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.

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