Own Your Beauty: On Being Multi-Racial in the Racist, Rural South
Own Your Beauty is a groundbreaking, year-long movement bringing women together to change the conversation about what beauty means. Our mission: to encourage and remind grown women that it is never too late to learn to love one's self and influence the lives of those around us - our mothers, friends, children, neighbors. We can shift our minds and hearts and change the path we follow in the pursuit of authentic beauty.
Let me just begin here by saying that this is NOT something I often talk about, especially not in my blogging. This subject comes out when I'm feeling very safe and secure, around trusted friends or family, and usually after at least a slight inebriation.
However, tonight, I figured, why not? Surely others have been through similar things. I'll go for it.
(I'm a little inebriated by caffeine, though. We won't say that counts.)
So here's the story. I won't go into the long version, but let's just say that my mother and father's interracial marriage (she was African-American, he was Caucasian) was the first EVER to happen in our county, and continued to be the only interracial marriage on the books in that county for at least 20 years afterward.
After the wedding, they moved back to California, where they'd met (only having married in the small rural Virginia town of 5,000 because that was where my mother's family was from). Three of us were born -- my older sister, then me, then my younger brother, and we moved back to Virginia.
I was about five years old then, and still pretty oblivious to race issues as a result of my reasonably liberal upbringing in San Diego. This blissful ignorance lasted for a few more years -- that is, until kids at school start breaking off into groups, and none of those groups consisted of both races.
(I say both because, during my childhood, my town had no Hispanic inhabitants of my age, besides one family. No Jewish inhabitants of my age besides one brother and sister, roughly my age. No Asian inhabitants of my age. No Indian inhabitants of my age. And on and on. There were TWO races. And they didn't hang out together outside of the classrooms.)
At the time, there didn't seem to be much animosity between the kids, they just didn't "happen" to spend time together.
At first, I hung out with the African-American kids. My cousins in the area were African-American, so I just went along with them and what they were doing. And although I keep some friends from that group to this day, I didn't fit in there. So around middle school, I started hanging out with the white kids. That just seemed to work better (especially because, as I've been told throughout my life, I don't "act black enough." Funny, I thought I was just acting like myself).
It isn't that there WEREN'T any other biracial kids around, but those kids were always raised by their African-American mothers, had no fathers to speak of, and in no way claimed their white heritage culturally. So I was the only one in the middle. Besides my brother and sister, that is.
So back to the story. I got on with the white kids, well enough. My helper-personality defaulted me into the role of counselor for all my friends (is there any surprise at the career path I've chosen? Turns out I was doing that all along).
There was a problem there, though. No one would date me. During the teeny-bopper years, when who your little note-passing boyfriend is is of major importance, this was a major issue. Even my white friends would sadly shake their heads and say, "Yeah, it's fine that we're friends, but I don't think my parents would let me date a half-black guy either." They saw the injustice of it, but what could they do?
So what could I do? My 12-year old self became obsessed with beauty. Surely if I could be graceful enough, lovely enough, I would be good enough over-all. I would be accepted. I stayed in on weekends and studied Cosmo magazines and Seventeen and whatever else I could get my hands on to figure out the perfect makeup, the perfect hair, the perfect charm and carriage. I practiced my facial expressions in the mirror until I could arch one eybrow perfectly and smile brightly, showing off my white teeth and green eyes (something that was often commented upon - "are those your REAL eyes?")
I started to participate in beauty pageants and nearly always won. Surely if I could amass enough trophies and sashes and tiaras and dried bouquets of flowers stacked in the bookshelf of my bedroom, then I could be accepted. If I could have a scorecard say I was beautiful, then I WOULD be beautiful. If I stayed inside and wore SPF 70 sunscreen in the summer, maybe people would think I just had a tan. And that worked, some. I got used to the subtle change of expression when I answered questions about "what I was." I dreaded telling new people. I cut ties with my huge, marvelous family on my mother's side and hoped that if I never called attention to my black relatives (besides my mother), then no one else would, either.
Of course, none of this worked. After I did start dating someone (a white kid, of course), I received a phone call from my boyfriend's mother one chilly Saturday afternoon as I sat on my living room couch. She hadn't known about us, I was told in a shaking voice. She found pictures of me in his bedroom.
"Maybe this makes me a bad person," she said, "and I'm sorry, but I don't care. I don't want my grandchildren to be mixed."
I was 14 years old, by the way. Thought I'd put that in there. No kids were coming any time soon, especially since my virginity remained intact, no matter how often her "innocent" son begged and whined and yelled at me to change my mind about that particular conviction.
So we continued on for another several months, hiding our relationship from his parents and everyone else. Turns out he'd been hiding me from the 'rents all along. Naive me -- I just thought he never wanted to hang out at home! They seemed friendly enough when I ran into them around town; I just assumed they knew.
That relationship didn't last long (the fact that he was abusive and bragged to me once about how the KKK was still alive and well in the town didn't help -- eventually I decided that nothing was worth riding around in his car, ducked down so that no one could see me in the passenger seat, cringing when he would lose his temper and punch the passenger side door, jamming his fist a few inches in front of my body in order to slam it into the plastic.)
Soon after that ended, I began a relationship with a wonderful guy who still remains a good friend to this day and whose parents still feel like family to me. That was a place of refuge -- but they were exceptions. The awkwardness didn't end.
I went to college, still dating this guy, and graduated after two and a half years, zipping through school, finally having found something to pour myself into. Pageants didn't matter anymore. Now I was on a mission to prove my worth through academics. And I got two master's degrees afterwards, finally convincing myself a year away from receiving a Ph.D. that if I was just getting the degree to convince myself that I deserved respect (which I was), then I was wasting my time.
I met my husband along the way, an Italian/Irish/Lebanese guy from a town in northeastern Pennsylvania where there WERE no African-Americans, therefore no racism. He was the first person to tell me that not only did he not mind the fact that I was half black, but he LIKED it.
He liked it?
That was something to LIKE?
And then my mind started to change. Somewhere during the past couple of years I've seen my skin as something that is beautiful, whether it is darker with a healthy, glowing summer tan, or paler in the winter. I've learned to like my hair in ringlets, not feeling the need to erase my blackness with a straight-iron each morning.
I've attempted to TRANSCEND race in my self-image, catching up on all the rich culture that I missed out on growing up, reading famous black literature, learning about my cultural history, feeling pride at who my people have become in this country, creating a beautiful, vibrant, and varied culture after a traumatization that went across a whole race of people during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
I've learned to own the white part of me too, liking my green eyes -- not because they make me look more white, but because they're unique. Liking my body, which is a mixture of cultures that shows this part of the world here and that part of the world there, with unique shapes and shades.
And now, when I go home, I no longer cringe and stay in like I did when I visited during college. I go and reconnect with my wonderful family and softly mourn the years of experience I missed by denying that part of myself.
I've read on BlogHer about women being embarassed of strong noses and singled out (sometimes even killed) because of Albino genes. I've seen that women stress because they're too short, not thin enough, and on and on.
And I am here to say that -- ALL OF US ARE BEAUTIFUL.
You know that you are. You know how you are. You can go, look in the mirror and see it.
Why not? How IN THE WORLD do we benefit ourselves or others by cringing at a bad picture, or hulking down if we're "too tall," or starving ourselves if our body types aren't waifish. All of us are beautiful. There are as many types of beauty as there are people. Transcend and own YOUR own. It's been a long and hard road, but I've just learned how -- and it is wonderful.
This blogger is also featured on EndlessBeauty.com, a website focused on a fresh look at beauty, from skin to hair to makeup, plus celeb style, fashion, and fitness.