For The Girls Who Were Once Told To Stay Out Of The Sun

The year is 2005. Beauty standards are unkind to everyone outside of the conventionally attractive (white, thin, blonde hair with blue eyes), but a new standard is on the rise. With celebrities like Beyonce and J-Lo making waves, we begin to celebrate the “exotic” women with curvy-slim figures and racial ambiguity. The trend of hyper-sexualized femininity grabs the attention of pop-culture. Much like the “Instagram face” and influencer era of today, the popularity and “it girl” status of celebrities became dependent on appearing biracial-- the standards favoring those who could appear both racially diverse and yet close enough to whiteness to appeal across audiences. And while ethnically ambiguous was “in”, the trend has never been pro-Black. Although at the time I didn’t know this.
Because in 2005, I was standing beside my mom with a hand on our grocery cart. My eyes glanced around at the colorful boxes of cereal that sat directly at my five-year-old eye level. I remember thinking about which ones would be best with my favorite strawberry milk. Then it happened again. I could no longer focus on cereal anymore, especially when every time I looked up somebody was staring at me. The stares made me nervous, an unflinching coldness behind the eyes of the people around us. As I met the eyes of different faces I would smile, but they weren’t smiling back.
Is there something on my face? Is my hair frizzy? Maybe it has something to do with the juice stain on my shirt. I’m not sure. But I feel something in their stares that makes me feel smaller than I already am at five years old, something that shuts me up for the remainder of our trip. Something that in my small, mostly white town’s local grocery store, ached with disapproval and shame. I glanced back at my mother. A tall woman with dark straight hair. Her skin is the perfect sun-kissed tan after a summer of sitting with me beside the kiddie pool. I looked back at the gray tiled floor, and again this shame filled me. As the feeling sinks uncomfortably into my chest I am biting back a lump in my throat. I realize (with the help of these strangers) for the first time ever that I want to be anywhere but with my mother standing next to me, unknowing, as I acknowledge for the first time through an aching heart that I look nothing like her.
Unlike her, my skin is a rich shade of brown like the dark wooden frame of our curio cabinet. My skin which once served as a happy reminder of swimming pools and sunshine feels like a slap in the face, stinging as your ears ring. It for the first time ever becomes something I feel discomfort in. I wondered as I shuffled along if the people around me think I’m adopted? Like one of the kids from Africa on the commercials asking for pennies a day to feed them. I wondered if they pity me, if they pity my mother for having me. I am silenced into shame for the first time, a feeling that would loom over me like a cloud living in a majority white town for much of my life.
For a five year old, the complexity of those stares couldn’t be understood. For a twenty-two year old today, I recognize them as the disapproval white people felt in those who looked like them for having biracial (Black) children. I was often reminded of this shame growing up, although I had no choice in the matter. It snuck up when I went to kindergarten and stayed all the way through junior high school stage choir practice when someone’s phone went off when it wasn’t supposed to. The ringtone was a rap song, and a popular white boy assumed, “Did you forget to silence your phone?”. I didn’t even listen to rap at the time.
These attempts to shame me for the color of my skin felt like an itchy scab, they served as a reminder that many people are still unable to see people around them for who they are, especially when they are Black. This realization became something for me to quietly grapple with as I battled the desire to fit into a majority white society. It felt like it was my responsibility in a heavily racialized society, I did not create, to prove to others that I am as human as they are. More importantly, to prove to myself and people who look like me that our skin is beautiful no matter the shade it is in.
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Living in the midwest for 22 years, I’ve had a unique experience as I have been split into two different ethnic cultures. On one hand there is this experience of being accepted, being welcomed into a community and loved by people who look like me. On the other hand, there are still moments where people glance at my mother first and then at me and I am reminded all over again of the 5 year old me standing in the grocery store recognizing that I’ll never quite fit in, even with family.
As I've gotten older, I’ve noticed the ways in which society has shifted in response to those with “mixed” identities. While there is increasing acceptance of people like me, there is still a huge amount of prejudice, especially when our biracial identities include Blackness. Our society’s preference for daughters with light skin, light eyes, and light hair still casually creeps into conversations. I shake my head as I think of one, a reminder that people base their partners exclusively on ensuring their children have my hair, skin color, or nose shape (yeah, that conversation happened).
The truth is, there are many possibilities when it comes to being a biracial person, especially a Black-biracial person. To some this may be common sense, but trust me it needs to be said for those who still don’t get it. It needs to be said to those that pick partners based on the hopes of a light-skinned child with light eyes and perfectly coiled hair. It needs to be shouted from rooftops that little girls with dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes deserve love and kindness. It needs to be said that these girls who grow into women deserve a society in which they can come and be celebrated as they are, not stared down in a grocery store because their parents aren’t the same skin tone. We all need to work towards creating a society where these women can live free of hyper-sexualization and fetishization, never having to sit through uncomfortable conversations where people pick out their “most desirable” features in hopes that their future children will have them. It needs to be said that women of color, especially darker skinned Brown and Black women, deserve to exist exactly as they are in a society that genuinely celebrates all beauty outside of hashtags and performative infographics. This is the future I hope for.
“her mother told her that being mixed meant everyone would want to be her friend”
the joy to have in class each year
the sweet as sugar snack
the smile reflecting sunlight
the girl who never looked back.
the way that they admired her,
that mocha skinned bitch. the
let’s sink our teeth in, this will be rich.”
the “i won’t sit next to you
because you’re black.”
the 4th grade lunch table
spread with chocolate, caramel,
mocha skinned girls. confronted
daily with vanilla, no swirls.
the “something ain’t right about those girls.”
the mama never quite knowing
how to console her caramel colored
girl with tears dripping down syrupy
sweet cheeks.
“they’re just jealous of you.” pretend
It don’t exist.
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Anise Health is the first culturally-responsive digital mental health platform offering therapy, coaching, and digital self-service tools that are tailored for the unique needs of communities of color. Our interventions move away from diagnosis-driven, Eurocentric models and towards incorporating culture and intersectionality into evidence-based treatments, which research shows to be 5x more effective.
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