Having immigrated to the United States as a young child, one of the first things I made up my mind to do upon arrival was seek out the many ways that Americans were like Haitians. Familiarity is comforting when you’re young and in a new environment. I quickly learned that similarities would be hard to come by if I took all ethnicities of American into account. But as far as other African diaspora were concerned, the similarities far outweighed the differences, and not always in a good way.
I noticed that, like Haitians, other Black Caribbeans and Black Americans residing in the United States loved to laugh, eat, dance, and had large extended families. They dressed nicely for any and all church services and made sure to keep up appearances in “God’s house”. They even shared an affinity for card games, dominoes and and dice. But I also noticed something that I’d hoped was an aspect of family life that was unique to Haitian culture: phenotypical bullying within families.
My own mother had often told me that I was beautiful, but the passion and conviction with which she said it after giving me my first relaxer at the age of 6, made it clear that she hadn’t really meant it until that moment. My thick, nappy hair was straight and silky, and that mattered more than anything else. For years, my mother had complained about my hair being too thick, too nappy, too long. It was her burden and it quickly became mine, one that I took to hiding combs and brushes in order to avoid having to confront. As I grew older, keeping my complexion from becoming too dark mattered more than the fact that I loved to be outdoors and playing sports. Any chance I had to completely immerse myself in my childhood was nipped in the bud by reminders in the form of relaxer touch-ups and my mother’s loathing of being out at high noon that Black girls weren’t entitled to such luxuries. Any enjoyment that I should have been having should have been had from the fact that I wasn’t dark-skinned and, with a fresh relaxer, had bone straight hair. Eventually, I gleaned much delight from being asked if I had Indian in my family, if I were biracial, and being given nicknames like Cleopatra and Black Barbie. The damage had been done. When I had first gotten a relaxer, I had looked in the mirror and seen much thinner, boring hair. Before I was a teenager, I saw beauty, and nothing bothered me more than seeing and feeling my new growth. American sitcoms and Cosmo weren’t to blame, either. My family was.
In Haitian families, it is the norm for adults to discuss the children present, and critique everything about them, from the way they are currently dressed, to their hair (style and texture), height, weight and skin tone and even (perceived) intellect. In Haitian culture, every single thing about a person’s child is seen as a reflection of that person. A badly-groomed, misbehaving or unintelligent child is the parents’ responsibility and they are wholly to blame. An unattractive child is their burden. And just as many Haitians do, many Black Americans find few things as unattractive as they do dark skin, wide noses, and kinky hair. Neither Haitians or Black Americans seemed very hesitant in voicing this disapproval, either.
In my family, most children loathed family functions because it was a chance for our mothers to get together and bolster their own self-esteem by pointing out how the other children weren’t as wonderful as their own. Absolutely no one’s children were spared, but for my cousins who had broader features, darker skin, or kinky hair, it was a nightmare. Everything to “better” their offspring, from forcing them to read more to the suggestion of buying some skin bleaching products would be discussed. To my knowledge, all the adults went home without a care in the world, but our collective juvenile psyches were usually shot within the hour. Not only did these horrific little reunions serve to painfully highlight the internal rivalries within the family, and create new ones amongst us children, but they were a stark, painful reminder that even a group of women from a majority Black nation, the first Black republic outside of Africa, could still be mentally Whitewashed. The Haitian people did not need to be surrounded by White faces in order to feel inferior to them; the mental shackles of slavery were still firmly in place.
As I grew older, my resentment at my family for making sport of each other in this way faded somewhat when I realized that our dysfunction was far from rare. My anger towards those who blamed living and having to go to school with White children as the reason for low self-esteem among Black children, however, only increased. It’s true that in this nation, Black children, almost from the day they’re born, are exposed to images of Euro-centric beauty, which constantly tries to reinforce the message that “White is right”.
But at what point are Africans and African diaspora going to stop and ask ourselves just how affective this propaganda would be if we were not helping to reinforce it? The fact of the matter is, it’s irrelevant how many times a parent tells their Black child that they are beautiful, if that parent (and/or family members of that child) goes on to explain what “good hair” is as they kill the naps, that “special deformity of African people, with toxic chemicals and scorching heat. Maybe the affirmations would be more than empty words if they didn’t lament at the darkness of that child’s complexion as if it were a disease, or imply via actions or words that there are aspects of their Blackness which should be cause for shame and source of ridicule. One cannot be simultaneously proud of and embarrassed of their appearance. This very simple logic seems to have escaped so many Black families, especially Black women, who want their children to be “Black and proud”, just so long as they aren’t too Black. In some families, however, no such hypocrisy exists and I have known countless Black people who have admitted that first person to tell them that they were pretty or handsome was someone outside of their immediate family and, often, someone White. These were teenagers and adults, people broken by the very families that was supposed to love them, nurture them and build them. It was only after the damage had been done, by their own flesh and blood, that these open wounds were later salted by a Euro-centric culture, as well as other Black children and adults who’d been raised in similar environments of utter hatred for the West African phenotype.
Denial of the deep and myriad psychological affects of colonization and slavery is futile and harmful, but it’s time to stop passing the buck. Black people cannot continue to blame non-Blacks for how Black children feel about their appearance. Yes, society, especially American society, may see Black children as less intelligent, more violent, lazier, etc., but we have and continue to disprove these racist myths. But, regardless of how we try to alter our physical appearances, they will continue to see us as Black. This will never, ever change, nor should it. We are Black and trying to appear less so has not gotten us anywhere. Black people of various skin tones and hair textures have been the victims of race-based crimes, are currently collecting unemployment, or filling a prison cell at this very moment. Teaching our children that their appearance defines them is harmful enough, but the unspoken implication that looking less Black will make them more beautiful and somehow make their lives easier is downright asinine. What we can change is how our youth and the coming generations are made to feel by us about their appearance, their state of Blackness. A person who feels uncomfortable in their skin can and will bring that insecurity into other aspects of their life. We cannot build the community even as we are systematically tearing it down when our children, the adults of tomorrow, are at their most vulnerable. Oppression has deep roots and its branches are far-reaching. It’s sad that this must be constantly reiterated to one of the most oppressed groups on the planet.