As a dark skinned girl of African descent, having grown up in London with many cultures and races around me, I always believed and understood myself to be proud of my identity, race and culture. I was always aware of direct racism, like the KKK, the Apartheid and the US Civil Rights movement, but had no awareness of institutional Racism or Sexism. Racism and Sexism is ingrained within our institutions and being as we’re all a product of our society, it’s not surprising that we grow up within a culture of racism/sexism without there actually being any intentional direct racists/sexists. As WOC (Women of Color), we often internalise this and manifest this in our preferences, everyday choices and language.
I always avoided being too loud or opinionated; choosing to hold my tongue, because I didn’t want to be another stereotypical black girl. I wanted to be different and not be like “those other girls”. I found it a compliment when people said I wasn’t a “typical black girl”, because black girls were not something to aspire to.
In fact, I remember precisely saying I wanted to go to a college in a particular part of London because it would be “whiter” and when I was choosing Universities, specifically opting for those that were not “too black” (and I wasn’t alone). The way we think about race is unique, because I would find it unlikely that a white person would ever rule out a predominantly white institution, because white is considered the prestige and norm.
But it was the reasons behind my preference of dark skinned men that really hit home. When I was asked by a light skinned man why he felt black women tend to prefer darker skinned men over lighter skinned, I couldn’t speak for everyone. But, I knew my reasons were because I found them to be more masculine, black and strong, which is something that is joked around a lot with the stereotype of light skinned men being feminine and emotional. Plus, I was dark skinned so it was something I never actually thought about until that day.
If I thought this about dark skinned men, what did I think about darker women? Did I stereotypically think darker women were more angry and aggressive than lighter women? Even more importantly, did I subconsciously think this about black people in comparison to white people? Colourism is very much alive within the black community, where dark and black is considered more masculine/dangerous and light as feminine/innocent.
These same attitudes we internalise is what is used to racially profile blacks as more aggressive compared to the every white person, particularly the hyper masculinity of black men and women. A crime/disturbance has been committed – perhaps both the black and white person was involved, but police and security target the black. Both a black and white person with the same background have been charged for the same crime, the white person gets a leaner sentence because ‘they are less likely to reoffend’.
It’s no doubt the Eurocentric education system that teaches us that white is good and black is bad played an important part for me. In History, the only things we were taught about black people are slavery and civil rights. In Geography, we learned about the failing African states in need of aid, with governments filled with corruption and poverty.
Science taught me the wide spread diseases killing millions of Africans. Plus, movies set in African countries constantly depict the white saviour complex (Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamonds and more recently, Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave), we can’t help but internalise that blacks are failing and in need of help. If we grow up understanding that we came from the bottom and are still in the bottom; that we made no contributions to Maths, Science, Literature, other than in Sports and Music, how are we supposed to feel like education is for us?
American author, feminist, and social activist Bell Hooks, in Black Women and Self-Recovery writes, “If internalized racism enters the souls of black folks through years of socialization then we are not going to be rid of it by simply giving shallow expressions to the notion that black is beautiful. We must live in our bodies in such a way that we daily indicate that black is beautiful. We must talk about blackness differently. And we cannot do any of this constructive action without first loving blackness.”
I had to look at my blackness and stop hiding behind the “I love being Black” and “Independent Woman” phase. Unlearning Misogynoir forced me evaluate that the reasons behind my deep insecurities and depression as a teen was down to the fact that I did not love myself and I never could until I learnt to accept my womanhood and blackness.
I began to undress my thoughts and consider why I was unhappy about my appearance. I’ve learned to defy Eurocentric standards of beauty that society forces on us of a thin nose, light skin and straight/softer hair. Because for every Nicki Minaj, Beyonce and Gabrielle Union that is in the limelight of “black is beautiful”, there is a Lauryn Hill with natural hair, a Viola Davis with dark skin or an India Arie with a wide nose who does not feel represented, but are still very much beautiful.
As black women specifically, we often feel pressured to be liked and fit into a box, otherwise we will not be respected as people; we have to be extra timid or reserved, so we are not stereotyped. When I was around other races specifically, I felt the need to hide my blackness as much possible – I really really didn’t want to be a stereotype.
Owning back and taking my sexuality as something that is for me and not the male gaze and all the feelings I had of being unworthy disappeared when I began to accept myself for who I am. Understanding the racism and misogyny I internalised as a child, liberated me completely as a black female. I’m still learning everyday and trying to unlearn the sexism and anti-blackness that was fed to me as a child. My perception of the world has changed and I feel like the feminist ideals I have incorporated in my life removed all the things that stopped me from growing as a young confident black woman.