My story picks up in September 1994, my freshman year of high school. I’d suffered through much in middle school but was grateful as well. After six years of addiction, my Mama was finally clean and back in my life. My posture, so distorted by the emotional weight of my insecurity that I walked with my chin on my chest, began to straighten out. From ages eleven to fourteen I devoured books on African American history and culture. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was my favorite, as it explained many of the issues affecting my people. The soaring eulogy of Ossie Davis at the end made me cry and realize that what I witnessed among my people was such an affront to all that Malcolm X lived and died for. The knowledge I acquired explained how we had reached this point, and Tisha’s mother would play a key role in raising my consciousness.
Tisha’s mother fit the popular image of what the desirable Black woman should be. She had olive skin tone that could let her pass for multiple ethnicities, hair that hung straight without a pressing comb or chemicals and narrow features. However Tisha’s mom had no interest in passing in any sense of the word and proudly identified as Black. Not multiracial, not biracial;-just black. One morning I was in the kitchen talking with Tisha and used the term “fair-skinned” to describe someone. Tisha’s mother had come into the kitchen for coffee and heard me. She looked at me curiously but went about making her coffee. When her coffee was ready she joined Tisha and I at the table.
“Sweety”, she said gently,”you should not use the term ‘fair’ to describe one’s color.”
“But using the word fair just means ‘light’, right?” I countered.
Tisha’s mother inhaled before speaking. “When we use words like ‘fair’, there are additional implications that come with it baby. To call Tisha’s color and mine ‘fair’ is to ascribe a higher value to it and make it seem as if though being light alone makes one pretty. If someone describes my color as fair, what message are they sending about those who are darker?”
I thought about what I just heard. Tisha’s mother was right. Like so many others I’d been using the phrase without really pondering what it meant, and didn’t realize it until she pointed out it out to me. Tisha’s mother started speaking again.
“I want you two to understand something. All of this madness over color is a symptom of something we call ‘internalized oppression’. Our people have suffered greatly both physically and emotionally. Abused by white folks, we’ve taken the hatred they placed on us and turned it against each other. Internalized oppression, yes”, she said, sipping her coffee.
Though I’d read about it, something about hearing an adult address it and call it what it was gave it a deeper impact. My family didn’t want to talk about it. My peers(with the exception of Tisha of course) and my community tended to embrace Colorism and saw nothing wrong with our self-imposed caste system. But Tisha’s mother challenged it.
I’d walk through the doors of my high school full of hope. The jeers of the seniors yelling “FRESHMEN” when we walked past them in the hall couldn’t dampen my excitement. Though I was now a small fish in a big pond-my middle school had roughly two hundred students and my high school had 1,500-I looked forward to the possibilities. Holding onto my current friends and making new ones, I could leave the baggage of middle school behind. Two months into freshman year, however, it would become clear that as much as Tisha and I didn’t want color to be an issue our peers would persist in making it a problem.
Kathy was cool peoples. She was a sharp sista who took Law & Society with me. Law & Society was a class usually reserved for upperclassmen but that year they decided to do a pilot program with freshmen. We were assigned to the course by lottery. In a trend that would continue throughout my high school career, the advanced classes would be predominantly white. The minority kids stuck together for the most part. Like me Kathy was studious and came from a religious family, so we related to each other quite well. Within weeks of knowing each other it seemed that we were on track to become good friends. But there was something I noticed about Kathy. A group of us-mostly girls with brown skin of varying intensity-would meet around my locker and talk during our extended break. Kathy was the belle of the ball, but as soon as my girl Tisha joined us Kathy’s mood would change. Kathy would stop talking and mean mug Tisha when she thought no one was looking. After observing this multiple times I pulled Kathy’s card.
“Kathy what’s your problem?”
“Problem? What are you talking about?”
“Kathy every time Tisha comes around on break you start acting funny. I see you glaring at her. What’s your beef?”
Kathy sucked her teeth. “Your girl thinks she’s better than everyone, that’s my problem! I don’t like light-skinned girls, they all walk around with their nose in the air. I wish she would stay away!”, Kathy spat out.
