I grew up watching a lot of comedy with my dad. It was the 80s. I loved Punky Brewster and polka dots. I barely knew how to count to 10; there was no way that I understood George Carlin. But I watched anyway, laughing when my dad laughed, nodding when he did too, desperate to feel a connection in that living room where the giant wood-paneled television set sat on the floor. It wasn’t until I saw Whoopi Goldberg on stage with a white shirt on her head to resemble the flowing “long, luxurious blonde hair” that she wanted in order to appear on The Love Boat that I stood up a little straighter. There was something about that monologue that meant more to me than any other joke or comedy routine that I had watched in that living room. There was something about that joke that bridged that gap between performer and viewer for me, although I doubt that I was able to articulate why it meant something to me. Had my father – or anyone – asked about my thoughts on it, I would have responded with simply, “It’s funny!” Despite this childlike inability to explore the depths to which this joke reached me, I did know that it was something unlike any other joke that I had ever witnessed. I wasn’t just watching Goldberg perform this routine, but I was a part of that routine. It was my story too, and one that I would carry with me like a disease for two tragically painful decades.
I have forever been surrounded by white girls.
We moved from one housing complex specifically for University of Illinois graduate students to another housing complex that consisted mostly of U of I post grads, graduate students whose spouses got better jobs, single moms, and low income families before I even began attending elementary school. I was too young to really remember any of my friends from that first complex, but it was while we were at the second – and where I would live until 8th grade – that I began attending the elementary school the next town over. My mother had enrolled me in Girl Scouts while I was in Kindergarten. I started from the bottom as a Daisy and was later transferred to a troop in my new school district, where I would remain until 6th grade when I decided that I would not begin my middle school career as a Girl Scout. Throughout my time in that troop, there was only one other black girl. By the time she came along, I had already shimmied my way into the periphery of the cool girls. I had worked hard to narrow the distance between myself – the other – the little black girl whose mother would not yet allow her to have a relaxer put in her hair even though she desperately, desperately wanted one and opted instead for a short, natural hair cut adorned with a ribbon headband less people think that she’s a boy, and the pretty white girls with long, luxurious hair and for whom the cute white boys were always vying attention. At one point, I had to “try out” to be a part of this clique. Remembering the audition process, and the part in which I was asked to run across the playground in zigzags because “boys are always chasing us so we need to know how to run fast,” and remembering that I complied without hesitation is absolutely mortifying. But I needed to belong there. And so when I did, if even just a little bit, I was determined to not screw it up. That other little black girl who joined our Girl Scout troop threatened my position within the in crowd. I panicked that the other girls, the pretty white girls with long, luxurious hair, would align me with her, would remember that I too was a little black girl who did not belong, and I would be thrust aside, forced to fend for myself. On a Girl Scout camping trip I somehow convinced her to wear her bathing suit backwards. I stood and whispered and giggled along with the other girls as she emerged from the bathroom in a bathing suit that was clearly on wrong. The lesson that I should have learned from this was that despite my efforts, this girl did not seem to give a shit about her wardrobe malfunction and likely had more fun than any of us that weekend. Instead, I smiled to myself knowing that, at least for the moment, those girls with the long, luxurious hair knew that I was one of them.
This self-hatred and near manic desire to distance myself from blackness was something that I had perfected along with my times tables, and continued through middle school, high school, and college. By 6th grade, I was finally allowed to get a relaxer and relished in the straight hair that seemed worlds away from the naps that accrued near the nape of my neck. I continued to surround myself with white girls with biblical names and blonde hair, and I continued to be the always boyfriend-less funny black sidekick. I moved to live with my father in Western Massachusetts when I was thirteen and attended a high school that was so white that Senior year I had to convince my guidance counselor to just give me the original scholarship application for African-American students rather than make me a copy simply because “no one else is going to need it.” I went to college on Long Island, realizing now that it was perhaps among the absolute worst environments that I could have put myself in, with an infinite sea of pretty white girls with Coach bags and Gucci sunglasses, driving their graduation present of a BMW or a Lexus around campus.
The ways in which my self-hatred manifested itself slowly changed, however. It became a raw, dangerous internalized hatred. I was less likely to point it outwards, less determined to make another black or brown girl feel my same pain. Yet I was more likely to patronize myself, to deem myself so worthless that whatever I chose to do – or not do – simply did not matter, more likely to blame my blackness for everything that was wrong in my life and the ultimate reason why I was so unhappy.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what changed. I do know that the presence of beautiful, strong, black women in my life now has helped immensely, but also know that a change like this – to be able to somehow get out of a space in which you hate yourself so deeply that you almost feel like you don’t belong to you – is something that had to mostly come from within. I suppose you reach a point where the energy it takes to be so sad and angry is too exhausting to bear.
I remember watching Goldberg perform that long, luxurious, blonde hair monologue and laughing, believing that I understood comedy. And perhaps I did understand comedy then, but more importantly, I understood what it was like to be a little black girl who wanted to be a little white girl. I understood what that felt like and was soon going to spend years seeing how that manifested itself. Like the little black girl that Goldberg portrayed, who longed for the perfect hair to get her on The Love Boat, I believed that long, luxurious, blonde hair – or rather, whiteness – was going to bring me happiness. Like that little black girl, I had to learn that it wouldn’t. And I did. And I’m here. And I’m fine.