The Polarizing Effect of Mentioning Skin Color (Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Four)

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Four (in which 19 year old me embraces her blackness and makes a bunch of people uncomfortable)
Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Four (in which 19 year old me embraces her blackness and makes a bunch of people uncomfortable)

At 19, I learned that accepting my brown skin and unapologetically declaring my blackness made others uncomfortable. They viewed it as a threat. They viewed me as a threat.

I worked as a restaurant hostess and, at the time, I pretty much solely introduced myself as Val (not Valery). There was another Val who also worked at Ruby Tuesdays as a hostess. She was white, blonde haired, blue eyed. I am black, brown haired, brown eyed. We were both tall. I did not have locs at the time, in fact, my hair was relaxed straight. Her hair was straight too, but I’m pretty sure it was natural. Either way, the most immediately noticeable difference between us was our skin color and, by extension, our race.

Shifts get swapped a lot in restaurants. It’s pretty much constant. If you’re not looking to trade or give up a shift, then someone is either looking to trade or get you to pick up one of theirs. It was against that backdrop that someone first referred to me as Black Val. The conversation went something like

Person A: Can you work Saturday for me?

Person B: Sorry, I’m closing. Val might do it though.

Person A: Yeah, she doesn’t want to work a double either.

Person B: No, I meant Black Val. She’s never scheduled on Saturdays.

Surprisingly, this is not a story about default whiteness. The other Val became White Val. If there was a major height difference, we probably would have been Tall Val and Short Val, but there wasn’t, so the next best descriptor was the other easily viewable difference between us.

I never heard it used derogatorily. It didn’t bother me at all. It didn’t bother White Val either (I checked). It made perfect sense as a differentiator.

But there was a number of employees, all white, who were uncomfortable with it. Intensely so. They acted like remarking on my skin color was innately rude, that it was an insult. Their conversations with me insisted I prioritize their comfort and minimize my blackness. They wanted me to come up with some other descriptive phrase to use as a distinction. (In frustration with my complete lack of “cooperation”, one person proposed that White Val would get to be Nice Val and I would be [female dog] Val. I told her she could call me what she wanted and I’d be happy to inform management of my name change. I didn’t hear that one again.)

They couldn’t comprehend how skin color could be a neutral descriptor.

I didn’t know how to combat that viewpoint so it led to like a year and a half of me emphatically insisting that people refer to me as Black Val whenever they described me. Cut me some slack. I was young.

But 15 years later, I would want to say this:

I love my skin. I love my hair, my eyes, my shape, my height. It’s my body, my skin — the one that God chose to give me and I refuse to let you erase it.

Because that’s what you’re doing when you reach past my skin color, wildly grasping for anything else to describe my physical appearance, desperately searching for something to let you avoid the unavoidable reality of my brown skin. You’re trying to erase me. I won’t let you.

You want to mention my looks, but you refuse to say that they are wrapped in blackness? You don’t get to slice and dice me into the parts that you are comfortable with and bin the rest. I am a person not a commodity. I am not packaged for your convenience.

And the very fact that you can mention my hair color and my eye color but be stressed by the thought of mentioning my skin color should be an indicator that yes, there is a problem here.

But it’s not with me.

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Three

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Three (in which 32 year old me has a black son and makes plans)
Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Three (in which 32 year old me has a black son and makes plans)

In the spring of 2015, pregnant with my fourth child, I find out we’re having a boy. Our first son.

On one hand, I’m thrilled — my husband had talked about having sons since I had met him seventeen and a half years earlier and I’m excited his desire is coming true.

But on the other hand…

You see, I had learned how to be a mom to girls, how to be a mom to three little brown girls, how to breathe through the hopes and dreams and fears I had for them, how to live with the knowledge that I needed to prepare these girls to be women in a world filled with turmoil.

I’ve stumbled through remembering my own experiences and through intense dialogues with my husband and through tear-filled conversations with the Lord and come out the other side, clutching a hard-won handful of jewels — fire-tested, pressure-packed, wisdom-filled — that I pass on to them in the hope that they will be equipped for what lies ahead.

And now, I would have a son. A brown-skinned male child to raise into a man. I have hopes and dreams for him.

I fight against fear for him as well.

And — with the backdrop of ever increasing racial tension, of brown boys being treated like the men they aren’t (and, in many cases, having that chance stolen from them forever), in a world where almost every time my husband gets pulled over he gets asked if he’s behind on child support payments — I start a new conversation with the Lord in the hope of producing more gems to pass on to this little boy in the hope that he will be equipped for what lies ahead.

