We are all light and shadow

I’ve been thinking about white pigment. When it comes to racial politics, I can give no merit to any view that holds race as a concrete thought form. For me, it comes down to pigment. We’re all just variations of similar tones. No matter how hard I try to see it, I simply wasn’t raised with the mental hooks onto which to hang ideas of racial superiority or inferiority. Perhaps emboldened by my artistic sensibility, my reflections on skin colour politics are always attached to pigmentation of paint.

Historically, people have died for the whitest white in art as well as make up. Lead based white pigments have caused a legacy of pain, death and sickness in those who used them. Nevertheless people have continually sought to appear lighter. This can be seen in the wide world of skin lightening poisons that pervade every culture. There seems to exist a strange and base instinct that suggests lightness will bring you bounty – even if it kills you slowly.

If only we could short circuit the assumption that lightness was inherently better. If only we could see racial gradation as the arbitrary thing it is. There is so much beauty in variation and so much bounty in natural reality. It seems the most absurd mind trap and yet we continue to abuse and destroy lives based on these arbitrary distinctions.

When I started painting people in high school (at around 17 years old), I first started painting light skinned people. I think I did that because light skinned people were primarily the people I saw in media (TV & magazines). They were also the people deemed most attractive in my social circles. Light skin automatically elevated you in the eyes of everyone around you. In an environment with North American TV amidst a population of darker skinned people, a light skinned person was a kind of social unicorn. I’m exaggerating a bit for effect but that’s essentially the environment I began painting in.

The point is though, that I began painting light skinned people and so I learned about tones of colour; how to mix paint to arrive at pigments that captured gradation of shadow and light as they reflected off pale skin. I learned that in order to paint lighter coloured skin, you travelled around the palette to include a range of pinks, purples, blues and browns. White skin therefore, was not literally white in any sense. Not even teeth are absolutely white. Painting teeth white, looks strange and malevolent.

Later on in high school, I wanted to paint people that looked like me. I had started learning my way around brown skin tones. I needed to visit other colours on the palette for my own skin tones to make sense. In fact I was hindered by the notion of whiteness in that it didn’t occur to me to mix my tones with white because I was not white. I mixed with yellow to lighten my browns and I was never entirely happy with the result.

Painting skin tone is a unique skill. The technique is very different from painting abstracts or landscapes. I think, in part, because of how ingrained our auto-response is to facial recognition, our tendency is very strong to autofill incorrectly. To paint a face I learned, it is very useful to turn your source image upside down, in order to confuse your mental autofill and allow you to paint what you see instead of what you think you see. The same goes for colour – you have to see the tones as literal tones in order to create resemblance. Only very recently have I begun to capture people similar to my skin tone, because I needed to build a mental map in order to arrive at the colours needed to create that semblance. Arriving there did indeed require some white, along with pink, orange, purple, brown and black. This is still a work in progress.

Ms. Wright Says: God Please Make Me Black

Courtesy: Ms. Wright Says 

If you don’t know, I will tell you… I prayed that God would make me Black. People who know me might be perplexed by such a revelation. I am “Black” by the “one-drop rule” and I do have African ancestry. Although I self identify myself as a Black woman other people both Black, White, and in between have often asked “What are you?”

Like Andromeda Turre’s PSA ‘What are you?’ in the Huffington Post, I too had to answer that question daily as a child and even into adulthood. Some of my canned responses were “I am a little girl” or “human being.” Their response would be “No. I know that. What race are you?” I would say “I am Black!” They would pause and stare at me then reply “No you’re not!” or “You gotta be mixed with somethin.” As an adult I would be annoyed by such ignorance because most Black folks are mixed with something due to our enslaved ancestry in the United States and later interracially marrying. That mixture is what actually makes us “African Americans.”

