiencing in some way. Through identifying more strongly with my direct African heritage I thought that I had found a solution to the associated shame of looking like this other black student.
Emboldened by my idea, I took on the task of avoiding things that were inherently “black” from 4th grade on. I boycotted Kool-Aid for Capri-Sun or Trader Joes juice boxes. I refused to try grape soda (though now I know it is my absolute favorite). I am not even sure if I actually hate fried chicken, or if I just made myself think that for so long that it actually became true.
I tried to subliminally explain to others with a sort of disclaimer that I wasn’t black I was African. At this point it wasn’t even about not being dark skinned, just about avoiding being “ghetto’ because for me, that was the one part of being black that my white friends and multi-racial community found most repulsive.
I had continued to think I’d been successful until one day at summer camp someone called me “African booty digger” as a joke and I realized that having brown/dark skin was the actual root of the issue. Black girls lighter than me at camp would put on sunscreen and follow it with statements along the lines of “ I’m not trying to get Africa black”. I remember at one point telling people that my name was Amanda because Ireti was too African.
I remember borrowing my dad’s computer and searching for ways to lighten skin naturally because I was too young to buy any of those chemicals. I remember trying to exfoliate with sugar salt and honey in the shower all over my body to remove the darkened skin. When that didn’t give me the Beyonce complexion that was apparently acceptable to everyone, I remember taking a whole lemon to the shower and rubbing it from head to toe for weeks. I remember sneaking some of my brother’s dark spot lightening cream and putting it on my entire face. And like many other dark skinned girls all over the world, I remember doing it regardless of the dangers–which I also knew about, because I had done that much research.
In 7th grade, I began to notice that I was no longer slender like my peers. My curves developed almost overnight and nothing I did could stop them. I did squats profusely because the Internet told me that’s how to get a smaller butt and thighs. Which I wanted only because that’s what all my white friends had. I tried to disassociate by wearing Uggs and other staples of preppy fashion, because I felt like they were a surefire way to dodge ghetto claims. I distinctly recall being embarrassed of the two transfer students who were black because they didn’t act like me.
They were unapologetically urban and it gave me the impression that it made me look bad by association. At this point I was still desperately trying to be white. I didn’t even want to claim anything else. “You don’t even act black” was a compliment to me. When Mean Girls hit my school “If you’re from Africa, then why are you white?” was said to me and I found it flattering. I even wanted to go to a specific high school because it was more white than others of equal caliber because I had made a correlation that white = good.
The thing is, that none of this is surprising when you’re developing and surrounded by signs that say “black women are always angry” or “black people are ghetto”. It’s nearly impossible to not detest your heritage. On top of that the number of times things directed at me about the color of my skin in mocking tones could only add to my insecurity of not being able to be seen in pictures.
While white girls my age were only concerned with having fun, I was drawing connections between why people hate people like me and using it to find ways to hate myself or change myself before they can hate me. Not only is it damaging to self-esteem but also it’s a burden to have to think about.
All of the shame and struggle and heartache that I went through while I was growing should never have happened. All of the feelings I’ve had about blackness and black people should never have happened. All of my reactions to the beauty expectations of white supremacy should never have had to be an issue. The damages of European beauty ideals that hurt me so badly on a personal level aren’t just mine to claim. They affect all dark skinned women who have had the misfortune to be born in a society that allows the pervasive and aggressive nature of white supremacy to surround and oppress them.
Unfortunately some of these ideas that I had growing up still seem to have some impact on my life. When going into stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdales I make sure to leave the Michael Kors logo on my bag exposed, not to show that I love brands, but so they will treat me like all the other customers. I still avoid taking group pictures in the dark so acquaintances won’t get the extremely original idea of saying “where’s Ireti?” And when a light skinned black girl posts a selfie and gets hundreds of retweets I still find myself questioning if there is a correlation with my skin tone.
These are the everyday thoughts that still run through my head as a young Nigerian-American girl. My skin should not be excess baggage. My skin just holds my melanin.
So I’ll leave you with this: to all the dark skinned girls who have ever felt inferior, unattractive, or felt particularly victimized due to your complexion, whether it was overt bullying or not, please know you’re not alone in struggle. Know that you are as beautiful as you are filled with melanin, you are as regal as you are dark, and you are as strong as you allow yourself to be. The journey to self love is one that takes time but it is a journey we should all embark on.