I froze. Kathy was dark like me, so maybe she assumed I would take her side. I thought of how Tisha and I had held each other down. I thought of how Tisha had put up her fists and threatened to fight boys who bothered me. I remembered the desolation I felt when I was 12 and my Mama finally returned from a two week long drug binge, how I walked away speechless as she tearfully pleaded for an absolution that I was too angry and bitter to give. I called Tisha that morning and told her my Mama was back and Tisha was at my house thirty minutes later. We left to go to the Northwest Folklike Festival together. We didn’t talk about what happened and we didn’t need to. Tisha and I walking to the bus stop together, the only sound between us the crunch of our feet on the grass, was all the therapy I needed at that moment. Tisha was my girl, my homie, my road dawg.
“LOOK, Kathy”, I said, putting my hand on my hip and drawing the inner city Black girl attitude I kept on reserve to the surface to let Kathy know I wasn’t playing,” you’re out of line! Tisha is my BEST FRIEND, and if you just gave her a chance you’d know how wrong you are and how cool she is. I can’t make you like her but let’s get this clear: if you got beef with Tisha, you got beef with me. If you can’t be cool with her, you can’t be cool with me! So what’s it gonna be?”
Kathy looked me up and down and rolled her eyes, throwing the attitude I’d given her right back. “Whatever”, she said, pushing past me as she walked away. As Kathy walked down the hall the budding friendship we had vanished with her. I sighed over Kathy. She was like the girls Nas would rap about on his song “Poison” seven years later:
“Up late night, on they mothers cordless,
Thinking a perm, or bleaching cream will make ‘em better when they(already) gorgeous”
And Kathy WAS gorgeous. A lanky tomboy with a headful of thick hair, perfect ebony skin and luminous brown eyes Kathy was a stunner. But conditioned by mainstream society and a community that told her that her beauty didn’t exist, she came to believe it. I understood where it came from. We all handled internalized oppression in different ways. I turned my negativity and hostility on myself. Kathy turned hers on Tisha and girls that looked like her. It saddened me and I walked to my next class alone, thinking about the alliance that could have been.
Kathy and I would never be cool after that and stopped talking to each other in class. Tisha asked me why Kathy stopped hanging out at my locker and I told her. It pissed her off but she shrugged and steered clear of Kathy. Shortly after that incident another one involving Colorism would take place. It wouldn’t be resolved with a quick exchange though. No, this incident would fester and make my freshman year of high school a living hell, only ending when the person transferred to a different school.
Greg and Jana were in my fifth period English class with me. Our English class was part of the experimental Law & Society course, so the literature we studied complemented L& S. English was my favorite subject. I showed up on time every day and sat in the first row, eager to learn and engage in discussion. My teacher, Ms. Wilson, appreciated my enthusiasm and immediately took a liking to me. I never hesitated to raise my hand or read passages to the class. Most of my classmates were not bothered by this. Greg and Jana were.
“Why don’t you shut up sometimes, blackie?” Jana snapped at me one day. “You making me look bad!” With both light skin and light( hazel)eyes Jana was considered to be above a girl like me in our caste system. My intellect and the respect I received for it enraged her. I wasn’t supposed to be considered better than her in anything.
“I know”, Greg, a tall dark boy, chimed in, co-signing Jana. “Always kissing Ms. Wilson’s ass and showing off how smart you are, like you better than other people! You ain’t WHITE!You get on my nerves!”
Oh no, here we go again, I thought to myself. AT first I ignored Greg and Jana. But ignoring a certain type of bully only pisses them off more, so they upped the ante. The insults became similar to the ones of the boys on the metro bus.
“Black BITCH! YOU AIN’T WHITE!”
“Yeah you smart and sound like a white girl, but you STILL AIN’T WHITE! You ain’t never gon’ be better than me!”
