It happened when I was probably 8 or 9. My family rented the film Milk Money starring Melanie Griffith and Ed Harris. It’s a stupid movie about a kid who buys a hooker for his dad. I was lying on the floor, looking up at the TV when I saw the main character, a white kid, slicked his hair back. I thought it was so cool and I wanted to mimic him. But my hair couldn’t do that. It was too curly for that. That’s when I said it:
I wish I was white
I didn’t think much about it at the time. I was just a kid, but I can’t imagine what my parents thought when they heard me say that. I didn’t get snatched up. I didn’t get sent to my room. All I remember is my dad asking why. Why did I want to be white? I told him the truth: I wanted hair like that kid. I wanted to slick it back with grease.
My hair was a problem for me when I was growing up. My dad gave me my haircuts and it was torture. So, one day, he forced me to grow it out into an Afro. I hated it. It was another form of torture for me. It was unwieldy. It had to be constantly maintained, way more than what I was accustomed to. I had to pick it out every painful morning to make sure it was perfectly round. It was a burden, but it made me unique. Very, very few kids my age had an Afro in the early 90s. Even so, I didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t appreciate my blackness.
It was a hard thing to do. I was one thing, but the world at large was telling me to be something else. I was black, but most of the cartoons I watched at that age had either white or white-looking characters. There were minorities, of course; tokens for the diversity machine, but they weren’t true characters. On the live-action side of TV, black television was segregated to specific nights at specific times. A two-hour block of blackness completely separate and unequal. Or the one black character in a movie is always the first to die. Every other day, every other moment, I was bombarded with a message: be white.
Most don’t realize how potent that message is. Blackness gets stamped out while a more “normal” (read: White) is put up as the standard. Lighter skin is more desirable. Straighter hair is more professional than an Afro, cornrows, or dreadlocks. It’s not just limited to Black people. I know Indians who buy lightening lotion so that they can feel more attractive. Entire cultures change to fit a Western mold. That’s what happened to me.
Sometimes, it doesn’t just come from without, but also within. There’s a charge in the black community: “you’re actin’ white.” It’s not as heinous as an Uncle Tom, but it has the same implications. You’re made to feel that you’re betraying your race by not talking the way others do. It was a charge levied at me a few times. I never agreed with it. I still don’t. It’s an asinine concept. Blackness isn’t our gait, how we talk, the music we listen to or how we dress. It’s both more than that and less.
Race is a social construct. It doesn’t biologically exist. But we keep reinforcing the idea on an individual level and on a societal level. Despite its artificiality, it will be hard to dismantle. Someone might not consider themselves a specific race, but society will be quick to remind them. The collective unconscious is always there to fit you into a specific place.
The pressures of society can twist you into many different forms. For me, it made me wish I was white when I was a kid. For others, it meant hiding their sexuality. Or their gender identity. Or their religion. Even if it wasn’t just an active effort on their part to be something else, they did so just to make things easier. There’s a strength in being yourself and remaining unapologetic. Black people keep it 100 no matter their background. Gay and trans men and women risk harassment and violence just by existing. Muslims face bigotry when they practice their religion. Yet, they remain. This isn’t to say that those who choose not to exude their identity are cowards. Far from it. Existence itself is an act of courage. Simply being me is an affront to all of the hatred and bigotry.
Our entertainment is a twisted reflection of our society. It’s a funhouse mirror; there are distortions everywhere. Even so, we must strive to correct these contorted views and present positive and complex examples of people of color. Don’t relegate us to just a few traits and quirks. That only dehumanizes our people. It turns us into simple caricatures.
I once wished that I was white. It’s not something I regret personally. I’ve moved on. I’ve grown to love my dark complexion. As DeRay McKesson says:
I love my blackness. And yours.