If you’ve seen a photo of me, other than the one posted here every week on this column, you’re thinking “where is this vanilla-skinned woman going talking about black Bahamian beauty?”
Hold that thought.
There was a time in history, not even so long ago, when I would have been considered too black to be white in some countries. And, yes, in some other countries, I would have been too white to be black.
This need to identify racial differences was driven by ignorance. Today, it still is.
People were then, as some still are now, unfamiliar with others who looked nothing like them, and they built their prejudices and judgments, and eventually hatreds, on their differences, fueled further by the human need to be right or to be best, and by the many intolerances of their parents and others before them who perpetuated this kind of thinking.
Now, after decades, centuries of racial mixing, when greater knowledge and less ignorance should exist because of greater exposure between countries and cultures, the separations continue.
The need to see and keep people in color blocks stems from an individual’s need to feel more comfortable about her or his position with respect to that other person. People long to fit in, be understood and loved. And if there are any perceived threats to them fitting in, being understood, or being loved, or the chance they might be considered unworthy of these things they long for, then they immediately begin an internal campaign to challenge the things and people they regard as threats to their comfort. From the comforts of racism to the comforts of relationships, this applies across the human experience.
The mere fact that everything always comes down to black and white, black or white, black versus white, is a lingering disturbance, but I have heard the question asked recently, “is The Bahamas racially divided?” “Do black Bahamians hate white Bahamians and vice versa?”
Maybe I’m not the one to answer this, because no one ever knows what I am. (Insert laughter here.) But when you hear Bahamians make serious racial slurs, in either direction, they’re just being one of two things: ignorant or hateful. And when you have a conversation with them, you find that the story goes a bit deeper, usually back to some personal experience that left them with emotional or mental discomfort, or something more psychologically invasive like a full-fledged mental (re)conditioning inflicted by 1) their own people, or, 2) an outsider.
A while back, I met a little girl at a private school sports meet. I should say, more accurately, she met me. She was about five years old. And I guess she gravitated towards me because she wanted to have a conversation about something that made her uncomfortable, and she was looking for some resolution.
She told me that she wished she was white. I told her that she should never say that or feel that way because she was beautiful… and she really was. But, of course, being who I am, I had to find out more about why this child, at five years of age, was already on this road to self-hate.
Every reason she gave me for wanting to be white was superficial, or mostly aesthetic, and in the end I concluded that her dilemma stemmed from the fact that she didn’t want to look the way she did because someone had, along the way, told her or shown her that her skin color made her inadequate.
Now, because I grew up in The Bahamas, my own experience reminded me that it was likely that the other little kids who looked just like her could have had a lot to do with this little girl’s interpretation of herself and the low self-esteem that would arise later on because of it, affecting, quite possibly, every part of her life and her outlook on life.
Yes, there are always some other influences in these circumstances, and with a little more time in this little girl’s company I might have discovered more. But, drawing on my own encounters, I was willing to bet that there was something going on closer to home. Someone was reinforcing for her that her brown skin was not as good as lighter skin. I would also be willing to bet that, at present, there is still at least one generation of brown-skinned people who don’t know or love themselves as they are, which is mind-blowing to me in a predominantly black country. And the perpetrators? Often ourselves… in the way we have subconsciously adapted the concepts of beauty over many years of being subjected to what we believed to be superior to us.
Sit and listen to the children playing in the streets or on a playground. Children can be so cruel and heartless, and Bahamian children have a special type and method of ‘cruelty’ when they grab on to the use of certain hurtful words. It is not uncommon to hear them taunt each other about their skin color: “come from here with your black self”, “well mudda sick, you look black, boy”, or “you so black and ugly.”
Where are these children hearing these things and why do they relive them every day? This special kind of thinking comes from a special kind of environment, with a special kind of parent or parents or adults who perpetuate it.
And it makes me wonder, where is the mother’s love in this equation? What about my little friend? What would her mother say if she heard her child telling me these things about her skin color preference? Or, maybe, she’d say nothing, because she herself says these things to the child or around the child. And maybe, just maybe, she, the mother, feels the same way about herself.
And I reflect on my own mother.
