“Mommy, I want to be white.”

This is the first in a series of guest posts from Dena Simmons, an activist, educator, and writer. See her bio after the jump.

One morning two years ago, I did not have a ride to work.  Instead, I had to take two buses like I did each day during my first year of teaching.  Not surprisingly, the bus arrived late, as it happens too often in the Bronx.  The Bx40 was packed with adults and children, trying to make it to their destination on time, but at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.  I worked my way to the middle of the bus for a seat through the school children’s book bags, through women’s pocketbooks, through elbows, through over-sized jackets.  After the third stop, a mother and her daughter joined me; the little girl, who was probably five years old, sat next to me while her mother stood by her.

Two minutes after the woman and her child entered the bus, the girl whined, “Mommy, I want to be white; I don’t want to be brown anymore.”  The mother’s response was a horrified look; her now contorted eyes glared at her hopeless daughter who innocently declared self-hate.  I watched on, a dagger now in my heart. I could not hear those words without saying something, anything.  I chimed in as if trying to save this little girl’s life.  “You are beautiful. You have the coolest, coolest complexion,” I pleaded in an effort to help somehow.

However, I knew I could not save her in the few-second interaction. Once parted from each other, I would be the random stranger disagreeing with her.  I would be the random stranger forcing her to believe something that goes against the messages she has received from the media and society to make her reach the point where she cannot stand looking at her brown skin anymore. I remembered myself as a five-year-old.  I remembered how much I hated my unruly hair that would stick up from my head. I could not blame her. I too had considered everything Black about me to be my less attractive parts. I too had been inundated with messages that told me that Black was not beautiful.

Sadly, Black girls and women were reminded yet again of society’s problematic views toward us with the recent controversial Psychology Today article, which erroneously used science and “objective” data to draw conclusions about the beauty of Black women.  We were bashed, disrespected, and dehumanized—yet again.  We were attacked, struck down by missiles of hate and racism—yet again.  Worse, some of us were reminded of the self-hate that we have been trying to reconcile, trying to work out of our systems. In the upcoming documentary, Dark Girls, written and produced by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry, Black women explore their self-hate and their process of loving themselves, as well as the biases and attitudes about skin color, especially darker skin, both inside and outside of the Black American community.

Similarly, Ashley Brockington, creator and producer of the theatrical work, Black Girl Ugly, goes deeply into the spirit and psyche of the young Black girl.  Her play aims to give a place to the Black female experience, especially since Black women tend to be invisible in society.  Each year, Black Girl Ugly is presented at WOW Café Theatre in the Lower East Side with three new actresses, who explore their childhoods as a way to understand their experiences of growing into Black women in the American (U.S.) society. Despite having different actresses who investigate their individual experiences, the underlying themes of insecurity, self-hate, and societal discrimination and injustice resonate throughout the theatre at each showing year after year.  When will society begin to see Black women as beautiful, legitimately human, and worthy of respect and dignity?  When will a Black girl grow up without doubting her self-worth, wishing she had straighter hair and lighter skin?

Dena Simmons is a doctoral student in the Health Education program at Columbia University, Teachers College. Prior to her doctoral studies, Dena served as a middle school teacher in the South Bronx and was profiled for her teaching in Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. She finds power and healing in her writing.

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