Adding to the shock was that Washington, whose work helped uplift her fans and readers and raise necessary conversations about the unfair beauty standards pushed on communities of color, reportedly took her own life at just 22 years of age, after struggling with depression following her mother’s death last year. Her passing has not only inspired conversation about her work, but about the struggle facing many of our communities and mental health.
I always thought relationships would get easier as I got older.
Back when I was in high school, I lived in a small Wisconsin town where white people were 95% of the population. Obviously, my high school boyfriend was white. Every time we went out in public we grew accustomed to the stares, the pointed fingers, the gasps, and the whispers. And that was the every day racism. There were also the not so subtle instances, like when a boy in his high school (we went to different high schools) went out of his way to get Taco Bell’s special Halloween black taco shells and put it in my boyfriend’s locker with a note that said, “Eat this, bitch.”
Needless to say, when I moved to New York for college, I was hopeful at the opportunity to somewhat escape the prominent role of racism in any future relationships.
But life is never that simple.
I’ve been with my current boyfriend for three years. He is mixed race, specifically German and Haitian and has light brown skin and wavy black hair. He identifies as black. I never really thought much of his physiognomy until I saw how other people perceived our relationship. Some of the troubling instances were all too familiar.
The first differences I noticed happened when I would hang out with any dark-skinned black male friend of mine. I noticed that most of the time my friends and I were together in public, someone would come up to us and say, “You’re such a cute couple” or “I can tell you’re in love.” They assumed we were together because we looked like we belonged together.
But when I’m out with my light-skinned wavy-haired man who I’m very much in love with, most people don’t assume we are together (unless we are engaging in hardcore PDA), let alone comment on how in love we are with each other. Unlike the times I was in the company of my dark-skinned male friends, people seemed to think there was a disconnect between our hues. My boyfriend and I did not look like we belonged together.
The most extreme example of people refusing to acknowledge our relationship took place when I lived in my school’s dorms one summer. My boyfriend slept most nights in my room for three straight months and my black suite mates still assumed he was just a friend. I mean, what else could we have done to hint at the contrary? Have sex in the communal kitchen?! Continue reading →
By Guest Contributor A. Sandosharaj; originally published in the April issue of River Teeth
In 1984, I–l ike every other girl in America–wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid. To impress everyone with my logic—I was one of those brats—I asked for the brown-skinned version, a request my Sri Lankan-born parents could only understand as preposterous: dark-skinned dolls were for black children. That this was pitiable for them—the dolls’ homeliness was a given—was no reason for me, however, to get a doll that matched my skin. At Zayre’s, my father held the boxed toy at arm’s length, wondering was I sure I didn’t want a regular doll?
A month later, I bored of her, but before abandoning her altogether, I made her over. Applying the ivory-shade foundation I (incompatibly, absurdly) wore when performing classical Indian dance, I deracinated my Cabbage Patch baby, covering her face in stage-strength makeup until she had a glistening beige face atop a cloth brown body.
Twenty-five years later, I noticed that my face was lighter than the rest of me—more “fair” in the lexicon of my mother—my hands and shoulders most conspicuously. This could potentially be explained as the ordinary outcome of idling on beaches while obsessively outfitted in hat and sunscreen, or the fact that I stroll, bike, and jog in the same sort of protective accouterments. I am, after all, thirty-four and terror stricken by the inescapability of wrinkles.
Once, for example, I purchased a $125 vial of vitamin-C serum despite the fact that I was making nineteen grand as a grad student at the time, never mind that I was on the pill—the low-dose kind that eradicates blemishes—and that I ate compulsively well—grapes for their collagen, fish for their oils—and never mind that: I had no skin problems whatsoever.
Like many women, I feel a keen pressure to look as good as possible for as long as possible, “as possible” in this case meaning “as you can afford.” But as an American of South Asian descent, and thus a deeply-raced person, I have to question whether gender-based panic about aging is the sole reason I avoid the sun. With skin the color of a wet graham cracker (I would have failed the old paper-bag test), a graduate degree in critical race theory, and a lifetime preoccupied with color, I have to consider that for me, skin—youthful, poreless, undamaged skin—is never fully divorced from colorism.
A product of the ethnically mottled tenements of Langley Park, Maryland, I grew up drinking milk because I was told it would make me more fair and thus more appealing. When I wanted to punish my mother for some injustice, I would willfully play in the sun, then weep later over how dark I had become. How transformed.
Sucking her teeth, my mother would apply Fair & Lovely cream, purchased at what was only called the “Indian” store. On the pink tube of what was mostly sunscreen back then, silhouettes advanced in lightness and presumable attractiveness from left to right. I tried to pinpoint my location on the Fair & Lovely gradation.
