How do I tell them, in a way that they will understand, in a way that they will listen? That they are beautiful, not despite their black skin, but because of it, because it is an intrinsic part of them.
How do I tell them this, without assuming the position of power that got us into this mess in the first place? Without supposing that I know best, thanks to my upbringing in a country that has “moved past racism”; thanks to my hours spent in classrooms discussing identity and race?
How do I tell them to love their skin, when I continually find fault with my own: “It’s too pale, too pimply, too red when when I spend time in the sun?” How can I ignore their compliments while insisting that they accept mine? How can I spurn the “Fair and Lovely” products sold in the store, having purchased tanning products myself?
But I have to tell them. I must. Because for one, it is indescribably true, and more importantly, because those shining eyes, those dimples, those brilliant smiles will likely not be told at home. They will certainly not be told on TV, in the advertisements plastered around town, in the films they sneak off to see. No, they will be told just the opposite.
Fair-skinned celebrities will tell them outright in commercials like this. Their elders will tell them, in aggravated tones, when their dark skin forces them to pay a higher dowry before the wedding. Their teachers will tell them, not directly, but in the way they themselves grimace at a picture taken with me, with a whispered “I’m so dark.”
From the earliest age, these children will learn that only fair skin is beautiful.
Desperate for them to believe me, I tell them about the tanning industry in America, all 12 billion dollars of it. I tell them about my jealousy over my mom’s beautiful olive skin and how I hate showing my pasty white legs. I try to unveil the absurdity of racial hierarchies and to show them that both ends of the spectrum want what the other has. I tell them, as many times as they will listen, that “black is beautiful, black is beautiful, black is beautiful.”
It doesn’t make me feel any better. Because I know that when I leave, they will forget, if they ever really understood at all. Instead, they will remember petting my pink skin and playing with my blond locks, thinking I couldn’t feel it (not in a manner that could be described as racist, discriminating, or even prejudiced, like when it happens to my dark, curly-haired friends, but quite honestly, in a reverential way.)
I do hope that the older girls, those just entering high school, will recognize and remember that I am not just being nice with my insistence of their beauty, but that I am being honest. That those cosmetic companies, who have everything to gain from their deep insecurities, are the ones telling lies; are the ones not to believe. I can hardly allow myself to hope that society will change in time for the first graders, who have already learned the jarring words of “No, Miss, you only-a beautiful. I’m too black!”
Our principal Joice has the best approach, even sense of humor, about all of this. She calls me “Riverside’s talking doll” and “my fair lady.” She marvels at the artistic contrast of our intertwined fingers. She stands next to me in photos in the contrived hope that my pale skin will reflect some light onto her own black features. She reminds me that racism, like every sin, comes from not knowing Jesus. And that one day, when we are reunited with our Savior and given our new names, race and insecurities and injustice will be no more. One day, these precious children will know, in their innermost being, that they are beautiful and cherished and worthy of love.
Oh, how I long for that day.