“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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6 Comments

  1. Posted June 9, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    As a college educator, I brought up the issue of Beyonce’s black faced ad to my class full of mostly white, middle class, privileged students. I tried to explain to them the internalized racism experience by women over skin color and perceived beauty.

    Many of them were unsure of how to feel, but one well kept white woman insisted by darkening her face she was “going back to her roots”. I am ashamed to say, I didn’t know how to respond.

    Beyonce is a lighter skinned black woman, due in part to her mixed background. She is wealthy and is married to a wealthy man. She attending private and specialized art schools at young ages. She was raised in a two parent home. Beyonce was raised privileged and had remained in privilege.

    For her, blackening her face is something she can do for fashion. However, at the end of the day, she will take the makeup off, to reveal culturally more beautiful skin. Nineteenpercent called Beyonce’s video out as inaccurate, and I will say similar about her advertisements. To parade around in darkened make up is not going back to her roots; it is inaccurate.

    Dark women are considered less beautiful, resulting in lower self esteem and a devalued sense of life and worth. Perhaps it is a form of continued slavery perpetuated within the black culture as explained by DarkGirls. So what do women do? Do we stop perpetuating the beauty myth for women? Or do we launch a personal campaign of telling every girl she is beautiful?

    • Posted June 9, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      “So what do women do? Do we stop perpetuating the beauty myth for women? Or do we launch a personal campaign of telling every girl she is beautiful?”

      I’ve seen lots of darker-skinned African-American women I personally thought were beautiful. Despite the feel-good idea of telling every girl that they are beautiful, I have to admit I can’t honestly say I’ve found every woman I’ve ever seen beautiful (from any racial background). I also know that this is my personal opinion, beauty is subjective, and that a person I may not consider attractive may be quite beautiful to someone else.

      What is beautiful? Why should it be seen as the province of a certain skin tone, or hair color, or breast size, or whatever? When in real life I’ve encountered people who have all sorts of preferences, including those who do prefer dark skinned women, why does the media insist in proclaiming a fairly narrow paradigm of what beauty is the standard for everyone?

      I guess I don’t have a suggestion, just a helluva lot more questions.

  2. Posted June 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    It’s amazing how pervasive stories like yours are. A large number of the stories featured at Kidsoncolor.com are kids expressing much the same – the desire to be white, to not be brown or Black, to have blonde hair… These stories only communicate the desire, but your post fill in a lot of the details about that desire is about, and how self-loathing becomes part of one’s self-image at such an early age.

    Check out some of these similar stories:
    http://bit.ly/ebg9Q5
    http://bit.ly/jXgTV5
    http://bit.ly/gIkwIs

  3. Posted June 10, 2011 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    Is this really any different from boys saying that they want to be a girl? or vice versa? This is important to me as I am considering transitioning into male, but in my mind, I have to ask myself “Is this really what I want to do or is this a case of self hatred?

    • Posted June 10, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it is different, because race and gender, while containing similarities, are not the same. This is an issue of tying beauty, intelligence, and worth to skin color, and telling certain people they can’t have it because of their skin.

    • Posted June 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

      @Lauren – I want to reply to your comment as a white FTM person, and say that no, this is NOT the same as sexual dysphoria or gender dysphoria. Consider the fact that throughout human history, people’s racial identities were never a source of shame and self-loathing for them except when their race was subject to oppressive tactics of colonialism, racial apartheid, slavery, white supremacy, etc. That kind of experience is imposed, not innate.

      At the same time, consider the fact that there have ALWAYS been people in every culture who were intersexed, who were androgynous in their gender expression, who were transsexual/transgender in how they felt about the bodies and gender roles expected of them, etc. (For more information, check out Leslie Feinberg’s book Transgender Warriors.) And again, we only feel shame and self-loathing about it because we currently live in a highly transphobic society.

      The key difference is that there have always been people who want to transition their sex or their gender, but desiring to be of the dominant race is a symptom of cultural oppression.

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