T H E W H I T E M I R R O R
“We don’t understand you? Who can understand you, I wonder?..Don’t imagine such nonsense, child, and thank your good fortune that you have been received here. Are you not in a warm room, and in society from which you may learn something?...Believe me, I speak only for your own good. I may tell you unpleasant truths, but that is a proof of my friendship. I advise you, therefore, to lay eggs, and learn to purr as quickly as possible.”
“I believe I must go out into the world again,” said the duckling.
- Hans Christian Andersen, 1843
Around the age of 5, I sometimes used to play with a blue kitchen towel on my head. I wish I could tell you the towel was on my head because I was playing Star Wars or something more pro-fem like a strong lead on her escape to Mexico, but really, I was just pretending to have long hair that was very much unlike my Afro-hair. Besides having fun playing pretend, it made me feel beautiful. I remember turning my head any which way just to feel the cloth on my cheeks. Somehow, by television and experience alike, some sort of agreement had soaked in through my (very) impressionable, young subconscious.
The towel was no more than a blip on the childhood screen as I continued to grow within the brightness of kindergarten, and later on, a new elementary school located in a predominantly white area when my Nigerian family moved. I knew first I was African before I ever knew I was black. There was nothing more I wanted to avoid than the hot wave of embarrassment produced from social flubs like pronouncing words incorrectly (like waffoo instead of waffles, cream instead of lotion, etc). I quickly learned that if I wanted to be accepted by the group, I was going to need to abide by the group and defer to my peers.
For a long time, the world I operated in was by default white, or rather, it was by default, un-black. This was the world in which I grew. It’s incredibly strange to consider retrospectively. Until recently, most of the straining and discomfort I had felt I oversimplified as the experience of wanting to be accepted by your peers as a child. Impulsively, I put out a survey addressed to black women who had also grown up in predominantly white areas. I thought maybe one or two people might respond. Yet, to my surprise, several black women responded with their own experiences of growing up within un-black environments. “Halle'' was one of the first women in her brevity to state the complexities of this kind of environment and where it has now placed her:
“From elementary school, I felt like I had to fully assimilate to white culture to survive and attempt to be accepted...and now as an adult, I’m realizing how many pieces of myself that I have repressed or broken and how I’m not my full self because of this feeling [of being] unsafe, unsupported, and less than for embracing or being anything Black culture or “too ethnic” [or] “too black.” I’ve been effectively “white washed” and now I’m trying to strip off this shame and brainwashing from existing and tapping into my roots.” - Halle
The visual impact on our psyches vis-à-vis these predominantly white environments may have been innocuous at first, but however late, it is apparent now. During those impressionable years, our black reflections were erased from the front of most game boxes, from the most popular children’s books to young adult fiction and beyond, our favorite television programs, within our classrooms and school curriculum, and on and on. In my personal experience, those who were in authority were all white or white-passing except for very few exceptions. Popular media had this unspoken, prescribed “1 black person per story” policy that seemed to mirror my life. 1 per party. 1 per classroom. 1 per car ride. 1 per friend group.
From what I understand, it wasn’t as though images of black people didn’t exist out there. It’s that they didn’t exist immediately or with consistency within our environments to a disparaging degree as “Halle” hints at. There was no substitute for the loss of camaraderie with peers with like features so we could exchange hairstyles back and forth, roll our eyes at each other when the teachers would skim over slavery while the other kids would stare at us, moan about our strict parents (the way some of my white friends used to talk to their parents still has me shook), and so on. Yes, there’s no denying that growing up would have looked differently with a sort of support system to subsidize the lack of diversity in our external worlds. To be fair, how can you find something that you don’t know is missing?
