Photo Credit: Model Dilia Martins by Jessica Mahaffey for Harper’s Bazaar
Two mixed teen girls in my life have been grappling with similar negative circumstances with ‘mean girl’ peers assuming they are not black at all or not black enough. The confusion of other people when they look and then judge light skin mixed black girls really does take its toll on self-confidence and so much more. As a biracial woman and mother, I’m all about empowering girls to embody self-worth and pride in oneself. So it’s truly disturbing when kids are challenging the heritage of other kids that have a unique “racially ambiguous” look and a multiracial family. Don’t we all deserve to feel comfortable in our own skin?
My teenage niece is mixed on both sides of her family, so her skin tone is quite fair. To anyone with cultural awareness she looks like a light-skin black girl, but the black kids at school didn’t think so. They’d ask her where she is from, she would tell them her five nationalities and then they would actually demand for her to prove it! One day my niece joined her classmates dancing to some hip-hop songs and they were all shocked she could move and had rhythm. Eventually the bullying got pretty bad. I personally think it was a perfect storm of colorism and classism that unfortunately didn’t work in her favor. She is much stronger for it but why should kids have to be subjected to such negative behavior and social trauma? By definition, colorism is “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. One example is in the black and latino cultures, there is discrimination between the various skin tones. In America, due to colonialism and much more, to summarize quickly, light-skin would be considered more favorable and darker skin blacks would be treated poorly and considered less than…to say the least. This unjust mindset runs deep throughout most cultures of color and is still alive and kicking in America. These preconceived judgements are not based on science, simply, just societal stereotypes and unethical discrimination.
How can we all come together to support and uplift rather than shame other women and girls for their appearance?On an episode of Ilyana Vanzant’s OWN Network show “Fix My Life”, she unpacks the negative effects of colorism with black women of various skin tones. This is real. Check it out.
When I took my niece and daughter to visit my father, who is African, with a dark complexion, my niece was eagerly taking photos with her grandfather. She mentioned that she was happy that now she has proof to show her classmates that she was really black. What??? I tried to make it clear she doesn’t have to prove her heritage to anybody. But, I’m not living in her shoes and she just ignored me. Even my daughter, who is darker than her cousin, doesn’t have this issue just yet. She is only 12, but I’m sure the negative effects of colorism will hit her as she gets older. Unfortunately this is something, I’m not sure people of color can avoid in life.
In college, I would be walking in a night club party and black girls would walk past me and pull my hair as they were passing me. I had big hair back then and my naive self also had no idea why these girls would be pulling my hair at a party. My black girlfriends filled me in on why. They just needed to know if my hair was a weave or real! What difference would the hair on my head make to anyone? This all was beyond my comprehension.
Can a blonde girl wear her hair in cornrows without receiving negative criticism? My friend, who is biracial, sent me a photo of his teen daughter with a cute cornrows hairstyle. Karen* is a mixed teen (who naturally could “pass” as white, with blonde hair) with a biracial Dad and a black grandfather of Caribbean descent. Days later I get a text from her Mom, who is Jewish, sharing that she was experiencing cyber- bullying on Instagram due to that photo of her in cornrows. The crazy thing is that the cyber mean girl was actually a fellow mixed girl, yet with a darker complexion! This Insta-bully told Karen she looked “stupid and ignorant” and sarcastically assumed she was ‘one-forth Puerto Rican.’ When Karen shared that her Dad is black the response was “SEND ME A F***ING FAMILY PHOTO.” Karen knows she does not have to prove herself but felt the need to. What is up with this? Why should anyone have to prove their blackness to other kids in order to justify a hairstyle or justify their actual existence? Karen was distraught after this social media interaction and is no longer connected to that person, but I’m interested in bringing attention to these issues in the hopes of healing this divide. Her Mom cracked me up by sharing she has enough to deal with than policing hair styles!
As a mixed kid that is all grown up, I can sure say it is so annoying when people insist on having to know your racial identity. But this bullying is the next level. Don’t we all know by now “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover?” Does that mean that people who look white should not wear black hairstyles? I had to be honest with Karen’s mom. I just recently took my daughter to the African Braiding Salon to get box braids that she begged for, even though she has mixed-girl curly hair and it seemed a little strange to me, but she wanted it and so she went. My daughter is darker than Karen, so on the street I knew it would be accepted and she wouldn’t get negative comments. This may be bias, but if my mixed daughter looked white, I probably would not have taken her to the African Braiding Salon for box braids. Reason being is that I know the push
back she would get and at her young age, I don’t think she needs to deal with negative feedback on her appearance. I do not think this is fair and it’s probably not right, but I see what happens on the flip side and Karen experienced the exact result of what one would call the anger around “cultural appropriation.” If white people or companies take inspiration or incorporate black cultural style and use it as if they were the original creators of this style and make it their own, without honoring its black origins, it causes anger in the black community. You see this all over pop culture. In the 70s when Bo Derek famously was wearing cornrows to the history behind the Gucci and Dapper Dan collaboration. The biracial young actress Amanda Stenberg & her friend did an impressive high-school video project on this hair topic “Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows.”
The backlash white people have had from adopting certain styles from black culture is real! In my mind, unless the teen is super strong and confident with an “I don’t care what people think” mindset, it’s not worth it. Karen has a right to wear her hair however she damn well pleases, but since she can easily be mistaken for white, it’s very possible to receive push back and she just has to be strong to withstand criticism. It does sadden me that we live in such a world where this is even an issue. But then again, we continue to be protesting on the racial divide in America and look at what’s going on with our politics.
It all makes for building thick skin, which is very valuable trait! Yet none of this is fair. I get my hair pulled for some strangers peace of mind, Karen is shamed for wearing black hairstyles, kids feel the need to prove their blackness to peers in order defend their identity and so on. I totally understand why black culture in America has pride and ownership over what it means to be African-American. Being mixed, we just straddle between it all.
* (name changed to protect privacy)
By Hope McGrath