I can’t even begin to detail how my skin color has affected my self-esteem with dating. I am always aware of it. Just a few years ago, in college, it wasn’t nearly as bad. At that time, I felt I worked through most of my shit and figured, “I’m young, I want to fuck, and I’m going for it.”
But, the results were not what I expected. Everyone rejected me. Everyone. Now, I understand and welcome rejection because it keeps one’s ego in check. Still, it was every single person I showed the slightest interest in, all in a row. Why? I mean, I was (and am) an ideal catch. I’m young, cute, have a great body, super-smart, and engaging personality. That wasn’t good enough. I couldn’t help but analyze myself and asked, “Why all the no’s?” It wasn’t until I saw how two friends of mine began dating monogamously (although my friend repeatedly told me she didn’t want anything serious; neither did I, dumbass) that it hit me like a punch in the face: the other friend is white.
Despite our similarities, my friend edged me out in that all-important category skin color. I was furious. Here I was, the happiest I’ve ever been, and my race literally clit-blocks me. Pretty soon after the insecurities crept back into my psyche. It was heartbreaking. I had worked so hard to build up my self-esteem about my color, and when faced with a swell of rejection, it crumbled. In retrospect, I see how fragile my confidence really was. My conviction was never reinforced; it was all self-supported. To have all that progress destroyed so drastically really worries and frightens me. I don’t know if I can get that girl back. Continue reading →
models Joseph Ackon, Samira Carvalho and Ronaldo Martins for Osklen
Yesterday afternoon, I was talking to one of my colleagues when I noticed one of the most beautiful black women I had ever seen in my life walk through the door. Despite the young students running around at her feet, she remained calm. She stood out among all the other parents awaiting their children as she was the youngest, the one with the most poise, and the darkest. Amid all the other white parents, this young woman, despite the simplicity of her white canvas jacket and jeans, called for the most attention. She was simply arresting. My first thought was, “wow, she could be a model.”
Yet this moment of wandering imagination was quickly squelched by the loud voices of two young and rambunctious pupils approaching from behind. I continued to watch as the two pale, fair-haired children ran to join hands with the woman who could give Iman and Naomi Campbell a serious run for their money, the contrast of their skin colors and body language putting everything in perspective. She was the children’s caretaker, their nanny, possibly the family maid. And that is exactly the social order in which she would most likely remain, for no matter the intensity of her beauty, in Brazil, her color would be a disadvantage – the mark of Cain, if you will. She was the color that I had heard some pray their children would not be. She was the color that stood as shorthand for crime and poverty. But in my eyes, she possessed a color that I quite frankly missed. Continue reading →
Since I’ve been living in Brazil, I have suffered from memory loss. On occasion, I simply forget that I am black.
Let me explain . . .
I was born in the United States, in the South to be exact, during the early 1980s, to a mother with very fair skin who, along with her seven sisters and brothers, had witnessed and undergone Jim Crow segregation. My great grandmother and grandfather, a teacher and farmer, respectively, who both had dark skin, had given birth to a light-skinned child, my grandmother, who would then go on to marry a man of equally light skin who was raised to distrust black people who looked like his in-laws. My father, on the other hand, came from a family where the emphasis on high cheekbones and dark wavy hair was made more frequently than that of slightly flattened noses. We have Native blood, they’d say.
You see, colorism was alive and well in my family.
And yet years later, when I still feel compelled to remind my mother that her coarse, nappy hair is beautiful or that there is no need to insert the words “but” or “despite” as my family refers to model Alek Wek’s ebony-skinned beauty, I know that the remnants remain. At the end of the day, we are all of African descent, and in our slavemasters’, old legislators’, and white domestic terrorists’ eyes, we were all black. Yet within that category, we found various ways of re-categorizing ourselves to fit our own neat little model of racism. We created a home-kit, if you will, of silly divisions of what was acceptable and what was not in terms of appearance and behavior.
My maternal grandfather warned his daughters of the dangers of the villainous, malicious dark blacks. Of course, there were exceptions, my dark-skinned aunt and uncle being visible reminders of our inescapable heritage, and the only dark people my grandfather ever truly accepted beyond a superficial level (his race track buddies do not count). But for the most part, darker blacks were to be avoided, despite my family’s shared plight with them in a segregated south.
My mother, though quite young during the segregation period, still bears irrevocable memories. She has recounted stories of slapping a young white girl who had stared at her in a hospital bathroom because she had “never seen a Negro girl up-close before,” of thinking that “colored only” fountains would one day magically transform into a spring of rainbow-infused water, and of remembering her confusion as to why her older sister spent so much time “marching” in the street when she was not wearing her majorette uniform. And presently, in her work as a geriatric social worker, she is reminded of the divisions the period and the long-lasting subsequent effects they have had on the black community when her older, darker-skinned black patients assume she is “stuck up” or cannot be trusted because of her light skin.