I was a mixed child who grew up with a predominantly black family. Unless they knew my maternal relatives, the assumption of most people I encountered was that I was white. But my mom never gave me any reason to believe I was different. We never had a need to have a conversation about race… not until I was almost a teenager, and she told me about the idiot (my word) who worked with her who, whenever he saw me, would call me ‘Imitation of Life.’
As a child, and at that time, I had absolutely no idea what that meant, but, when I grew a little older and watched the movie by the same name, it broke my heart. The movie itself was sad, but it was even sadder and more heartbreaking to me that someone could label me with such a burdensome title and know nothing about me. And from that moment on I became more aware of racial differences and intolerances, but most specifically the black Bahamian’s dislike for self and need for constant comparison, evaluation, and approval.
It never dawned on me that my skin color could make so many people perplexed, and that ranged from shock and speechlessness, to excitement at the novelty, to disgust and jealousy.
As I got older, the comments and questions got more ridiculous. While at COB, I recall another student walking up to me and asking “are you black or white?” And even though I had come to expect it by then, it still always caught me off guard. It never stopped being strange that someone had such a need for an answer to this question that had nothing to do with them.
I started to have a little fun with my responses, just to entertain myself, because surely this was a joke. Sometimes I would say ‘both’. Sometimes I would say ‘neither’. Sometimes I would ask, “Which makes you feel better?” Of course, on those latter occasions, I would get dead air. I still do this. And if today someone says ‘hey white girl’, I say ‘hey black boy/ girl’ and watch their silent, jaw-dropped reactions to the absurdity of the way that sounds.
From the insane comments about my good hair (which, by the way, still happens), to the more foolish comment that I was white and I thought I was better than they were, over the years the racial feedback grew in intensity.
And I remember feeling afire inside, finally deciding that no, I don’t think I’m white, I know what I am, but you apparently think I’m white, and are obsessed with labeling me to make yourself more comfortable with your interpretation of me.
In spite of the many mixed babies being born the world over and in The Bahamas, this assumption still holds strong to this day. I think this idea that I and others like me (perceived white) automatically have thoughts of superiority is based more on the fact that those who believe this automatically have thoughts of inferiority about themselves. Clearly, they were then and still are ignorant of my parentage, and it is has never been my concern to explain it to them. But it does starkly reveal the deficiencies in their own parentage which has caused them to see themselves in such a negative light, deficiencies perfected by years of practice being something other than they are.
Through the simple cultural routine of hair relaxing, pressing, and now weaving, to the skin bleaching, I realize that it is ingrained in our black Bahamian women (and men) to deny their true selves and their true beauty.
Could this be what happened to my little friend who wanted to be white?
The (Bahamian) black woman is taught, subconsciously, that her hair must be straighter. Some black women are taught that their skin must be lighter.
And in my years of observing my own culture, I’ve never known anyone to perpetuate these stereotypes more than the black woman herself, save for a few random exceptions, to fit the norm of societal expectation.
My mum has, since I was a child, worn her natural hair in a low afro. My grammy did, too. It was my norm to see this, and for black women to be this way. They were just being themselves. It was the standard of self-love and self-approval. It was a sincere lack of interest in conforming to those haunting and depleting social norms, something I held on to and have never, ever let go of. If you know me, you know I am a nonconformist in every possible way, and I care nothing about people’s opinions of me. And I think that, next to immeasurable love, is the greatest gift my mother and grandmother have given me.
When I look at Mummy, I see a woman of color with natural hair breaking barriers in an enslaved concept of black beauty. And when I see other black women who have done or are doing the same, intentionally or otherwise, I sing a little victory song inside, because there’s nothing more empowering for little girls, who one day become mothers of entire nations, to see their own mothers love themselves so completely.
It tells me that they know who they are and they love who they are. It tells me that if they can love themselves this way, their children will be more likely to love themselves in the same way. And if this could happen all around the country, there would be fewer little Bahamian girls telling me and other random strangers that they wish they were white. And they can stop looking at their differences from the perspective of needing to conform or change themselves on the basis of an arbitrary standard of beauty, and more from the perspective of celebrating themselves as they naturally are. And if they can celebrate their many differences even in beauty, then the differences, one day, perhaps won’t matter as much.
• Nicole Burrows is an academically-trained economist. She can be contacted via Facebook at Facebook.com/NicoleBurrows.
June 16, 2014