Color me coloured.
My slowly expanding awareness of myself.
That my race isn’t separate from myself. That it is part of this self I am striving to know.
When I was younger, I lived in a country where my race was predominant. But that didn’t matter. At school, there were Lebanese students, Indian students, my principal was white; her children were mixed. It didn’t matter. No one cared. Perhaps it was my extreme ignorance. Perhaps it was childhood. All I know is, no one ever told me it should, and it didn’t.
I was just a girl. But even that didn’t matter. I was a girl who was dared to beat up the guys, which was childish and silly, and I did. But my girlhood didn’t matter either. In fact, identity didn’t matter very much at all. A lot of the problems we had were very external. Electricity. Heat. Friendship. And that, we found ways to bypass, ways to move past. Life was tough but it was easy. For a child, it was nothing fierce. It just was. Looking from right here, it was perfect. Ignorant. Naïve. Simple. Gentle. Vibrant. Free. We were unafraid and whole. Our worries never went very much beyond the now. Tomorrow? What was that?
I got older. Went on holiday. New countries. New people. I never saw it; it wasn’t a thing. They’d say “Oyinbo” back home, when referring to white people. They used the same saying for my little sister who was light skinned. It was nothing. It meant nothing. We were all the same.
High school passed by smoothly enough. Then, college, before university. I remained unaware, but aware. Friends would say stuff: “these white people are…”; “do you bite off your finger when you eat chocolate?”; “what’s your real hair like?”; “where are you from?” Etc. I began to tug apart sections of my brain like knocking wooden boxes open with a hammer. I was black. I’d been told, not directly, but I’d been told. I was afraid to go into the old people’s home – I thought they’d hate me (for being black). I was seventeen and coming-of-age, I suppose you’d say, and suddenly, I was engulfing myself in all the thoughts that others might have of me. Not because I was a girl, or because I was sassy, or because I liked to read more than I liked to speak to people – no. Because my skin looked different. Someone tossed the glasses off my face, and as I opened my eyes, I was blinded with these sorts of ridiculous – yet not unfounded – worries.
University passed okay enough. Reading about and watching films on the Slave trade and its root causes; its existence; its aftermath – I guess I grew a little. I began to understand that there once was and still was a sort of divide. Hair. Looks. Opinions. Mindset. Worries. Wonders. A divide that went beyond simple personhood.
I once saw a newspaper headline – “newspaper”, I should say – that said something like: ‘Black women are regarded as the most unattractive of all races of women in the world.’ I tell you, I looked at myself in the mirror for a while after that. I’d never been very concerned with the state of my attractiveness, and I suppose I remained a bit neutral to it, but I spent more time wondering how people saw me, what they saw me as, what their first description of me would be, if they had to point me out in a crowded room. Tall. Fat. Ugly. Black. Did one cancel out the other?
My eyes and my mind shone with the awareness. It had officially become a thing.
However, I was adamant about not identifying with it. I was concerned that I might become one of those women who found everything offensive. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be the one that people would say of: “she’s not like other black people; she’s different.” What that would mean, I didn’t know. Never quite realising how wrong such a thought was; how guilty I was for thinking it.
Then, graduate school. New country. New friends. New mix of nationalities.
I walked along my Gold Mile sidewalk with a friend one day – a friend that was fast becoming my favourite. I saw an older woman nearby struggling with her shopping bags. I wanted to help her; I said as much, but I stopped myself and thought: what if this lady doesn’t want to feel like an ‘older’ woman? My friend on the other hand, in response to my: “I wish I could help her but maybe I shouldn’t,” said, “Yeah, because you’re black.” And a part of me resented her right there and then.
But why should I?
She’s allowed not to be colour blind. Everyone is entitled to that. Friends or otherwise. The spread of colour-consciousness will continue for generations. I get that. But I suppose I longed for the friends I’d made to be on my side – not in the sense of a battle, but rather, in the sense of perception.
Because it is – a perception. That black is a thing. That white is a thing. I never saw it; I forgot it. I didn’t think about it. But maybe I am obligated to, as I’m learning. Generations ago, people made it a thing, and others suffered for it – and for the sake of the sufferers, I don’t know that I’m allowed to dismiss my connection to the significance of my skin colour.
But, I am also allowed to forget it. To forget that others have a colour. I am allowed not to identify with it, just as I am allowed to be offended when people say things that belittle my existence in the world. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been sheltered. I haven’t suffered and I haven’t experienced a great deal of belittling. I’d like it to stay that way. Who knows? Maybe it will.
Nevertheless, I am many labels. I am a woman. I am black. I am tall. I am African. But I would like to continue to live a life where, while I concern myself with these labels – in unity with others, in coming-of-age, while of age – I do not become excessively attached to them, or excessively aware of them. For more than all those things, I am smart, I am confident, I am a thinker, I am a reader, I am a dreamer, I am a friend, I am a traveller, I love, I celebrate, I write, I live, I hope, I breathe, I exist. And to take preference or give special attention to one, diminishes the significance of the others, I believe.
So, I say, see what you must, and as you do that, I shall be what I must.l