Having grown up in a family like this, race inevitably became a daily topic of discussion.
The story came to public notice in March because a judge ruled the couple can precede with their medical malpractice lawsuit but disallowed the claims of mental suffering — the parents’ suffering and baby Jessica’s suffering for being a different race than her parents. There’s a lot to unpack here and The Nation‘s Patricia Williams took a stab at it:
What’s distinctive about the Andrews case is that the parents… tried to cite… Jessica’s pain and suffering for having to endure life as a black person. The Andrewses expressed concern that Jessica “may be subjected to physical and emotional illness as a result of not being the same race as her parents and siblings.” They are “distressed” that she is “not even the same race, nationality, color…as they are.” They describe Jessica’s conception as a “mishap” so “unimaginable” that they have not told many of their relatives. (Telling the tabloids all about it must have come easier.) “We fear that our daughter will be the object of scorn and ridicule by other children,” the couple said, because Jessica has “characteristics more typical of African or African-American descent.” So “while we love Baby Jessica as our own, we are reminded of this terrible mistake each and every time we look at her…each and every time we appear in public.”
Since the claim of mental distress of their child hinges on appearance and public perceptions of skin color, Williams comments on the family’s photo:
The picture underscores the embedded cultural oddities of this case, the invisibly shifting boundaries of how we see race, extend intimacy, name “difference.” According to the Post, Mrs. Andrews is “Hispanic” and apparently, by the paper’s calculations, one Hispanic woman plus one white man equals “a white pair.” The mother is “a light-skinned native of the Dominican Republic,” seeming to indicate that while she may not be “white,” she’s also not “black.” Each narrative implies that if the correct sperm had been used, the Andrewses would have been guaranteed a lighter-skinned child. But as most Dominicans trace their heritage to some mixture of African slaves, indigenous islanders and European settlers, and as dark skin color is a dominant trait, it could be that the true sperm donor is as “white” as Mr. Andrews. But that possibility is exiled from the word boxes that contain this child. Not only is Jessica viewed as being of a race apart from either of her parents; she is even designated a different nationality–this latter most startling for its blood-line configuration of citizenship itself.
If I understand the legal situation correctly, the parents’ claim of mental suffering is essentially a “wrongful conception” or “wrongful birth” claim and their suit on behalf of Baby Jessica’s mental suffering is a “wrongful life” claim. New York state, where the case resides, has precedence in these situations, which Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam cited in her ruling. Regarding the “wrongful birth” claim: Continue reading →
Did any of you catch Friday’s episode of the Oprah show? It was titled “Children Ashamed of the Way They Look” and included interviews with:
Kiri Davis, the young filmmaker who created the phenomenal short film A Girl Like Me
Grey’s Anatomy star Chandra Wilson about her own views on beauty growing up and how she’s raising her daughters
A black woman who prayed that her son wouldn’t come out as dark-skinned as her. The son, not surprisingly, has developed quite a complex about colorism.
Korean-American MTV host SuChin Pak, about beauty ideals in the Asian and Asian-American communities.
I’m not going to summarize the whole episode in this post, but you can watch clips of it on the Oprah web site.
As usual, I was a bit annoyed by the treatment of the eyelid issue. Anytime the mainstream media covers this story, it always makes the same few assumptions.
First, it never mentions the fact that there are many, many Asians who do have eyelid folds. I’ve never seen any statistics, but it seems to me that there are at least as many eyelid-having Asians as non-eyelid-having Asians. Actually I wouldn’t be surprised if the eyelid-having Asians are in the majority. (Excuse my crude terminology here – just trying to keep the language simple.)
Second, it equates getting eyelid surgery with wanting to look white. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. As I wrote in this comment on Reappropriate awhile back, there are many Asians with eyelids. Often they are considered to be more attractive, and yes, that is because of the omnipresent Western beauty ideal. But people who want to get eyelid surgery are doing it so they look more like those Asians with the big eyelids. Not so they look like Caucasians. White supremacist ideals may be informing the desire indirectly, but it’s not such a direct link of wanting to be white.
And finally, I was a little taken aback by Pak’s assertion that eyelids are the no. 1 beauty issue in the Asian and Asian-American community.
In my experience, the no. 1 beauty/looks-ism issue by far among Asians and Asian-Americans is weight. The standards of thinness among Asian women are far more punishing than those among white women. Growing up in Hong Kong, it seemed as if pretty much anyone over 105 lbs was considered a fat-ass.
And then in my opinion, the no. 2 issue would be skintone. No surprises here: fair is good, tanned and darker skintones are undesirable.
Eyelids do come up, but in my experience it trails far behind weight and skintone. But of course, that’s just my experience.
What do you all think?
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World