The irony is that I was born in Washington, D.C. or “Chocolate City” as it is affectionately known. I spent most of my formative years in the suburbs of Southern California. I remember the first time race became a topic of conversation. I was in the first grade, it was lunchtime and a Mexican girl named April began to categorize all the kids at the table by race. When she got to me she said I was Black. My response was “No. I am actually fried chicken color.” When I got home that afternoon I asked my mother if I was Black? She looked at me, laughed and said “of course, honey!” I told her that if I was Black, why didn’t I look Black? She said “Black people are like flowers, a rose is no more beautiful than a lily, but they all are classified as flowers. We are like a chocolate rainbow of many beautiful hues.” As a 10 year old, I can’t say that I appreciated the analogies. Ultimately, she said “if people have a problem with the way you look then tell them to take it up with God because God made you.” I replied “If I am Black then why don’t people recognize it? Why didn’t God make me Black?“

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Later, we moved to Roxbury, a disfranchised community in Boston, Massachusetts, after my single Mom fell on hard times. Although we lived in the “hood” we went to a private Christian school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was teased and taunted by the predominantly African American class for not looking, sounding or being Black enough. I recall while living on both the East and West Coasts, coming home crying everyday because kids of all ethnic backgrounds bullied me for talking and dressing too “White.” It was the mid 80’s and when most kids were wearing faded jeans, Reebok pumps, and Jellies; my Mom dressed me preppy. I was sporting pigtails, pleated skirts, knee high socks and Buster Brown and Oxfords shoes. If that wasn’t bad enough, she encouraged my brother and I to enunciate our words and the use of slang was not allowed in the house. Back then I didn’t feel like I belonged to any ethnic group.

As an adult, I now understand that we are acculturated in the United States to see race by skin tone and not socioeconomically. Many people define “Blackness” not just by the complexion and features of a person but how they speak, dress and even walk. Such a narrow definition of what it means to be Black in America is based on stereotypes and that idea of “Blackness” is a perceived monolithic culture that often eluded me growing up. Ultimately, I grew up to appreciate my articulate proper diction and LOL when people still tease me for being so formal.

However, before I became comfortable in my own skin, I like People® Magazine’s MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN Lupita Nyong’o, prayed for God to change me. But, unlike the Oscar winning actress who wanted to be fair skinned as a child, I prayed for God to make me dark skinned. Growing-up as a kid, to me the most beautiful women I admired had the complexions of my late Mom, Adelaide Smith and women such as Angela Bassett and Grace Jones. When I heard Lupita’s acceptance speech at ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood, I thought of my mother’s own personal agony of being a brown skinned woman with beautiful full lips, a broad nose and wide hips. She was the living incarnation of Rick James Song “Brick House.” However, her self-image was formed in the 1950’s, before Black was beautiful or Alek Wek could be considered a supermodel. Up until her death in 2012, my mother spoke about hurtful incidents throughout her life when her complexion and physical characteristics that made her a beautiful Black woman in my eyes were criticized and diminished. She was told Black women with “big” lips should not wear red lipstick. My brother and I wonder if she chose to date our fathers, who are fair skinned Black men, as a result of such psychological abuse from both Blacks and Whites.

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There are constant reminders in the media that my fair skin is beautiful, hair texture is “good,” my freckles are cute and my look is “exotic.” Despite the compliments I do receive, all I ever longed for is to look like a girl who went to my church when I was a teenager. I think her name was Kia and she favored Lupita, but she had a fuller figure and I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I wanted to look just like her. A chance encounter during a slumber party made us confront the inner desire that I had to look like her and her inner jealousy toward me. We both cried about how we wanted to look like the other. However, her pain and perception of herself was distorted greater than mine. She screamed and wept that I was pretty and the boys wanted to only date girls who looked like me. I did not know how to comfort her. At the time I thought she was right.

Looking back, it wasn’t so much that Kia was right but her perception was based on what her experiences and expectations were. In her mind perhaps she wondered how would she find a boyfriend who thought she was beautiful if she didn’t think she was beautiful. Despite the ugly comments online about Black women being the least desirable on dating sites, along with Asian men, there are plenty of men who do love women with rich skin tones. I think that the self-esteem issues many women struggle with regardless of complexion and body type is based on the way we relate to ourselves more than what men are attracted to. As little girls we often internalize and accept what the media portrays as the standard of beauty because there have been so few alternative and relatable examples.

