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.

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