Reading the women’s responses gave me some relief that I hadn’t been the only one who had experienced the pervasive feeling of being “other,” that deep loneliness felt during adolescence even amid the joy of friendship. In fact, I even stumbled across the knowledge that I wasn’t the only one who had walked around with a towel on her head. The women shared some of their own memories growing up:
“I truly remember just how much whiteness was idealized. I remember being so young and wishing I was white so the white kids wouldn’t make me feel different because of my skin. It wasn’t in a hateful way, it was more of a disbelief or having to acknowledge that my skin was so much different- or my hair could ‘stand up’. I knew it was a preference for everyone. I was also always told I didn’t sound black because of how I talk. I have a high pitched valley accent.” - Shonda
“I was always referred to as ‘black [stephanie]’ instead of just my name.”- Stephanie
“I was never considered “black enough” to my white peers. Which I don’t understand how they would even know what being black is. That comment was a daily occurrence for me.” - Kara
“I get really sad remembering Halloween in preschool. I was Snow White, and kids told me I couldn’t be Snow White because I was black. I’m 29 and I still get sad remembering.” - Harriet
“Felt incredibly alone and ugly lol but now I love being black!”- Angela
“When it came to crushes I definitely felt like ‘no one liked me/ or my white girlfriends were chosen over me. I used to also date white guys so...”- Courtney
“Well, I grew up in white spaces overseas too, but funnily enough, the idea of "race" never really dawned on me until I was going to school in the US, and realized the White kids and Black kids lived in different neighborhoods and seemed to have different interests and access to different resources. I just knew I didn't like how the White kids seemed to fit neatly into everything and the unspoken energy around how Black kids somehow didn't.”- Sandra
“I always wanted long hair that I could flip like they did but thankfully never wanted to be white.”- Daesha
“I suffer from CPTSD, depression, and anxiety because I grew up around only white people. It was the single worst thing that could have ever happened to me. I attempted suicide three times before I turned 18. The first compliment I ever received from a peer was when I was 19, I had moved to California, I cried for days after because of how good it felt. I still feel like I don’t fit in in most spaces. I am biracial so always the “different” one but I’m learning to find acceptance within myself.” - Jada
“Basically, it was cake for my brother a Black boy and so much harder for me as a girl.”- Christa
It can be understood that our families, television, places of worship are some of the first mirrors we look into to define who we are, and then we expand out into our schools, or various community groups like dance or sports leagues, etc. These are the mirrors that give us feedback beyond beauty into personality, interests, humor - an invaluable contribution to reflect self-worth. Living and interacting within these groups provides reassurance of the truth of ourselves. As black females, we juggled finding individuation within that group while being compounded with the task of being trained to be likable and nice. 64% of the women employed people-pleasing techniques during these formative years. “Christa,” the last commenter above, reflects on the burden of that special combination.
For me, the white mirror was invisible during adolescence because it was all I had cognitively ever known. Without acknowledging the root of standards and norms, it’s easy to turn on yourself when you don’t add up or when you’re different. So you encourage yourself to be more, try more, do more, behave more, look more, hide more. Beauty, representation, understanding - if those mirrors don’t show who we are, what are they saying then?
75% of us experienced dissatisfaction with our natural-born hair. To give perspective, the Crown Act, a California law, was just enacted in 2020 which states an employer cannot discriminate against hiring black people based upon their hair texture or hairstyle. A law to protect the way our hair naturally grows out of our own heads. They had to write a law about it! I remember being confused as a child thinking there was something wrong with my hair. Why didn’t it look like anyone else’s? I was ashamed when I was laughed at, hurt when someone poked fun. Those eurocentric beauty standards quite often forced us to flatten ourselves literally. In many instances we were ducks being told to purr. This is where growing up seeing other black girls in the spaces we existed in would have been so beneficial. To see more Afro beauty with the kinks and coils.
Being black also came along with being stereotyped. Growing up, my actions always had this weight to them, from the act of learning how to crip walk (during break from a white girl who took hip-hop class LOL) to going to a mosh pit - it wasn’t just me going in there, it was also Black People. And I had the responsibility of not fucking it up for Black People, showing how amazing and “normal” we are and how we liked rodeos too (I didn’t) - it was this kind of chip on my shoulders that I needed to prove something. I didn’t want to act in any manner that would support anyone’s negative beliefs. When you grow up in this manner of “other”, some things you do out of spite and others to please. In elementary school I remember joining in with one of my closest friends, Sarah, laughing at the silhouette of my very normal, African head with the unique hairstyle in order to separate myself from myself and thwart the pain by reducing myself to nothing more than an object. In fourth grade I would hear Luke, the cutest boy in the fourth grade, call me a “nigger” quietly to Chris while laughing.
Surviving those social years, I learned to shrink back, roll over and show my soft belly right away in order to be liked, to take away anyone’s fear of who they might think I was and thus prevent their meanness and biasness. I wanted to be seen as equal, not automatically dismissed, seen even as the exception. My exposure to the world is in tandem with my self-knowledge. These days I’d rather you choke on me than make myself become small. I still have Uber drivers turn the station to hip hop once I enter the vehicle, people cross the streets on my walks even in the daytime (or in one instance RUN, which I am still laughing at), and so on and so forth, but that’s a reflection of themself and perhaps my own assumptions - nothing more. It took a lot of time to get rid of the hypervigilance built from reading cues and pre-empting them. Everyone’s on their own now. The self-criticism had become unbearable by the time I was ready to change. I’d catch myself in moments not living, but watching as if out of body. Tense and waiting to correct behavior. Still primed for cues. It took prayer, mediation and practice to rewrite my brain over the years. I am still rewriting.
To be helpful, here’s what I’ve learned from my many expeditions to the past so I can maybe save you a trip: You do not represent your whole race and that responsibility is no longer yours to shoulder. We are eaches and individuals. What I’ve garnered from the women’s answers is that as we’ve grown older there’s this urge to protect young black girls growing up in similar environments so that they do not have to experience things in the same way as we did. With the birth of the internet, inclusion in the media, diversity initiatives, and so many ways to connect, it’s a good chance they won’t. This is progress.