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Finally, at 35, I now love me some me and proudly sport an Afro… although I still wish my natural hair texture was kinkier. Traveling the world, I have met women of all hues who are dying to fit a Western standard of beauty that was given to them. It is a standard that excludes most of us and one we can never achieve or sustain no matter how much weight we lose, surgery we have, and tan or lighten our skin. It forces us to look in the mirror and accept ourselves as beautiful, live life just the way we are or die trying to look “White,” “Black,” or anything other than “who God made us to be” as my Mom would say.

That’s Not Fair: on Nina Davaluri and Miss America

I never pay any attention to so-called beauty pageants. But it was hard to miss the tsunami of tweets on the newly-crowned #MissAmerica, Nina Davuluri, who is of Indian descent. The majority of those tweets were not congratulatory.

Rather, they focused on the fact that Davuluri is of Indian heritage and therefore “cannot be regarded as American.” The fact that she has dark skin and dark hair. The fiction that she’s Muslim and a terrorist. And the speculation that she must run a Seven-Eleven store.

In fact, Davuluri’s American and from New York. She’s not a Muslim; she wants to be a physician, like her dad. The only intractable fact is that she’s dark-skinned.

Our fixation with fair skin and light hair is alive and well in the 21st century, rearing its ugly head from Zurich to Dhaka, and targeting women in particular. Cosmetics companies have built billion-dollar businesses hawking wonder skin-lightening creams to desperate women who are made to believe being a couple of shades lighter will give them a better chance in the world that places such a premium on fair skin. You will do well in school, land a plum job, score with a good-looking guy, make your parents proud – if only your skin’s lighter.

Award-winning Indian actor and director Nandita Das recently launched a campaign called Dark is Beautiful to “campaign against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin.” Davuluri-haters should sign up for a lesson in being fair, regardless of skin color.

Did the NYTimes just call Michelle Obama an uppity negro?

Let’s just get this straight. According to Cathy Horyn and the NY Times:

many people, disappointed that [Michelle Obama’s] clothes get more attention than her values and leadership, hope that a second term will give Mrs. Obama more latitude to speak out on issues that are more controversial, like educational reform and work-life balance.

But it’s a funny thing: four years ago she denied conservatives the chance to vilify her as “an angry black woman” by taking immense pleasure in traditional first lady pursuits, like fashion, entertaining and gardening.

Issue one: if you’re into ‘traditional first lady pursuits’ [read: white first lady pursuits, because there’s never been a black first lady prior to Michelle Obama] like ‘fashion, entertaining and gardening’, you remove any fodder for critics to accuse you of being ‘an angry black woman’. Ok.

One designer, who doesn’t dress Mrs. Obama, observed, with some accuracy, “Her clothes are too tight.”

Issue two: Too tight? Too sexy? Too revealing? Too body conscious? Would ‘mom jeans’ and sweaters be more ‘appropriate’?

Even more astonishing is that Mrs. Obama’s spending on clothes has attracted little scrutiny. Clearly that’s because she is seen as helping the American economy. Still, she has spent tens of thousands of dollars on clothes and accessories. She was criticized for wearing $500-plus Lanvin sneakers at a food bank, in 2009. But at a time when economic inequality is a serious issue, you wonder why the first lady’s fashion spending hasn’t caused more fuss.

Issue three: Michelle Obama, high powered attorney, should be criticized for spending her own hard-earned money on clothes that have played no small part in making her palatable to ferocious critics. Got it.

One clue was Mrs. Obama’s decision, in late 2008, to accept an invitation to pose for the cover of Vogue. As Ms. Kantor wrote, her advisers were divided, with some concerned that Mrs. Obama, a woman of substance, would be seen as a fashionista. She argued, “There are young black women across this country, and I want them to see a black woman on the cover of Vogue.” In the end, there was little criticism of the Vogue cover.

