Teenage me went to school went to a very white school; a school that her mother fought hard to get her into. It was an outstanding school academically. Teenage me was the only black girl in the year group.
Being black is something I only now, as a 31-year-old, realise has been a struggle to identify with.
I remember hating my hair. Hating it.
There was the dreaded day a boy strode over to me in the playground, with a mocking grin on his face.
“Is this your hair?!”
He was holding a long hair extension that had obviously fallen out while I was running around. Horrified, I made some joke about being black.
I envied all the white girls that would come into school with dripping hair after having washed it in the morning. Washing my hair took a day – it needed my mum to wash and treat it. It meant sitting under a hairdryer while the treatment ‘soaked in’. It meant sitting between my mum’s legs while she untangled the mass of hair, intermittently hitting me around the head with an afro pick if I fidgeted. It meant sitting patiently while my hair was greased and cornrowed.
I hated my hair.
I remember also hating the colour of my skin; I noticed that it shocked people. My first day at secondary school, I remember getting off the train and being confused about why people were staring at me. For context, I lived in a reasonably culturally diverse town and was travelling to a predominately white area for my schooling.
My first friend was very excited, as she had “always wanted a black friend”. I felt privileged to be her ‘first’. I felt special. I felt confused when she asked me whether my skin tasted like chocolate. Confused enough to give it a great deal of thought. “I think if it tastes of anything, it would taste of chicken”, I eagerly replied.
Teenage me was as eager to please and to fit in as were many teenagers. She was unaware of the existence of racism beyond knowing it was wrong to call someone a “paki”. She was unaware of her blackness beyond knowing that there were things that differed between her and her new friends.
That said, I remember being infatuated with a boy and devastated by his statement of “I like you, but want a girlfriend with light skin”. I wasn’t aware of racism enough to identify then. I blamed myself for being black. I blamed myself for not being attractive enough for him. I longed for lighter skin.
I remember asking my family why more people of my colour didn’t go to my school and why I didn’t go to school where all my primary school friends went. My mum told me things like I was clever enough to get into this school and others weren’t. I remember thinking this meant that most black people weren’t as intelligent as white people, and wondering why this was.
Teenage me didn’t know if this made her special or not.
My Nan and I used to play a game where we would count the number of black people we saw on television. After a while, we developed this game to incorporate a scoring system; we applied different values to the black people we saw who weren’t playing a negative character such as drug addict or gangster.
Teenage me hated that the girls in the media often didn’t look like her and those that did were portrayed negatively. Teenage me knew that she looked different to those around her.
My lips were another bone of contention. The first boy I ever kissed said kissing me was “weird”. He said my lips felt like “meaty pillows” and wasn’t sure if this was good or not. Again, I felt responsible for his uncertainty and unfamiliarity with my large, “meaty” lips. I blamed myself.
I also have what my mother lovingly calls a “Jamaican arse” – big and round. I remember hiding it under long cardigans and would never wear something that stopped at my waist. For teenage me, it stood out far too much; it drew attention to a part of me that I didn’t know what to do with.
Struggles with your identity during the teenage years are so common – it’s so clichéd. We can all relate to getting to grips with your body, the social stressors created in secondary school, and generally getting through puberty.
Struggles with racial identity are something experienced by an ethnic minority, in addition to the development of who we are.
My experience, though unique due to my own individual story, can be slotted well within the five stages of racial identity, as put forward by the ‘Racial Identity Development Theory’:
- The Pre-encounter stage, where an individual seeks to be accepted by the white community. This often involves an individual distancing themselves from their own race. While occupied in this stage, I hated my appearance: my black skin, my hair, my lips and my bum.
- Movement into the Encounter stage is usually advanced by an event or series of events that forces an individual to acknowledge the impact of racism; for me, it was my boyfriend who didn’t want a girlfriend with lighter skin.
- The Immersion/Emersion stage is usually characterised by the individual’s desire to surround themselves with objects of their racial identity, while actively avoiding symbols of whiteness. This was characterised by my anger at the lack of those like me in the media or in my immediate environment.
- Internalisation implies a security in an individual’s sense of racial identity and a need to establish meaningful relationships with those of the ethnic majority who acknowledge and are respectful of his/her self-definition. For me, it helped finding a white man (now my husband) who loved a ‘Jamaican arse’.
- The Internalisation/Commitment stage is sustained over time, with an individual committed to discovering more about their race. Today, I identify as being in this stage. I read about my race and am still questioning black women’s representation in the media. For me, this constant exploration is part of being black and something I would not change.
Now at the age of 31, I have come to love the parts of me that exist due to my blackness. I adore my hair; I have long dreadlocks cultivated since I was 16. My skin is a beautiful golden brown, which glows in the sunlight. I purposely draw attention to my bum when I want to feel sexy, wearing tight-fitting clothes to emphasise my curves. My lips need nothing more than a slather of Vaseline to accentuate them. If I could speak to teenage me, I would tell her to do what she did: grow up learning to love her blackness.
Source: Daniel-Tatum, B (1992) ‘Talking about race, learning about racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom’
Words: Mel Green
Images: Hayley Miller