T H E B L A C K M I R R O R
[White men wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see human beings. White women wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see women. Black women wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see Black women. ] - Michelle Haimoff’s quote in reversed order.
The summer of 2020 boiled, then spilled over. I don’t have the words to properly describe the amount of vitriol I have for America’s system of perpetuated abuse towards black people and other minorities. It is its history, built on genocide. The hope for a better legacy is uncrushable, but perhaps that’s what’s left of American exceptionalism speaking. Amid a worldwide pandemic, people turned out into the streets to protest the unlawful murder of George Floyd by the hands of the police. Black Lives Matter had once again reached the front of the news with fresh attention. Extra time had suddenly become available to people at large bearing stay-at-home orders. We had the time today. All the other distractions were closed.
The outrage gathered more steam with protests in the streets, boycotts by the NBA, NFL. The statements and the lack thereof from our nation’s leader. And with all of this came new enlightenment to a lot of people including myself. Adulthood had thankfully brought changes - a new city, new friends, new groups, a sense of belonging to the global black community at large, my country, the world. It wasn’t until I read this post by a black woman from Harlem that I fully faced the black mirror.
Black folk in quotations. Enemy. I’m a believer that if you feel disturbed by what someone is saying and take it personally, some small part of you believes it to be true. Well, reading this, I felt attacked. Of course I bristled at it too. Who the hell are YOU were one of those thoughts. I scoffed at the questions. Kicked it around. Pretended I couldn’t see it out of the corner of my eye, then ultimately sat down with it to examine it further. In truth, there were plenty of times where I did not feel black enough despite being dark-skinned, despite being AFRICAN, as opposed to the palatable light-tones that up until recently have been Hollywood’s popular way of diversifying. It wasn’t until this inspired bout of thinking that I was able to pinpoint that a lot of my discomfort and some of the shame had developed solely from the lack of exposure to American black culture growing up. It was no sin, in fact, perfectly understandable. Yet because of the dialogue of life in America, it was somewhat of a failing.
I had previously learned about American black culture secondhand through television and a friend growing up. I had no living example around me since my family normally socialized only with other Nigerians and felt thus removed. Though an African household and an American black household share similarities such as the obvious physical attributes and a shared status in American society, the list of differences could easily prove longer. Aware of my lack of knowledge, I felt embarrassed and unwanted in black spaces for a long while. It didn’t seem as though I belonged. I thought I spoke strangely, listened to too much rock music, couldn’t really dance that well, was not very cool in the sense of witticism. I had always been aware of the color of my skin standing on the border of those mosh pits and I was aware of it too standing on the edge of a club’s dance floor where I was supposed to already be a good dancer. I asked the others:
92.9% of the women surveyed said that there was a time where they didn’t feel like they were black enough. So, in those moments, what were they? Where did they belong? What exactly is the highest level of achievement of blackness so that we can properly measure our failure? It’s not surprising that shame should be an accompanying feeling. As I clicked and reposted these political images that summer while taking refuge in other’s words who knew what they were talking about and had the passion and the drive, it somewhere within also felt like some sort of penance, an apology for growing up friendly with the “enemy”, for growing up estranged from the tribe. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be with black people and learn again. I was tired of being the only one in the room. It was time to rebuild the foundation, and with that, destroy the stories that had been built upon it.
Part of growing up black in a predominately white environment was akin to the feeling of having an inherent flaw. It fueled the flames in that gaping crevasse between who I am and who I was supposed to be all while entering my 20’s. It was hard to pinpoint. But every year passing was bringing me more exposure to black culture and as consequence, a deeper knowledge of myself. The goal is to outgrow the tempering of our youth, review some of our notes, then shake off the dust and morph into the butterfly adult we had always hoped to be, right? To do that requires meticulous separation between what’s really you and what is someone else. This is the sort of self-criticism that is worthy to maintain. So when in fact the maladjusted progressive thought such as this:
And narrowing concepts such as this -
-will never, or no longer, hold any subconscious power over identity. Strength within will hopefully play a part in creating strong relationships so that -
-71.4% of these women will finally exist within a permanent feeling of acceptance. Even if -
-82.1% feel as though they at least might have grown up differently with previous diverse exposure.
I appreciate the mirror that the Harlem woman did hold up in the Instagram post because it made me look at myself face-to-face and see who I am and ask the appropriate questions. The discomfort was an opportunity for growth which I used to patiently lay out the complexities of growing up in predominantly white spaces and connect with others. There is always something empowering about conquering inner dissonance. It only enhances your short life here on Earth. I say this to the black women who have developed in mainly white spaces, who might be discovering the complexities within themselves later than they might have liked to and are ready to move forward: When those uncomfortable twinges in conversation come up within ourselves or at some faux pas of another, we can notice and say, ok there’s something here and start to figure it out. It’s a process. You can probably live a life happily enough ignoring it all. That is your prerogative. All I know is that growing up in this environment can lend you a strength now. Michelle Obama once shared that bridging this gap between people is a “superpower of sorts.” You can move through groups and connect what might have stayed disconnected. The only limitations are those we still make for ourselves. No matter what room you choose to enter, no one belongs there more than you.