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Two

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Two (in which 8 year old me gets called a nigger and has no idea what it means)
Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part Two (in which 8 year old me gets called a nigger and has no idea what it means)

There’s some stories I can only tell because I’m sitting on this side of the computer screen, typing, and I can just release the words into the void. If we were together, face-to-face, having this conversation, there are some stories you would never hear. This is one of them.

From first through fifth grade, I went to a private school that my family couldn’t actually afford. It was a great school. It was a mostly white school.

That year, I took a long yellow bus to school everyday. The seats were cracked green vinyl and smelled like sweat and Cheetos when the bus heated up. In the mornings, I would always sit on the left hand side in the first few rows and lean my head against the window as I read. I loved the way the cool glass felt against my forehead.

There was a little gap between the side of the bus and the seat back. Maybe three of my adult fingers wide. And when I leaned my head against the window, my hair was right there. And so, every day (or near enough to it), another third grade boy, one of my classmates (and, like most of them, white), would sit behind me and pull my hair.

Not just pull it, but pull it out.

One individual strand at a time.

“He’s just teasing! Maybe he likes you! Boys do that kind of thing sometimes.” That’s what the bus driver said when I told. That’s what the teacher said too.

And every day I plunged into the world of Redwall and other books up until the moment he got on the bus and would pinch and yank one strand of hair at a time. I was resigned to it.

But one day was different.

(I stopped writing there. It’s three days later. I’ve opened this file a dozen times since, but couldn’t get myself to continue.)

One day was different. One day this little boy leaned forward and spit that word at me. That awful word. I had never heard it before. I didn’t know what it meant. I just knew it was bad by the way he said it.

I didn’t tell anyone at school, why would I? They hadn’t defended me before and already I could tell that this insult was something to be ashamed of.

I think that’s the worst part. I was 8 years old and he made me feel ashamed and powerless to get help.

I went home and told my mom what happened and asked her what it meant. She told me it was a bad word that mean people used for people with brown skin. And then, she went on the war path.

(When I started writing this, I texted my mother. I wanted to confirm that I remembered this accurately. She didn’t remember this specific incident because, in her words, “I remember having to call the school about a lot of [racist] things”. Not just in elementary school, she’s remembering my entire elementary/middle/high school years, but still.)

After a couple of days, he stopped pulling out my hair on the bus. I don’t remember him using any more slurs. I remember thinking about it every time I had to interact with him though. Later that year, he transferred schools. I wasn’t sad.

In tenth grade, we ended up at the same school again. He came over to talk to me the first day in the first class we shared — “Do you remember me? We used to go to school together. I used to sit behind you on the bus and pull your hair.”

Somehow I don’t think our memories match because, if they did, he never would have invoked it as a light-hearted touchpoint of shared experience. But he did.

And with his words, I was reminded of the way it felt to know someone looked at you and saw something to destroy, to push down, to hate. No one should have to carry that burden.

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part One

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part One (in which 16 year old me learns about colorism and becomes a better human)
Getting Woke, A Retrospective — Part One (in which 16 year old me learns about colorism and becomes a better human) [image credits]

Although I never remember a time when I wasn’t aware of my brown skin, I had no idea that different shades of brown changed your experience as well.

Here’s the thing: to the rest of the world, I’m light-skinned, but, in my family, with the four cousins I grew up alongside, I’m smack dab in the middle. Two of them are substantially lighter than me and two of them are substantially darker than me. For almost half of my life, in my mind, I was your average, “normal” black girl.

(And I’ll give you this tip for free. Any time you think you’re the average, normal version of anything, you’re in dangerous waters.)

Eleventh grade. My English class that year is in one of the art rooms, so we sat, four per group, perched on stools around high wood block tables. I only remember a few things from that year: prep for the brand new English regents exam, the daily journals we had to turn in for a grade and Monday Hugee’s personal narrative essay about being a dark-skinned female in America.

She stood in front of the class and she read her essay and, within five sentences, I couldn’t look at her anymore. I stared at the table top and traced the wood grain with my finger and didn’t make eye contact with anyone. Because she was talking about a whole world that I had no idea even existed.

She shared about how she rarely saw dark-skinned black women in the media and that, when she did, they were cast as the angry one, the villain, the undesirable one, the ignorant one. On a good day, they were the comic relief. And the black girls who were portrayed as beautiful and elegant and smart and worthy of love were light-skinned. Almost exclusively so.

And here I am. Listening to this in a class where I am the only light-skinned black female face in the room. And I feel like she’s attacking me.

