Recently I had the pleasure of partnering with The Root Social Justice Center to plan a successful event that was well-supported by the Brattleboro community. From Ghetto to Granola: Shades of Reality Among Black Women in Vermont was a forum that included showing a segment of the Dark Girls (produced by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry), and a panel of black girls and women living in Vermont. The panel shared their experiences in an unscripted candid discussion within various topics ranging from education to parenting. This piece is more personal than some of my previous articles. This event provided me with an opportunity to call myself out for all of the ways I was a part of the problem while contributing to a dialogue that could possibly be the start of unpacking the root causes of colorism. This article is my attempt to continue to offer food for thought while sharing some of my internal processes that took place while planning this event.
As I planned this event, a carousel of memories played in my mind. I thought of every joke I made about someone of ebony complexion claiming that the lights were turned out. Each time I refused to repeat, "The darker the berry the sweeter the juice," because I questioned its meaning. Each time I answered, "That does not count, she is too safe," whenever my white partners would point out other interracial couples asking me about the validity of their "interracial" status because the black woman in the dyad was light enough to pass. I reflected upon each time I wondered why men of different racial backgrounds approached me. After all, I did not look like Halle Berry or Vanessa Williams in complexion nor did I have straightened hair. I have questioned why I felt a pain in my spirit years ago upon witnessing a white mother point out Beyonce's image to her daughter stating, "Isn't she beautiful." Of course there was the moment during a conversation with one of my lighter skinned friends about politics when she stated, "Let's be real, if President Obama was your complexion, he would not have gotten into the White House." It stung like hell yet I knew she was right. Then, of course, the regular appearance of the joke about my hair in between maintenance as I would tell friends jokingly, "I need to get my hair done so that I don't look like a runaway slave." Perhaps these were ghosts from grade school still lurking within me of all of the light-skinned girls that I once wanted to be.
Other individuals from Saturday's event discussed the pressure to prove their blackness while in Vermont. I have been proving my blackness all of my life though I grew up in Hartford. I've tried to answer why I gravitated to Marilyn Manson just as much as I liked belting out lyrics to any ‘80s R&B song. As the moonlighting other, I recall being asked by many in my community where I was from. From girlhood to now, I receive regular questions such as, "Are you West Indian? Are you Haitian? Are you African? Are you from Brazil?" I once asked a close friend about the meaning of someone's comment that I did not look like a "regular Black girl" and she responded: "You don't! I look like a regular Black girl, you do not." I noticed my internal reaction over the years to these accusations about my origins that shifted from feeling offended to some distant feelings of elation. Why wasn't it good enough to be the regular Black American girl?
In short, I was guilty. I also carried other burdens that were not my own. Feeling pressure to provide explanations about my choice of non-black partners or my attraction to lighter skinned black men. As some of my friends declared their need to have a black man in my presence, I asserted my interest in driving outside of my lane to partner with a man of any flavor. There is also my appreciation for the adoration that white or non-black men have for me. A recognition of my beauty that I did not quite feel with the black men I encountered. This was something that I never could admit to anyone. In high school, I sat in puzzlement listening to my classmates as they sang Run D.M.C.'s "My Adidas." Now I look back on this moment laughing at the absurdity that this was knowledge that I needed in order to prove my blackness. During my undergraduate college years, I recall making my first friend on campus. A woman of color who almost foreshadowed what we would encounter by stating "You and me, we have to stick together." I learned about the colorism that existed in her family while receiving one of my initial introductions to racism as an adult.
But during these various experiences, I also found some pockets of support to embrace my difference. Many of my same friends who may have eyeballed me with curiosity at various points in my life also offered support and unconditional love for who I was. I vacillated moments of acceptance or lack thereof which resulted in the acceptance of my quirk and inability to fit in. As I have discussed this issue over the years, I still marvel at the varying experiences among Black women. This event with The Root Social Justice Center provided a safe and open platform for me to reveal myself to my friends or others about things I have not previously openly discussed in regards to colorism. It was also an opportunity to be brutally honest. These incidences have long been my reflecting glass to recognize that historical, societal and internal racism are real. Thus, we need to keep the conversation going.
Shanta Crowley writes from Brattleboro. You can follow her writing on her blog, Real Talk, at www.Reformer802.com/realtalk.