Living with my skin

In my last post I suggested that I had chosen the road to travel in terms of my blog writing. I am on a journey of reaching inside to find out more about myself as a black mixed heritage woman, whilst reaching out to others who might learn more of themselves when engaging with me along the way. I remarked that it would be a lonelier journey than writing about early years and I have found myself reflecting on what that really means. Here is an opportunity to turn away from reading any further – this is not a comfortable journey…

I am a lucky person. I am surrounded by wonderful family and many good friends. I have been told by friends that I am easy to get on with and chose different words to describe what I am to them: funny, kind, self-effacing, thoughtful, calm, good at listening, empathic, giving. I know that alongside these positive are many negative traits that I might consider. However, on this part of my journey to self-awareness I have questioned where these seemingly ‘positive’ attributes were acquired. As I have said before, I have a big round brown face which usually wears a big smile and is quick to change into body-wobbling laughter. It is most often genuine, but sometimes is the mask I have chosen to hide behind. From my place of ‘other’ and the resulting desire to be liked and accepted I have discovered that outward jollity is one of the best tools – people love a smiler. Over the years I have learned the art of joking to diffuse difficult situations, to cover something that has been said or done which causes myself or another embarrassment or distress. Sometimes, as I have posted before, I make a ‘joke’ about me and my colour before it is used by someone else – the barb hurts less when self-inflicted. Experiences have made me wont to self-deprecation, coupled with stillness and observation. These attributes are used partially to stop people viewing me as a threat, which is often the case when you are different and part of the ‘outgroup’, whilst allowing watchfulness for a tell-tale reaction which informs me of whether this is the advocate or judge that stands before me, and therefore my response of trust, fight or flight.

I have asked myself how many of these attributes would have been there anyway. Is this a result of my genetic make-up or my experiences – the old chicken-or-egg-like conundrum of nature or nurture. Some may say that this is nothing to do with the colour of my skin, and that this would be me anyway. After thinking long and hard though, I think what may have been inside anyway has been heightened by my experiences of being ‘other’, of internalising reactions to my difference and of seeing no-one like me in my environment. These are all on the surface positive attributes and I like many of these positive parts of my identity – but it is important to think about at what cost these have been acquired. As I write I wonder why does any of this matter. It matters because it has silenced my voice. It has made me attribute every slur, insult, or reaction to the colour of my skin – because what else could be to blame. Books that I have read call these occurrences ‘micro aggressions’. Pile these up enough over time and they dent the confidence, and hew the stone. It has made me think of being black as inferior and consequently it has held me back from taking up new experiences in case I am noticed… and hurt. If you are noticed you open yourself up to the barbs from another hand, and of being more noticeably other. Each new group of students I teach, each new party I go to, every holiday, every new group of people I encounter. I watch. I gauge, as I have all of my life spent as ‘other’, whether in front of me is advocate or judge.

I have never had a black friend or boyfriend. Never. Ever. How strange is that? I was brought up in a white place. As I have said I have been lucky enough to have many good friends – all white. At school my smiling face and sunny disposition awarded me with being friends with lots of the popular pretty girls. I have looked at old diaries where in my darkest days I have questioned whether I was just easy to be friends with as I was “ugly” and therefore made them even more beautiful “like beauty and the beast”. Teenage insecurities many would say – but without any positive black role models I believed that this was true, and that black was ugly. I was with my white girlfriends when the boys would flock and flirt. I laughed and joked and protected them whilst they played the innocent game of ‘now I love you, now I don’t’ that teenagers played then, and probably do now. I could copy those confident hips, those flirting words – the masked eyes under sweeping lashes, the dismissive sweep of the hand coupled with the come-hither look, but they never worked for me. My diaries reveal the desperate wish for a boyfriend in my teenage years…I had a few male friends at school but my crushes would never result in a relationship other than the view I was a companionable joker. Again rereading one particular diary entry where I recounted a conversation with one particular boy who was the best friend of another boy who I “really liked” revealed the deepest scar that stayed with me for a long time: “well he likes you, as…you know.. a friend. But you aren’t well…what girlfriends look like…but he says you are nice and…really funny.” My diary filled in the gaps left in the conversation: I was too fat with my big black thighs and hips…I was too ugly…I was just too black and that’s not what real girlfriends looked like where we lived. I had no one to share these dark thoughts with who would understand. My white friends did not have the same experience, and any talk of colour from me revealed their colour-blindness “I don’t see you as black. You are just Ann”. It was meant well, but confirmed our differences, negated my blackness, my identity.

Those lovely white friends would go to the local chemist for hair products and makeup and they would spend ages doing each other’s hair or makeup in the toilets of the local youth club on a Tuesday evening. There was little available then which was suitable for my skin or curly hair. I can remember a friend insisting that she could ‘do something’ with me and I waited patiently whilst she stood in front of me, tongue poked out in concentration. When I looked in the mirror I was horrified. My skin had been covered in too-light foundation, and my eyes had electric blue lids with thick black kohl as an outline. I now wore harsh lipstick red lips, making them look thicker and fatter than they already were. I muttered my thanks getting out my Afro comb to finish the look of some scary but surprised voodoo doll and spent the evening sat in the shadows of the hall as my lovely friends danced in front of the flashing disco lights. I still find make-up a problem and mostly avoid anything but a little imperceptible eye-shadow and mascara – for evermore haunted by that long ago abuse of my facial features!