Issue four: Oh, see what you did there. Dare not criticise her for appearing on Vogue and wanting to inspire young black girls, because then those social justice types might call you the r-word.Clutches pearls

Still, he hasn’t changed his view that Mrs. Obama can be a powerful voice on issues like equal opportunity and work-life balance, given her own background. “The engines of the American dream and meritocracy have slowed down dramatically over the past 20 years,” he said. “She is a person who has lived through that, came from the South Side of Chicago, went to Princeton and Harvard. It ought to be something she’s addressing. And the more she dresses in glamorous clothes, the more it looks like she’s cut off from her roots.”

Issue five: Oh, wait a minute here. Dressing in glamorous clothes cuts Michelle Obama off from her (poor, black) roots. SHE’S THE FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. SHE IS THE POSTER CHILD FOR MERITOCRACY AND THE AMERICAN DREAM. AND YOU THINK BECAUSE SHE CAN NOW AFFORD TO WEAR FANCY FROCKS SHE’S FORGOTTEN WHERE SHE CAME FROM? WHAT WOULD YOU PREFER? WALMART SNEAKERS AND FOOD STAMPS? GTFOH WITH YOUR “UPPITY NEGRO” NONSENSE.

A Paris hair diary

The other day as I was standing in line to buy a crepe, a woman crossing the street couldn’t keep her eyes off me. When she got closer, her eyes lit up, and gave me a nod of approval as she walked by. It wasn’t a creepy stare. I could guess what it was about, and she confirmed it as she crossed the street, turned around and started walking towards me. She was not a food inspector, nor a figment of my imagination screaming loudly: this better be your last crepe, you’re training for your second half-marathon and you don’t need the sugar.

It was my hair. She walked up to me and said: your locks are beautiful, where do you get them done?

When most Europeans see my hair, the ones that have the courage to say anything usually start with: How do you wash it? Can you take it off? Are you a Rastafarian? Is your family from Jamaica? All that because I wear my hair in locks. The decision to start locking my hair had nothing to do with religion, lifestyle or wanting to make a statement about black beauty. I was just simply tired of chemical relaxers, braids, short haircuts,  pressing with hot combs, and was never going to get a weave (hair extension) or a wig.

I just wanted to see how my hair would behave if i left it natural. I love my hair. No breakage from chemicals, healthy, strong, grows faster that it ever did while it was permed or dying during my jheri curls summer. Yes, I had jheri curls many, many, years ago. Oh the things we do to black hair!

And for what? Whose standards of beauty are we trying to live up to?

As the woman and I talked, it made me smile that she wanted to know who took care of my hair. Here was this black woman who spoke perfect French, living in Paris for over 20 years, asking a recent immigrant where to go to get her locks done. As she walked away, I noticed a group of four black teenage girls eating their crepes in the restaurant. They all had weaves. They were wavy, and straight, blonde, black and some with red highlights. They also stared at my hair, but said nothing.

The Ominous Hijab

I’m in Turkey for 7 weeks.

Among many new cultural experiences, I’ve been curious to witness first-hand the role in society of the ominous hijab.  I’ll be spending time in the capital Ankara, in Istanbul the largest city, and throughout the countryside and smaller villages, as we journey south to the Aegean coast.

There is no official religion here, although 96% of the population is Muslim, it’s a secular state.  Compared to most of their Arab neighbours to the east, they’re more like Islam-Lite.

I have to say though, in the short time I’ve already spent here, I’m pretty disappointed to find maybe… 5 women in a hijab.  There were two in niqabs in the grocery store and that got me pretty excited, but for the most part, I’ve been walking around the city and seeing girls in shorts shorter than mine, and couples making out like pimply teenagers in local pubs.  Damn.  No islamic rigidity here.  Actually most of them seem to be terrible muslims, like my boyfriend, who drinks like a fish, doesn’t know when Ramadan is, and hasn’t been inside a mosque since Allah knows when.  I’m hoping he doesn’t go up in flames when he takes me to Hagia Sofia.

