Confronting my anti-blackness and colorism became a priority, but I also felt a little lost. It felt wrong to hang out with the “cool” kids who accepted me only because I fit their racially ambiguous requirement, so I tried not to. But then I didn’t know where I fit. One time, I tried to befriend a group of African girls who were sitting in the back of the classroom talking about music. As soon as I dropped a comment, I felt hostility in my direction. It hurt at the time, but what did I expect? In the past, I’d wanted nothing to do with them; I couldn’t just magically erase the fact that I’d been one of the many students that marginalized them.
I went back and forth between anger with myself at my complicity in my school’s anti-blackness, and feeling hopeful that I could change. I constantly questioned what kind of person I was. What if I could never truly love my blackness? The idea of becoming an adult, still insecure, still in denial of my blackness, and still constantly striving for acceptance, frightened me. What a tragic way to live!
I started reading. A lot. During summer break, I sat in the corner of my local public library reading about colonialism, Apartheid, and Jim Crow all day, every day.* I searched the shelves for books and films that might offer reassurance or guidance, and reflect what it felt like to be a black girl unlearning her internalized prejudice. Loads of the books made me feel like every black revolutionary in history was simply born loving who they were, but then I read The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman, which showed me exactly how I’d been behaving! Reading W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk showed me that anti-black racism and colorism had their roots in European colonialism, slavery, and the racist ideologies and stereotypes that were used to justify those practices.
By the end of that summer, I understood that the hatred of blackness I’d found inside of myself hadn’t started with me—and it could be unlearned. I decided to educate myself about the impacts of anti-blackness, and how colorism has historically disadvantaged people with darker skin in all areas, including education, media representation, and the criminal justice system. I still felt awful that I’d contributed to my school’s anti-black racism—how could I have been unaware for so long?! Whenever I felt guilty, I reminded myself that these ways of thinking are not genetic or inevitable, but taught and spread.
I hope I’m not making the unlearning process sound too simple, because it wasn’t, and it wasn’t always pretty, either! Sometimes it was painful. I questioned my social interactions and began to look at everything more critically: myself, my friends, and even my family. In one very difficult and awkward conversation with my mother, I tried to explain that her comments about my younger sisters’ hair textures were anti-black, and that her comments damaged our self-esteem. I was scared, but she took my words surprisingly well, and I don’t remember hearing anything of that nature from her again.
Confronting my own anti-black racism and colorism felt like the hardest thing in the world, but it has also been so worthwhile! As a black girl, I finally feel aware of my place in the world, and my longing for acceptance from others has faded. It’s not like I have arrived, or anything—unlearning anti-black racism is a process, and I still catch myself in thoughts or behaviors that I need to unlearn. But working out my internal and unspoken prejudices, and unlearning my anti-black reflexes is the best thing I’ve done for myself. ♦
*Books and movies that helped me with working through my anti-blackness:
The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman
Passing by Nella Larsen
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem by bell hooks