Why is identity such an important topic amongst women, girls and minorities? Will there ever be a time when our heritage, race and social economic status won’t affect our experiences? My focus turned to my identity back when I was in Middle School. As my daughter is approaching this age range it is paramount to me, that I help shape her image of herself.
Middle school was the age that girls became infatuated with boys. We flexed our parent’s spending budget begging for Nikes, bodysuits, Starter Jackets and Girbaud jeans. We were trying extra hard to be cool. Unlike our formative years where we were all on even ground as playmates, clicks began to form, insecurities were exposed and status symbols were displayed in those competitive prepubescent years.
Growing up without a father
Honestly, there will always be a part of me that is incomplete. My father was taken from this world many years ago. I was only Two when he was murdered in Chicago, IL. Without any concrete memories or even a picture in his lap, it seems that 50% of me will always be a mystery.
Before you start feeling sorrow for my plight, I must confess there is not a woman on earth that can fill a void like, Diane Lee. My mama was and is our queen. She worked hard to make sure we would want for absolutely nothing. Now back to this topic of Identity.
Diversity in Wisconsin
My mother followed the lead of her brother (my favorite Uncle Bubbles) and she moved with her kids from Chicago to Madison, WI in 1983. Madison is an ideal city to raise a family however, it is not known for its diversity. The subject of lack of diversity, racial inclusion and disparities in the black community, have been debated since the time I could read. It continues to be an area in need of initiatives and for those efforts, I am proud of the city we call home.
During those early teen years, my deep brown skin was mocked not by white kids but by my lighter skinned black peers. It wasn’t until my college years at Georgia State University where I studied the psychology of African Americans that I finally understood the roots of colorism.
Colorism: Identity for Dark skinned women.
Dark skin being viewed as less ideal than light skin goes back to slavery. This excerpt from the website Black then gives a good explanation:
“While dark-skinned slaves toiled outdoors in the fields, their light-skinned counterparts usually worked indoors completing domestic tasks that were far less grueling. Why the discrepancy? Slave-owners were partial to light-skinned slaves because they were often family members. Slave-owners frequently engaged in sexual intercourse with slave women, and light-skinned offspring were the telltale signs of these unions. While slave-owners did not officially recognize their mixed-race children as blood, they gave them privileges that dark-skinned slaves did not enjoy. Accordingly, light skin came to be viewed as an asset among the slave community.”
Prior to becoming licensed as an Aesthetician, I never used sunscreen, I was a deep dark chocolate, lanky teenager. Yet, I was armored with confidence and positive self-image that had been instilled in me by mama. My mother was strong, dignified and she created a home that was safe, warm and always full of folks. Any doubt we had about our worth was quickly dissipated by the wise words and simplistic reasoning of mama. For a time, she raised us alone but by the time I was six she got remarried.
“After slavery ended in the U.S., colorism didn’t disappear. In black America, those with light-skin received employment opportunities off limits to darker-skinned African Americans. This is why upper-class families in black society were largely light-skinned. Soon light skin and privilege were considered one in the same in the black community, with light skin being the sole criterion for acceptance into the black aristocracy. Upper crust blacks routinely administered the brown paper bag test to determine if fellow blacks were light enough to socialize with.”
Class vs Race
My mom worked at the hospital as a Phlebotomist and my stepfather worked at a local factory producing bakery goods. They bought a home on the Northside of Madison. We were not wealthy but we were comfortable. We lived in a working middle class predominantly white neighborhood sprinkled on the outlines of our subdivision were low income apartments that were much more diverse than my immediate surroundings.
Many of my earliest friendships were conveniently formed with my white neighbors. I still have friends from my days on Elka Lane. Mama was not loose with her rules; she was firm, quick to call and verify my whereabouts and we were held to a tight curfew in a close vicinity.
I wanted to please her, therefore I excelled in school, I spoke very proper English and was often ridiculed by those same black peers “because I talked like I was white.” Confusing, right? My skin was too dark and my words were too white! I formed a small gang of girlfriends and socialized within the constraints my mother set forth always carrying myself as she had taught me to. Never letting the words of those hating school mates phase me.
Limitation exist in your mind
It didn’t take long before my lanky body filled out those bodysuits, the hormones in my skin mellowed out and those awkward years were behind me. Garnishing a new form of attention from boys of all shades. It did seem the white boys had a different feeling about the feel of my deep brown skin.
There was nothing out of my reach or beyond my means in my mind. I credit that state of mind with driving me towards my goals. Never held back by the amount of melanin in my skin, or lack of wealth in my family and frankly not ever believing anyone who told me I was undeserving, undesirable or incapable. I was armored by the positive affirmations from my mother.
Minorities at UW- Madison
During my freshmen year at the University of Madison, the enrollment for minorities was a mere 2% and they went as far as photoshopping a black male student’s face into the stands of a football game on a college brochure. In order to give the illusion of diversity. They thought it would help enrollment but instead, they were ousted. The picture went viral.
In our society, there is a collision between class and race. I believe for minorities, the higher you climb in socioeconomic status, the less your race afflicts you. Affluent African Americans are not as intimidating or threatening as those that fall in lower income brackets.
Identity is complex
Growing up with dark skin, white friends and a single mother could have given me numerous identity complexes. Living without my father in my life left a constant void and those feelings still linger and can be easily triggered. I am grateful for a mother that took the time to talk to me about who I was, mama modeled herself as a person I would aspire to be.
Raising Biracial girls with positive self image
Raising two biracial girls who are of a different ethnicity than me, brings on a new set of challenges. The surprise and aww of Giana’s classmates when I arrive to volunteer in her class “Is that your mom?” Or the comment from the flight attendant on our girl’s trip to Philly which I wrote about here. The random comments of how beautiful they are from strangers we meet on the street. Even my black relatives often commented on how light Misha was when she was born, making promises to me that her skin would eventually darken up.
We are navigating our way through living as a multiracial family. We have discussed slavery, interracial relationships and that curly hair. While their “good hair” and ideal skin tone may shield them from discrimination, they will still need to be armored with self-awareness, self-confidence and positive self-image. Like my mama I intend to be the one to teach it.
If you need resources to talk about identity for your mixed-race kid or multiracial family read more here.
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