Tanning, Summer Nostalgia, and Your Observations About My Skin

Last weekend, for the first time in a long time, a White boy I have known for many years let out a gleeful sigh as he compared his summer tan to mine. “I’ve never been tanner than you before,” he said. I was back home, visiting my family in the far reaches of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. I hadn’t seen this boy since early adolescence, and his off-hand observation sent me tumbling back to a poignant time in my life where my many White friends exalted daily in being tanner than a Black girl.

I could never be sure if their comments were further proof that I was not in fact Black — not really — or sickening validation that blackness was a magnificent sleeve one could pull on under the summer sun, just to enjoy for a season.

Comparing tans is not a cool game for mixed folks. Yes, we occasionally revel in our year long summer glow. But mostly, every moment in the sun is a plea to be fairly represented in our community. Every moment gazing in the mirror is a desperate search for signs of the history that reforms like cells when another member of our community is slain.

And still, every time I let my eyes fall from my reflection is a reminder of the privileges of White passing. It may be inadvertent, but it’s there in the eyes, the skin, the hair. I don’t know what it feels like to be taught to fear the sun’s potential. But I do know what it’s like to be told who I am by people who do not have to learn my history because our environment teaches us all that theirs is superior.

I know that my pain is only one kind of pain. There is a spectrum of barriers set against self love, and I know I fall somewhere in the middle. Most of the time, we can all fake a certain amount of power. But for some of us it only lasts in flashes, memories of triumph or moments of peace.

I am not angry with this particular White boy. I hold him in a place and a time that was once my home. I hope he learns to reckon with his own skin, but I know he does not have to.

I have known many White people who are darker in complexion than I am. I am constantly in wonderment at how complexion dictates my sense of self, my Black womanhood. It is an undeniable factor of racism and oppression, and that is perhaps what makes my presented body so painful to me.

I am not pretending to be Black. I am not choosing to step in and out of blackness when it is easy or convenient or beneficial. I live honestly in the body and multiple histories I was born to, every day. I can remind myself of this, and I can know it to be true. But it won’t stop White people from choosing when and where I am or am not Black based on their comfort or curiosity.

“Cool, I’m tanner than a Black person!”

I could pluck those words from any page in any journal of my Vermont adolescence.

If two bodies are involved in this interaction, who walks away feeling superior and clever. Who walks away invalidated in every way, forced by whiteness to question her identity, yet again.

Should I be asking myself every day what it means to walk around in light skin? Yes.

Should White people — people I once called friends — continue to dictate the terms of my identity as a mixed person? No.

So this is a letter to those former friends, sheltered by their whiteness and by the blindness and muteness of the state of Vermont — my beloved, unloving home.

Dear friends,

I don’t need you to believe me when I tell you who I am. I don’t need you to remind yourself when you look into my yellow face that you are speaking to a Black woman. I don’t need you to see me at all. I won’t be the one who forces you to learn. I am hurt by you, but I am not controlled by you, and I do not require your love or acceptance. I will continue to seek multiplicity and intersection without your blessing or your opinions. I am not interested in your version of body politics. I am not interested in what it takes for you to change, because I know that it won’t come from my body or my identity — your opportunity to love me and learn who I am has passed.

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