I remember the first time I dreamed of being white.
I was age seven, and it was during my first week at my preparatory boarding school, where (apart from my sister) I was the only black girl. It was shower time – all pupils were expected to shower before bed. I remember leaving the bathroom and one of the staff insisting I showered again. I looked up at her, puzzled, and asked her why.
“You’re still dirty, look at your skin,” she said.
Other kids, many of whom were under 10, started to call me “niglet”. By age eight, I desperately prayed I would wake up and look just like them, with their straight blonde hair and pale skin. I started to hate myself.
To make matters worse, less than two years later, I would hit puberty before all the other girls. I made up every excuse under the sun in order to miss swimming. But of course, my teachers were unsympathetic. I would purposely “lose” my swimming costume, something which is very hard to do at boarding school. I longed for my old friends back in Tottenham, who had ranged from porcelain white to the darkest shade of black. Back there I wasn’t an outcast, I was simply another child in the class.
“Back in Tottenham I wasn’t an outcast, I was simply another child in the class”
I did everything I could to try and ensure the bullying would be kept to a minimum, but the older kids sent me on errands as if I was their slave, and when I refused I was mocked until I gave in. Waiting outside the dining room just before supper I remember leaning against a fixture that had a railing in the middle. I had been stood there for less than two minutes when I heard voices behind me.
“Ew, look at her. Her bottom is disgusting, why does it go out like that?” they asked. I pretended not to hear and quickly wiped away my tears.
The incident that tipped everything over the edge was when a senior staff-member threatened to kill my sister because she was “a worthless nigger”. My mother and older brother rushed to the school, and while the headmaster said he was aware of the bullying, he was too afraid to speak out against the racism. He became complicit in the preservation of hegemonic white ideals, and I left the school. I’ve now been to nine different education institutions, including university. Each time I’ve been reminded that my skin colour and gender is a problem.
“I’ve now been to nine different education institutions, including university. Each time I’ve been reminded that my skin colour and gender is a problem”
I spent my teenage years surrounding myself with white people, as if hoping their skin colour would somehow rub off on me – hoping they would see that despite my skin colour, I was like them.
Dating during this time was painful. Unlike the white teenage girls I was friends with, I was told by men, both black and white, that they couldn’t date me because I was too unlike them or because I wasn’t right for them.
I didn’t understand it then, but I was feeling the effects of colourism. In my experience, some black men feel as though they are “bettering” themselves if they date someone lighter than they are – and even my own brother has adopted this form of self-hatred.
When we were growing up he would tell me that he would never date a black women because they are “high maintenance”, “rowdy” and “ghetto”. He would tell my sister that she was a whore. He told me that I should assimilate, and then people wouldn’t be racist towards me.
His words, and the behaviour of others, fed into my hatred of being a black woman. I acted as “white” as I could, and I dreamed the same dream I had had since I was seven years old.
In my dream I would be white and life would be fine. There would be no name-calling, hypersexualisation or statements from teachers that I would “never make it in life”. For years and years, I equated whiteness with happiness. It resulted in depression, anxiety and various eating disorders. I used narcotics to numb the pain.
“In my dream I would be white and life would be fine”
Unlike my brother, who still pushes his warped white supremacy ideas onto me, my sister is unapologetically black, as well being brave, beautiful and successful. While we weren’t very close growing up, she has made me proud of who I am, and I now believe in #blackgirlmagic.
I know that when I have children, I will remind them every day that while society might tell them that they’re “ugly” or “too fat” or that they’re “inferior”, it simply isn’t true. I will remind them of Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon and Fela. That they too deserve to be happy and are possible of greatness.
I still struggle with self-acceptance but over time I will be happy with who I am. I’m awkward, clumsy, I have a “negro” nose and thick, long Afro hair but that’s me. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.