You’re stationed in the library, comfortable, pretending to study. You have at this point in your College career mastered the art of doing absolutely nothing but appearing to be very busy. One of your study partners is arranging your friends in a list from most hot to least, but with a history book open (men really love to compare women, don’t they?). He has positioned you almost securely towards the end of the list. He shoots you a half smile, “I mean, you’d be higher up but you’re black, you know?”
The only white men who admire your beauty are ones who fetishize it. “You’re so exotic,” they say, and you cringe every time because they think you should accept that whiteness is the norm. They look at you and expect you to swell up with pride at their recognition. They want you to grin and say, “Exotic? Wow, thanks. What a compliment.” It is not a compliment.
A few weeks later, a member of your College organization tells you, “You’re so pretty for a black girl.” For a black girl, because in this racial hierarchy, whiteness is inherently attractive, and you’re just pretty for who you are. It’s not a compliment. You are offended and you want to scream. You’re told to stop being so sensitive. “You know what I mean.”
There are women lightening their skin, reaching for whiteness because they believe it holds the key to beauty. We are programmed to hate what we are born with and white people will never grow up with that internalized racism, never catch their words insinuating their own ugliness. You go to the beach and slather yourself in sunscreen, you joke, “Don’t want to get too black.”
Once, your mother told you to be careful dating a dark-skinned man. “If you guys have kids, they’ll be so dark so you have to think about that,” she said, as if that was a death sentence for a daughter.
And at first you are merely annoyed, but the first time you hear, “I hate n*ggers”, you are more than that – you are infuriated. You are the only one who speaks up. Your eyes scan the room, grabbing for support that never comes. You are “the angry black girl”. The stereotype. You make awkward eye contact with your best friend who has remained silent and a quote from Desmond Tutu comes to mind: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
You don’t care that it is your friend, or your coworker, that this comes from the lips of someone you have laughed and cried with. “I don’t mean you,” she clarifies, “I mean them.” It is always someone or something else, but you are them; they are you. There is no distinction.
And that’s when you see that it begins as something casual, a microaggression, but it all plays a role in the way people see you. They say your skin as a reason you aren’t pretty, or smart. For why they hate you.
We all have a story about the time we realized “the new racism” — a racism that is deniable, that is no longer easily packaged, but still superfluous. A racism that allows us to be gaslit and told we’re always making things ‘a race war’. A racism where we shout, “they are killing us!” and hear a resounding, “Why does it always have to be about race?”
Some people want to believe in a post-racial society so badly that they have created one from their perspective and I’m not saying it isn’t seemingly beautiful, but it also isn’t reality. It doesn’t reflect my experience. It doesn’t reflect the experience of many Black Americans. It doesn’t reflect that when my peers joke about wearing black face to parties, I cringe. I think: I wish I had the privilege of joking about something like that. It does not reflect the time a manager told me she would never hire another black person or the time in the schoolyard that I was called a n*gger or the time or the other time or —
As much love and kindness as I have met within my college organization, I have also met racism here and there. I have seen the phrase, “Maybe if they didn’t act like such n*ggers …” and seen warnings and probations, but never anything tougher than a gentle swat on the hand. I have read and reread the destabilizing words ‘all lives matter’ until my eyes bled. I have been accused of being the aggressor when I addressed racism in its subtle and blatant forms.
Ultimately, I allowed myself to internalize the message that the way I was hurting wasn’t important. I started to think that making white people feel comfortable mattered more than addressing my pain. I wondered if I was focusing on the negative. But I finally learned that my role isn’t to make racist people feel good. My job is to seek spaces that allow me to feel comfortable. To feel beautiful as me, not just ‘for a black girl’.
So now, I do.
For any writing inquiries, brand collaboration, or speaking/hosting, you can find me at gabby [a] gabriellealexa.com!