A litany of thought I’ve never had before started to run through my mind: Is she mad at me? Does she think I think like that? I don’t think like that. I’ve always been nice to her. I’ve never treated her any differently than anyone else. I’ve got plenty of family and friends who are dark. It’s not like I asked to be born with this color skin. How dare she accuse me of perpetuating some kind of conspiracy to keep dark-skinned females down? I would never. Maybe she’s just making it up.

At which point I had to check myself hard because…

This wasn’t about me.

Monday was standing in front of a class of her peers and sharing something intensely personal and intensely painful. And just because I hadn’t been aware of it didn’t mean that it wasn’t true.

And so the question I had to ask myself was “what now?” I unknowingly was part of something that was causing intense pain to someone I knew and I didn’t want to be the kind of person that just let that continue uncontrolled.

So, I opened my eyes. I paid attention to the portrayals in the media until I noticed the problems she had identified and kept paying attention until I was sensitive enough for my heart to hurt too.

I checked my privilege. I paid attention to how my light skin got me treated differently than someone darker and I didn’t take it for granted that others had the same access or opportunities as me. I stopped believing that my experience was the “normal” representation of black women in America.

I got self-aware. I learned about the ways in which colorism was perpetuated and paid attention to where I unintentionally played into those. And I actively worked to eradicate those micro-aggressions from my own speech.

I stopped letting things slide. When I get pitted in a color biased way against someone who is darker skin, I call the perpetrator out on it. I lend my voice to say when things aren’t right. I agree when injustice is brought to my attention. I speak up.

Fast forward to today and what many believe are the beginning stages of a second civil rights movement.

I’m not white. I have no idea what it means to be white.

But I do know something about suddenly realizing that the skin you’ve lived your whole life in means something very painful to another group of people. I get the struggle that goes on in your brain when you feel personally attacked and condemned over something that you have no control over.

I get it, okay? I see you.

But I also understand what it means to move past that, to lean on God for the grace to be a better human than you were a day ago, to fight to not do more damage and to even hopefully undo some of the damage that’s already been done.

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — The Introduction

Getting Woke, A Retrospective — The Introduction (in which 33 year old me loses her mask and speaks up)
Getting Woke 1)For more about this, see “What Does It Mean to be “Woke” by Raven Cras on Blavity, A Retrospective — The Introduction (in which 33 year old me loses her mask and speaks up) [image credits]

I don’t remember ever having the luxury of not being aware of my race and that I was treated differently as a result. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, trying to remember a time when I didn’t know that having brown skin meant I was treated as “less than” or “other”.

I can’t.

Every day I wake up and swim in the polluted cess pool that is being a brown face in America. The vast majority of white people I will come into contact with are either outright racially prejudiced or naïve (which allows the prejudice to continue unchecked). On any given day, I am likely to be met with prejudice and silence from other white people in the face of that prejudice.

I have spent my entire life code switching2)For more about this, see “What’s so wrong with ‘sounding black’?” by Tami Winfrey Harris for Psychology Today to make white people more comfortable, pushing down my sense of “otherness” to not grate white sensibilities and not responding to insult-compliments3)For more about this, see “Microaggression” in Merriam Webster’s Words We’re Watching column like “I don’t even think of you as black”.

Racial issues are not something I can escape or have the privilege of not thinking about. It is something I am always super aware of, something that always has to matter to me.

This is my life. This is the life of many of my family, many of my black friends.

It’s 2016 and I believe I was born with brown skin for a reason. If I believe (and I do) that the God of the Universe puts nations in specific times and places4)Acts 17:26 and ordains kings and authorities5)Romans 13:1, so that people would be drawn to Him6)Acts 17:27; if I believe (and I do) that He formed me in my mother’s womb7)Psalm 139:13, that He purposed good works for me to walk in8)Ephesians 2:10, then I have to believe that He made Valery Sykes (née Pritchett) black in America in this time for a reason.

I’m not sure what that is.

But I do know that in this time of heightened racial awareness that, as many of my white acquaintances are fumbling as they are becoming aware of race in a new way right now and are asking for me and many others in the black community to share our experiences, I can take off the mask I so often wear and invite you into my journey. I can let you see my pain and share with you the pivotal moments from my life.

I hope you’ll understand why I’m blogging — I have more courage and clarity when the words get to come from my hands rather than my mouth. And because I promised myself I wouldn’t lie or sidestep when I’m hurting, here’s another truth about why I chose this format: the tears are very close to the surface when I have conversations about racism and justice, and I am an ugly crier.

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