I didn’t want to go through this again. The harassment in middle school had been more than enough. I just wanted to be left alone. I thought that Greg and Jana might leave me be if I dimmed the light that radiated from my being. So I tried to pacify them. I stopped participating in class discussions. When my teacher called on me anyway I hesitated before speaking. To refuse to answer or to adopt the sullen attitude that Greg and Jana adopted when called on would get me in trouble at home. But to answer as myself would bring the ire of Greg and Jana. Thinking quick I came up with a compromise: answer my teacher but do so using African American Vernacular English. At least that way I’d be spared from the accusation of putting on airs! I followed my policy of addressing my teacher and class this way for a good two weeks and then gave up. It wasn’t me, and I sounded like a complete fool trying to make myself sound less articulate in order to please others. Greg and Jana would just have to be mad. I was going to be myself whatever the cost.
On a chilly December day the bell marking the beginning of fifth period rang. Sitting at my desk, I could hear a commotion in the hallway and looked at the door instinctively. My teacher heard the commotion as well and went outside. Greg and a group of boys were goofing off, oblivious to the fact that they were all supposed to be in class and seated by now. Ms. Wilson, tired of Greg’s disruptive antics, marched him into class and reamed him out in front of everyone. As Greg shuffled to his desk he hissed at me under his breath.
“Fuck you, you little Black bitch! I KNOW you the one who snitched on me and told Ms. Wilson I was out there!”
“NO, I didn’t say anything Greg! You guys were so loud that she heard you and went out herself!”
“You snitched on me! That’s aight though, I’m gon fix you”, he said, sneering at me. “I hate you, ole black bitch, and I’m gonna get you for this!”
And get me Greg did. For the next seven months Greg would harass me and take every opportunity to tell me and others about how black, ugly and worthless I was. Even when our class schedule changed second semester and I went into the Humanities program Greg wouldn’t let his grudge go. If a boy was even rumored to like me Greg would salt me out to them. I can remember walking in the hall one day during Spirit Week in the spring. It was Dress Up day and I was feeling good about myself as I sauntered down the hall, listening to the sound of my short heels click against the floor. Mike, a popular freshman boy saw me, smiled and began walking towards me. Greg rounded a corner, appearing out of nowhere like an apparition. He looked at me, looked at Mike heading in my direction and glowered. Though he was only fourteen Greg was 6’2, and he used his long legs to cut the space between Mike and me.
“Nigga, you ‘bout to get at her? Oh NO, trust me, you don’t want to mess with that black bitch”, Greg said, looking straight at me. “Let me tell you all about that one”, he continued, putting a hand in Mike’s shoulder. Mike looked at me with longing but turned around and walked away with Greg, listening to whatever Greg fed him about me. I turned away too and marched back to the restroom I’d come from, my heels now making a furious tapping down the hall. Barreling through the door I locked myself in a stall, threw my head in my hands and bawled, questions running through my head. Why won’t Greg just leave me alone? Why does he keep doing this? What business is it of his if someone thinks I’m cute? What satisfaction does he get from this? Isn’t he tired of devoting this much energy me? But most of all I wondered why he insulted my color so much when he was just as black as I was? Did Greg even see himself when he looked in the mirror? If so, how could he even fix his mouth to curse the very skin he had? This is CRAZY! I washed my face and went back to class.
When class ended I gathered my things and began to make my way to sixth period. I ran into Tisha on my way to the ground floor. Tisha saw my face and knew something was very wrong.
“Girl what happened?”, she asked, concern on her face.
“It’s GREG”, I whimpered. I told her what happened, trying to keep myself from crying again. When I finished Tisha responded.
I wish I could do something to that clown! But D you know he’s colorstruck. Probably likes you deep down, a lot of those dark boys are like that! BTW it’s not just you, he calls me a bitch too!”
“What?” I asked. Tisha had never mentioned this to me before.
“Yeah”, she said nonchalantly. “He asked me for my number last week and when I told him no he called me a high yella bitch. I’m telling you, that boy has issues, don’t mind him”.
I shook my head at the madness of it all as we walked together. Two sides of the same coin, Tisha and I were fighting the same battle that we had in middle school. There would be more Kathys and Gregs throughout high school. Tisha and I would have to maintain our tie as we navigated through a mass of people entrapped in a color complex that threatened to tear us all apart.