Even as a little girl, I was very skeptical of my appearance.
I present as racially ambiguous and little kids are nosey. “Where are you from?” “Why is your hair so curly?” “Can you get sunburns?” “You don’t look black.” These seemingly innocent questions did more than annoy me: they singled me out as different. They made me deeply self-conscious, especially because I didn’t always have responses to their inquiries. Why did I look the way I did? Why was my hair the texture it was? As a child, I didn’t have the global context to understand the myriad bloodlines and ethnicities that had been distilled down into one brown-skinned little girl. I couldn’t see that I was the culmination of thousands of years of migration, colonization, and cross-pollination that cultivated me into existence.
I was just a brown-skinned little girl surrounded by white kids who could, as far as I could tell, all be each other’s siblings. They all looked the same. Standard. I was the one that looked different.
And I hated that.
“Where Are You From?”
I remember one time an adult asked me where I was from. “North Hollywood,” I said, proud to be able to answer such a seemingly adult question. Not “Where do you go to school” or “How old are you”—those were baby questions. This woman wanted to know where I was from, and I knew the answer! My chest puffed with pride.
She rolled her eyes. “No. I mean, where are you from?”
I looked at her in confusion. Hadn’t I already answered that question? Had I gotten it wrong, somehow? I wracked my brain. I knew my address. I was pretty sure I was from North Hollywood. But maybe she meant before I moved there? But I didn’t know where I had lived before; I had been a baby when we moved to North Hollywood.
Sensing I didn’t know what she was talking about, the woman tried a different tack. “Like, are you Mexican or Indian or Hawaiian or something?”
(Years later, I can look back and laugh at the number of people who asked me if I was Hawaiian. I guess back in the day, we didn’t really know what other people—those that we didn’t see on the regular— looked like. Lacking the Internet, we had to make do with images from Encyclopedia Britannica and National Geographic. (It would be a decade before non-Whites appeared on TV or in movies en force.) In the years to follow this incident, I was assumed to be all kinds of things that I wasn’t: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Indian, or Pacific Islander were the most frequent. One time someone asked me if I was Korean. I’ll never understand that one.)
I smiled at her. “Oh! I’m black,” I said.
She made a noise in her throat. “Really. You don’t look it.”
“You Don’t Look Black” (Whatever That Means)
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard snide remarks about my appearance, but it was the first time I’m heard it from an adult, and for this reason, it stuck with me. If a kid tells you that you look like Michael Jackson or something, you can just ignore them. After all, they’re just a kid, and they don’t know anything. But if an adult tells you that you don’t look like what you say you are, then you start to question yourself. You start to pick yourself apart.
I couldn’t understand then that black people look all kinds of different ways. We can be ebony-skinned goddesses with luxurious curly afros or we can be so fair-skinned and blonde that we pass for white. Furthermore, I didn’t understand (and wouldn’t for many, many years) that no one gets to determine what blackness does or does not look like. That wasn’t her place. If I am black, then I am what black looks like. That’s how this works. Black is not what you think it is. It lives in the world, not in anyone’s narrow worldview.
I went home confused and upset. It’s no fun being othered.
“She High Yellow AND High Sididdy”
In the years that followed, I experienced an array of attitudes that othered me, both inadvertently and intentionally. Most people didn’t intend any harm; they were just ignorant. Other times, they did. Colorism became a problem I had to deal with, too. As a light-skinned person, some blacks picked on me and presumed to know how I identified based on how I looked. I can chuckle about the term “high yellow” now; back then, it was deeply insulting.
Long story short? I hated my appearance. Not because I thought I was ugly or something; it was just that I stood out, and that got old real quick.
As I became an adult, the desire to blend in—and the slow realization that I never really would— morphed into apathy about my appearance and especially my skin and hair, the two things that most notably marked me as different. I refused to wear foundation because I didn’t even want to think about what color I was. I hardly washed my face, because who cared what my skin looked like? My skin was the problem! I’d be damned before I’d deem it worthy of my care and attention.
Let Me Love You
Children turn into teenagers who turn into young adults who then have their own children. And it was my own child who, when she was 17 and I was 38, turned me on to skincare. It was something I got into not for my own sake and not because I cared about my skin, but because it was her hobby and I have always fostered possible shared interests among my family. And so I bought the Korean cleanser. And I bought the gentle emulsion. And I tried the sheet mask.
And little by little, these small trials became important investigations and eventually sacred rituals that I looked forward to. I would wake up in the morning and rush to the mirror to see what overnight improvements had been bestowed upon me. I pressed my fingertips against my skin, and for the first time really noticed my skin’s own beauty: not just its texture but its color, too. The way its hue shifted across different planes of my face. The way my cheeks shone in the sunlight (under a layer of sunscreen, of course!) It’s true that I lack some of the rich features that sterotypically mark my African ancestry: I don’t have the full lips, or the deep skin tone, or the elegant forehead. And it’s true that the color of my skin can be more aptly described as “yellow” than “cocoa”. (I say “honey” when I’m feeling generous.) But whether or not I can claim all the markers of my ancestry, I can still claim my ancestry. Because it’s mine. And this skin is mine. And I and my skin are both black. And this blackness is enough.
Armed with these many realizations, I began to truly delight in my skin—actually, my whole body . Curly, wild hair was let loose. I painted with rainbows upon my face. The more attention I paid to these once neglected aspects of myself, the more I learned to love them for what they were. I let myself define them and opposed to letting myself be defined by them. It was a glorious feeling.
Skincare went from being a silly thing I dabbled in to spend time with my daughter to becoming the healing process I needed to make peace with my appearance—but also with my sense of belonging. As I’ve said before, caring is not a feeling: it’s an action. I actively cared for my skin, and this was no small feat. Because my skin is not just my body’s largest organ: it’s also my history, and my heritage, and what I present to the world. It tells a story whose author I am but one of many. Those who came before me and those to whom I gave birth share something of this skin. And skincare taught me to love it. To honor it. To be proud of it.
This skin belongs to me, not I to it. I will determine how I feel about my skin, not the media, or another community, or even family or friends. I will determine what my blackness is, looks like, how it behaves. This is mine. And I will care for it jealously, and I will learn to graciously accept it as it changes with the flow of time.
I admit, I’m still working on that one.
But I am working on it. And that’s what counts.