Not Enough Room: When Your Blackness Doesn't Fit Into Their Archetype
Growing up in Southeast San Diego in the 1990s came with its advantages, nestled among unique challenges. While in one regard, the planned townhome community that I resided in presented a utopian spectacle of multi-racial families, living in identical split-level taupe and brown structures centered around a swimming pool and playground, there were the stories of kids being robbed for their Starter Jackets and British Knights while walking to school in the morning. So, once I left my sanctuary of home, I was living in a constant state of wariness and trepidation.
As if junior high school wasn’t daunting enough, I transferred second semester, from a traditional to a performing arts magnet academic institution in the Winter of 1992. As an awkward 12 year-old, who had not fully embraced her quickly developing body, I was truly terrified of being initiated into another group of angsty, yet judgmental and curious preteens. I had to start all over. Making new acquaintances, finding my way around a new campus and balancing the academic expectations of my parents with the demands of the new kids I so desperately wanted to be accepted by.
“What are you mixed with?”, they asked when I walked into the room. As if being Black wasn’t enough. My eyes darted across the intrusive faces to avoid eye contact, instead concentrating on mouths and shoes. I struggled to answer for a few reasons. One, I hadn’t been raised to look at diversity in Blackness-either you were or you weren’t. The variances that existed; whether you were of African or Caribbean descent in contrast to being an American born Black person or biracial, was never talked about in our household. And second, why couldn’t I just be me? In my family it wasn’t rare to have long hair; my sister and cousins shared that same genetics, with some whose hair was even longer than mine. And the freckles that swept across my nose, I had inherited from my Auntie Ann and my Great-Grandmother. But I guess having that in combination with brown skin and tight eyes was odd. To them. It just didn’t fit and therefore I didn’t. There wasn’t any room in their finite world for a girl who looked like me, and I didn’t understand.
It was not until my friend loudly proclaimed in front of everyone in our lunch circle that I was different because I had a “White girl nose”, that I started to examine myself. My substantial lips with a sharp cupids bow which sat below that narrow nose with slightly darker pigmented dots across its bridge, which started in between a pair of eyes that squinted to slits when I smiled big, lost beneath two bushy caterpillar-like eyebrows that almost met in the middle, almost. And the hair. The dark brown coils that expanded with the humidity and became unmanageable, typically tightly wound into a bun for control in order to avoid embarrassment-all of those features, all of that variation; there just wasn’t any room in anyone’s mind for that kind of different.
At 12 years old, I didn’t place an emphasis on physical beauty. Partly because I was not raised to. Outside of ensuring I was clean, well groomed and appropriate, my parents did not place an emphasis on what I looked like. My mother and father made sure I embraced the notion that developing my mind was more important than my clothes, which probably explained my entire wardrobe being mostly hand-me-downs from older cousins. But then again, my father probably would’ve chosen anything that masked my physical body from the outside world. Sure, I cared about what I looked like, but I never saw myself as pretty or cute like the other girls at school. With their coordinated rayon outfits and relaxed hairstyles, mirroring those I often saw in music videos or in magazines. I was soft-spoken and awkward; not confident, cool or commanding. So I decided that beauty wouldn’t be my thing. But brains would. Because I had primary influence on the outcome. If I studied hard and paid attention, I could exceed academic standards. Doing so would always be supported by my parents because being smart was not confrontational to them in any way. Additionally, intelligence was something that could not be seen to be judged; to become a degree of separation between me and others at first glance. Besides, I had a cute sister with blemish free skin and an outgoing personality, whose soft curly hair could be tamed with just water and grease, while mine had to be pressed into submission. Her big, perfect-toothed smile was comfortable and genuine, without the overbite that I was blessed with. I was already labeled the smart sister and she, with her slim hipless frame and long legs that seemed to go on forever, was the pretty one. Two pretty Black girls in one family? There wasn’t room enough for that anyway.
© Evangeline Lawson 2020