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Curly Nikki

Colorism Within the Family and Myself

Colorism Within the Family and Myself
Photo: Tyra Banks
By Brittney M. Walker

We facetime so he can meet my aunt. Most of my
family is still in California so meeting everyone has been a digital experience
for the most part.

“What up auntie?”

I introduce him and she says as if she
couldn’t stop what was coming out of her mouth, “Does your hair lay down?”
She is referring to his tightly coiled,
uncombed, but artsy looking hair. He’s not much into combs or brushes. But it
works. It’s his natural, like mine. Like some stranger man said one day in the
local Chinese food spot, we match.
We both react with snuffs, disguised as
laughs, and I retort, “Mine doesn’t.”
She says, “Oh, well I guess not.”

Typically my hair stands up, hardly combed and
barely styled. My aunt, like many people on that side (or any side of my family
for that matter) has loose curls. She could slick her hair back into a ponytail
with some water almost like a white girl. She’s more obviously of mixed
heritage, with golden butterscotch skin, like her sisters and her nieces.

Shortly after introducing him to my auntie, we
get on a phone call with my grandma on my father’s side. When he asks how she’s
doing, she says, “Just tired, ugly and Black.”
He and I wonder if she means for Black to be a
negative thing in this context. It doesn’t feel like a Bernie Mack “Black.” It
feels like an Uncle Ruckus “black.” My grandma is so light and yellow that she
could pass. She married a darker man and made my father.
See, from what I understand, I’m one of the
few girl children born on either side of the family with a grade of kink that
brings my classification closer to Black, rather than mixed.
When I was growing up, identifying as Black, I
started to learn about the ‘color associations’ within my family and within
myself. My mom stopped doing my hair at some point and wanted to move into hair
styles that worked with my active life as a competitive swimmer. She started to
put my hair in braids. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, with good intentions,
often mentioned that she didn’t like them. I’d have to ask why one day, but my
assumption was because it was fake hair.
During off seasons from sports, I had my
natural hair out, straightened or curled on occasion. My grandma, a very proper
woman, often commented about how lady-like I appeared. It was a nice
complement, but it also caused me pause. I didn’t much care for straight hair.
I just didn’t know what else to do with it.
When I would wear my hair in an Afro-puff or
in a style that didn’t require a hot comb or rollers, she’d often say something
along the lines of, “I like your hair when you take your time with it,” or
“Afros aren’t feminine.”
I didn’t know what to make of comments like
those at the time, but I was certain I wasn’t comfortable with them.
My grandma didn’t and doesn’t dislike
Blackness. She married a dark skinned man and made my uncle. But I think some
of whatever experiences or teachings in her childhood or from just being a
woman of color in L.A. carried over into our interactions.
When I was a kid, oddly enough, I wanted to be
darker. I wanted to look obviously Black. At least to me, I didn’t look Black
enough. I would watch Black movies and wish my lips were fuller and rounder and
I wished my skin looked like chocolate and I wished my nose was a bit broader.
I wanted hair so tightly curled that I couldn’t train my hair to be straight. I
was slightly embarrassed when people would ask me, “What are you?”
By no means, did I feel marginalized because
of my color, except for moments when my Blackness was an issue. But I wanted to
fit in better with the Black kids, eliminate ambiguity, give no reason for that
‘you might be mixed’ exoticism, erase any residue of whiteness. I didn’t want
to wonder whether or not me being slightly ambiguous provided any semblance of
To this day, I unabashedly sit in the sun
naked in an attempt to get my whole body the same color as my areolas. It
doesn’t work.
My sister, she was the opposite when we both
lived at home. She’s probably three shades darker than me. She’s got full lips,
big eyes and a broad nose. That girl is unmistakably Black. She liked her
color, but didn’t want to get darker. So in summers, she’d only go swimming at
night or at dusk, when the sun was disappearing over the horizon. She’d run in
from the afternoon if she was forced to walk home from school or something and
close the shades because she didn’t want to be made into a chocolate drop.
Color associations in my family, remnants of
it even in my own growth, is a curious thing. It is this lingering ailment that
rudley makes an appearance every so often in conversations about nothing, when
relatives randomly compare each other’s skin tones to see who is darker than
the other, or when kinky hair is less favorable than other hair types.
Dealing with it is another issue, however.
It’s like trying to explain to a white liberal that she is racist. They don’t
get it.
I hear comments like, I don’t have anything
against dark skinned people. Or I just think it’s more lady-like when your hair
is done. Or I prefer natural hair, but Afros make a woman look hard and
masculine. Or I love my skin, but I also wish my skin tone was dark like hers –
my own comments even shock me. I swear I have a healthy admiration of myself.
But damn, the words still spill out of my mouth like word vomit.
This whole color association thing (I’m naming
it this because I’m not sure this kind of thing has a name. Colorism doesn’t
quite work), I’m afraid I’ve not exactly dealt with it, despite my self love
sessions and my internal “I’m owning my beauty” movement. I recognize some
generational patterns and I recognize my rebellion on the opposite side of the
But on a broader perspective, generationally,
how does one remedy such a common, undefined aspect of hatred?

Have you had to deal with colorism in your family?
Colorism Within the Family and Myself
M. Walker is a journalist based out of New York. She writes on social
justice issues within the Black community, travel, business, and a few
other topics. These days she’s focusing on holistic living through
experiences and storytelling via her blog, 
Unapologetically Brittney M. Walker.

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