Dear 5C Community,
I have lived my entire life trying to avoid being the angry black woman — the woman constantly ranting about the hardships and hurdles of being black in a “white society;” the woman always trudging around with a scowling face, cold and intimidating, for she does not want to let the world in; the woman who society avoids like the plague — and today, I will continue to avoid that misguided stereotype. Today, I am not an angry black woman. I am an angry person.
Person (n.): a human being regarded as an individual.
I am not ranting as a woman, or as a black person, or as a black woman, but rather, as a human being — an individual.
Let me start off the body of this letter by saying a few things about myself. Don’t write me off, don’t roll your eyes, and don’t assume anything. Just keep reading.
I emigrated from Cameroon to the United States at the age of five, and upon arriving in the wonderful state of Kansas, I quickly realized that I did not want to become the degraded image of black that had been painted and resented by my entirely white town. I worked hard to act white, look white, be white — I smiled from ear to ear when people would comment on how much of an ‘Oreo’ I was, how well-poised and well-spoken I was, how they did not expect such manners from me. And I saw nothing wrong with the way I thought for a long time.
I moved from the white upper middle class suburbs of New York and then to the same in North Carolina and Illinois, always adapting to the different cultures and landscapes—always striving to be whiter. It was not until my father, a double Ph.D. and the best man I know, dated a white woman and was denied her hand by her mother. Her mother preferred that her daughter go back to a verbally and emotionally abusive ex-husband than be with my father because he is black. It was not until someone assumed that I was at a birthday party to watch the children, rather than as a guest, that I stopped and asked myself: “What exactly is being white or being black?” I was just perpetuating and reinforcing the stereotypes and categories that I had so long been trying to avoid.
But that is not the point of this letter. I gave you my background because, although I find it ridiculous that I must explain myself and prove to you that I am not like the “angry black woman” that you so look down upon, I feel as though I have to in order to prevent you from discrediting my voice. And my voice will be heard. Just keep reading.
My story is not just my story, it is the story of so many people, yet the gravity of my experiences have never been made so apparent as they were today, when a close friend suggested that I lighten my skin in order to better accommodate to society. In order to be successful, whether romantically or professionally, I had to lighten my skin — it was that simple to her. While that statement was certainly alarming to me as a black woman, it was more alarming to me as a human. Have we really come to this point?
I do not live under a rock. I know that appearances matter and will always matter. There is no going around that. I, admittedly, judge people based on a first glance, and I critique people’s dress and mannerisms. I am not pointing the finger, for I am guilty, as well. That statement, though — “You could just lighten your skin to increase your chances of being accepted into a wider pool of people” — was so deeply rooted in ignorance that I could not let it go. I am speaking up.
Let’s start with the “black” aspect of it. For what better time to address this issue than during Black History Month? Even within the black community, having lighter skin is more beautiful. Light black people sit with light black people, and the same is true of darker people. Such was apparent at a predominantly black gathering that one of my friends recently attended. We see, however, that this trend is not rooted in our minds alone, but in patterns of history.
Lighter skinned slaves had the opportunity to do more “domestic” work in the house, while darker skinned slaves worked in the fields; some Historically Black Colleges and Universities implemented a “brown paper bag rule” for admissions in which if your skin was not lighter than a paper bag, you would not gain admission; “passing” as white was a point of pride within the black community; darker skinned celebrities are seldom seen on covers of magazines or in popular films; women in my home country of Cameroon have bathed themselves in skin-whitening creams for years in order to achieve that “European look.” The patterns are there. Just keep reading.
The idea of beauty itself is one that all women can identify with. There is one kind of beauty, and that is tall, skinny, and white with straight hair, straight teeth, and preferably light eyes. As women, we primp ourselves for hours striving to achieve that perfect magazine cover appearance. We starve ourselves and go to the gym to get that bikini body, we pile makeup on our faces to hide any blemishes, we make sure our hair is always properly groomed, and we spend exorbitant amounts of money on clothes and shoes every year — all for what? Essentially, to be accepted by society.
Had I possessed the growing problem of lack of self-confidence and esteem that so many young women face today, had I not had the self-confidence and self-esteem that my parents taught me to have at a very young age, I would have taken her advice seriously and gotten started on a skin-lightening regimen. I would have truly believed that I was not beautiful, and that the only road to success was to conform. Instead, I turned around and said to her, “HELL NO. I AM CONFIDENT ENOUGH IN MY OWN SKIN TO TURN AROUND AND TELL PEOPLE LIKE YOU,” with both middle fingers up, mind you, “NO F*CKS ARE GIVEN. I AM BEAUTIFUL.” And I urge all women to gain the confidence to do the same.
“I mean, you have a computer, you have a cellphone, you go to college—those are all forms of conformity, so why not?” was her reply. Why not? Because I am so much more than the color of my skin, or the way I dress, or the music I listen to.
This, then, becomes a problem of humanity. At the end of the day, we are all human beings—we are all individuals. In a world that constantly bombards us with images of how we should be, finding our individuality and our voice is difficult. In a world where having a strong, opposing voice is looked down upon; using that voice is twice as difficult. I am not shaming “white culture” or “white privilege,” for I realize the complexity of our individual experiences. Individual being the key word — “A single human being as distinct from a group, class, or family.” We are not our race, we are not our ethnicity, and we are not our socio-economic status. We are individuals. Individuals that can come together and promote discourse and disruption within our community.
I have chosen to write an open, non-anonymous letter because it is time for a change. The closed-mindedness present within society, and within the little microcosm of society that is the Claremont Colleges, is something that must be discussed and reformed. It is time to start realizing that our superficial and our deeper differences are what make us beautiful.
Imagine a world where people did not question the status quo, if their only desire were to be part of the majority. Imagine a world where there was only one way to be right, and all other variations were shunned. Imagine a world where everyone accepted suggestions such as “you could just lighten your skin to increase your chances of being accepted into a wider pool of people.”
As students at institutions of higher learning, as people who have been exposed to people of different backgrounds (maybe not at home, but at least here), as educated individuals, and as the leaders of the future, I expect a lot more.
If not for me, then for the millions of little girls that have had similar experiences; for the millions of people that feel that, because they don’t fit into a particular mold, they are wrong; for the millions of people that lack the confidence to speak up. Let’s change the way we think.
Claremont McKenna College ‘16
This letter was originally posted on the Claremont Colleges Class of 2016 Facebook Group.