My sister was older, and wiser, and had found her own way with boys and anyway colour was never something we talked about as a family. It was a few years before she and I became friends rather than squabbling siblings. So instead I internalised my difference as a personal fault that I could do nothing about. I ramped up the ‘joker and laugher’ and when in my late teenage years my mum left our family home, I decided to add ‘rebel’ to the list. I and another girlfriend joined a gang of lads (as always in my world, all white) – we drank, we smoked, we crashed parties, we stayed out all night and all weekend. We lived in rural East Sussex with no transport, so we hitched rides. We got ourselves banned from pubs and then reinstated because we were mostly harmless and were great for the profits. We were the bad eggs and I was just one of the lads. I found myself in a toxic ‘relationship’ with one of the group – I say relationship but although on my part it was a desire for love, from his it was convenience and never expressed in front of others. One night when I overheard him, drunk as he often was, calling me “an interesting bit of black” to some friends, something deep inside switched. I was more than that…much more. This derogatory, dismissive, impersonal description tore at my heart and burned my face, reminding me of a deeply traumatic event and a similar taunt by a betrayed white wife, shouting at a close black relative “You are nothing to him, he said you were just a bit of black”. It reminded me too much of ideas of a throw away, second-class less-than human, a bit of nothing. The picture similar to the book I had borrowed from my mum (“Roots” by Alex Hayley) and the treatment of slaves as property to be used, which had traumatised me deeply so that I sobbed as I read it.

If this was what I could expect because of my colour then I wanted none of it. I whispered sweetly in his ear, with all the hip-swaying and hooded-eyed suggestiveness that those white girls had taught me over the years, telling him that I would meet him outside and bring a drink with me. I am not sure what the motivator was, me or the beer, but he grinned his lovely lop-sided grin, nodded and slid outside like the snake he was. I strode purposefully to the bar to buy a pint of best Harvey’s bitter, and went to find him. He smiled like someone who was in control – someone who could sense the desperation for love that I harboured. The smile I returned was wistful – this was to be a turning point in my life even if I didn’t know what a momentous one then. I raised the glass above his head and poured slowly and deliberately stating “I…am…better…than…this”. I turned on my heel and walked. That night I said goodbye to that phase in my life and later at home crying on my sister’s shoulder I vowed that I was not typical girlfriend material, so it was time for fun.

The next few months of my life were spent working in the week, and going out with my older sister…often and she was my ally. I decided that if I was different because of my colour then so be it, I would flaunt that rather than hide it. There was a wonderful pub out in the sticks that we often frequented. It had bands playing at the weekend. It was wall to wall people inside and out, as any young body who was anybody went to meet and talk, smoke and drink. If you could actually get into the music bar, you had to move as one with everyone else to the rhythm of the band. If you wanted a drink you had to plan your route, pushing your way slowly through the crowd, and time it so that you got to the bar well before the last-orders bell was rung. I began to notice a very tall good-looking white man standing with two other tall men, always at the bar. Their size, confidence and loud-laughing took up the space in that low beamed room. That lovely man smiled each time I headed towards the bar – he had warm, smiling eyes, and a kind mouth and every time I approached he moved to give me space to order my drinks round. One day it just happened – we were drunk and laughing in the music bar, pushed together because of the crowd: “I’ve wanted to do this for ages” and he lent in to kiss me. There in front of all those other white people, no hesitation, no shame at kissing the black girl. This was new to me. Although I liked him and was deeply attracted to him, I tried to keep it cool. This ploy didn’t work for long, we became inseparable, and when after just two months he asked me to marry him, I found myself laughing with joy “yes, oh yes”. It took him many years to begin to chip at the picture I had of myself – when he told me I was beautiful I would laugh “not me”. He was an artist, a photographer, he made jewellery, he created beautiful things. He showed me artworks of big curvy women and would say “look they are beautiful, like you”. He took photographs of me when I wasn’t looking because if I noticed I would turn away. Gradually, although I could never see myself as beautiful, I knew that to him I was. I could see the things about my outward appearance that he loved. Over the years I begun to look at photographs of black women and at last see their beauty. I remember being bowled over by a photograph of a naked Grace Jones in an impossible angular pose – body ebony black and shining bright. I began to believe that dark skin, natural curly hair, big thighs, dark eyes, and tall strong bodies could be stunning. I had spent so long being a part of a white culture anything else had been alien to me. As a result of this I had been made to feel alien too, and although none of my friends had intended that outcome, that is what had happened almost by osmosis. As I begun to accept the beauty of the black form I stopped avoiding the eyes of the occasional black people that I’d begun to see in our local high street, instead I looked towards them, nodding affirmation and smiling, in my head saying: “yes, we are here and I see you”.

My husband and I ( that sounds rather grand) took a holiday to Barbados 16 years ago as part of a local cricket tour. I stepped off the plane and into the airport and felt like I had come home. It was a bizarre feeling – I had no roots in that place, no relatives that I could lay claim to. On a walk to the beach one day my husband and I tried to unpick the effect this experience was having on me. He, my best friend and the person that knew me best, had noticed my ease, my beaming smile, my relaxed body. As we talked it struck me that for the first time ever in my life I was not the minority. I felt more the same than different. I did not stand out just by existing. I didn’t have to feel so on guard waiting for the barb. For one of the first times ever, without any conscious will or effort on my part, I was comfortable in my own black skin.