T H E N E W M I R R O R
“To be born in a duck’s nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan’s egg. He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him; for the great swans swam round the new-comer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome.” -Hans Christenensen
One can take comfort in being a citizen of the world. A place to finally blend in. Where choices are considered to be purely one’s own. Not ad hoc following any pre-requisites of what box society would like one to be. What I craved as I became an adult was to operate from neutral, from ground zero. The place and privilege that white people have enjoyed.
The mirrors served their purpose. Now may be the time in your life to ask, if they, if ever, serve yours. Loving yourself is the most important goal. As time goes on, I continue to be nurtured by the richness of diversity and remain grateful for the endless benefits of my parents’ sacrifices. Let me add a disclaimer, I had a fantastic education and overall, grew up with a lot of privileges. Lots of joy and fun times with people that I am grateful to have called friends. The truth of this essay does not negate the truth of that one. Since moving and accumulating a more diverse lifestyle as I aged, I began to grow like a flower in soil. From one grade to the next, one year to another, I gathered more understanding. I wouldn’t be who I was if I didn’t come from where I did. My favorite quote as I travel this earth and live out my days is to remember Chuck Palahnuik’s words “I am the combined effort of everyone I have ever met.”
It’s not lost on me that “New Mirror” is the shortest section out of this collection. It’s because you don’t need one more voice telling you who you should be or who you are anymore. Know yourself as only you could. Ask yourself what you want more of. To the black girls who will become black women, here is advice just for you from the women who took part in the survey:
-You do not need to look/act/sound/etc any specific way to prove or to downplay your race. Discovering who you are is a continual process. Make it easier and more joyful by being who you are for yourself, not the person that other people think you should/shouldn't be.
-A lot of our history and current reality is about racism and pain. But a lot of it is about joy, creativity and love! Having fun, relaxing, and connecting, and celebrating are essential parts of your life, no matter your responsibilities or age.
-Your black is unique, but being different is scary.
-You are beautiful/ handsome. Your skin is not something you can change so don't worry about it. Focus on the things within your control like who you surround yourself with and how they make you feel. You are special, there is only one, embrace that! Live as an original never a copy
-Don't change your identity for this boring ass white kids
-Just be yourself. Trust me. They do not have it easy either.
-You are beautiful. You are smart. You belong.
-You don’t have to prove anything to anyone or try to justify any of your interest. Also, you are beautiful and don’t have to change anything about you.
-Love your hair
-There are so many people in this world and you’ll find your set.
-You are not alone, the world is so so big and you will meet people like you. And you are enough, your identity is valid and contingent on more than just your skin tone and what that means.
-You are enough. Don’t pay them any attention
-Don’t let anyone confuse you about your beauty.
The boys not wanting to play or dance with you, and only dancing with the white girls isn’t fine, you’ll find your place, don’t try to fit in by accepting “you’re not like the other black people” as a compliment.
Don’t let their [white people’s] lack of understanding or relatability make you hate yourself. You’re the prize and people will try to strip you of that, but always remember you’re the prize.
You're not too dark, you're not too thick, you're hair isn't nappy. you're not ugly, society is.
-It gets better. I didn’t create my own identity until college. That’s when I learned to love myself. I had to remove myself from the white space. It’s scary because I thought I’d get teased for acting “white” but there are many of us with this same experience. And we grow together to get our own black identity.
-You are not them, and that is completely okay; never doubt that. Anyone who tries to make you feel small does so because something is messed up inside of them, and your light makes it obvious.
-You are valued and you are beautiful black people are not inferior
-You are enough and you are worthy. You are beautiful exactly the way you are. You deserve to be there/here, to be free to explore all aspects of your self, your body, and your personality....for your true self to be seen/heard. Your voice, thoughts and feelings matter. Find those who will listen and support you.
-Be true to yourself. You don’t need to appease your white peers in order to be accepted.
-Don’t let people get away with racist comments and you are beautiful!
-Seek out other black people in person, online, and in the media. Your nonblack relationships are important, but it's also important to have people to connect with about all your identities, whether it be black, disabled, musician, etc.
We’re each building a home within ourselves. Some of us might be turning the key late, but at least we arrived. And it feels soooooo good. To all our black girls who are out there who find themselves living in predominantly white spaces, we are with you in spirit.
Ola is a Nigerian-American writer residing in Los Angeles, CA.