Ask him his opinion of the hijab, and he’ll tell you it’s downright stupid. “Nothing in the Qur’an says you have to wear one, and it’s a stupid tradition perpetuated by idiot men who want to keep women docile.”

“Well what about women who choose to wear it freely of their own accord?”

“Well then they’re stupid too. Why would you want to cover yourself like that? It is hot as shit outside.”

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My grandmother was Muslim, though she never wore a hijab, and I don’t really remember ever seeing anything too Islam-y in their home. She married a Christian, and I’m sure somewhere, someone probably thinks that means she’ll roast in hell and won’t get to heaven to receive her 40 virgins (wait… so do women get 40 virgins too in Islamic heaven? Talk about short-changed), but mostly all I remember of her, was that she was a sweet but firm woman, and the most wonderful hugger.  Hijab or no, she was respected and valued all the same.

I’ve never had the opportunity to speak with a fundamentalist or a Shi’ite to understand sharia law or why a woman would choose to veil her identity from an ever-growing visual world.

Western women complain about being objectified all the same, and judged for their looks before anything else, yet here in twisted irony we view the obscurity of the Islamic female face as part of that same distress.

I still haven’t gotten down to the bottom of why the hijab is such a thorn in people’s sides, but I’m hoping my remaining time here will lend me some insight.  At the end of the day though, I feel like women should be able to do and wear whatever the fuck they want, but the hijab to me, feels more like a visual statement of religion in your presence — and that, is something I have an entirely different opinion about.

More soon.

Kobayashi Maru

“Puffy-faced” Ashley Judd laid the proverbial smack down on critics recently, to which I responded from the other end of the cyberverse with a hearty punch to the air and a resounding “in yo face bitchez!”

From this, was a haunting reminder of a similar issue I have tangoed with all my life.

The female body.

Growing up in the Caribbean, the “coca-cola bottle shape” reigned with sensuous superiority.  As with Latin America, parts of Europe, and other splashes on the global design, curves are synonymous with fertility, vitality, passion and lure. All the things that make a woman womanly right?  Wrong.  All the things that make a woman more of a thing, or a ting and less of the influential woman that she is, atop those sturdy legs of hers.  But it took me a while to learn this.

Cursed with the blessing of a high metabolism, lanky limbs and ectomorphic genes, I have spent the majority of my life being a twig.  Scrawny, “magga”, flat and toothpicky, and generally deemed unattractive by my male counterparts.  Compounded by very short hair, I spent most of my early teen years being mistaken for a boy.  In a society that drilled into me that I just wasn’t “womanly” enough, I ate the fattiest of foods in hopes that I would somehow develop the curves that would ascend me into this private club of bombshells stupifying men with the faintest twist of a hip.

In these years, I migrated to Canada. Now in North American territory, I was surrounded by girls who starved themselves in order to become “sexy.” WHAT? But I– What the hell was going on.  I spent all these years trying to get “thick” and now you tell me I should be thin??  And not just thin! Meatless. Buttless. Thighless.  You show a smidgeon of curvature and you are FAT!

Swimming through the murky waters of the physical female identity, I spent years learning that the checklist of qualities a woman must have changed faster than a stripper working double duty.  Hair this length, this colour. Serum to make eyelashes that much longer.  Boobs big, waist small, the ideal form being presented to us by a Mattel factory belt.  36-18-33.  Do they know that Barbie can’t stand up on her own?  Oh wait, of course they do.  It seems that this is what they want.  Docile, attractive arm candy, that needs support to keep her upright.

In my own quest for Adonis status, I have discovered strength.  Muscle mass, toned physique, abs, hamstrings, biceps.  My relationship with the Body, and the female form, has led me to decide I want to represent myself physically, the way I feel mentally. Which is what we of the fairer sex tend to do anyway, with fashion, with grooming, a first impression is all that much more important for us, than it is them.  I have found a harmonious relationship with fitness, where I can develop curves of a different nature.

Until I hear, “Oh my god, she looks so manly.” More criticism, yay. There are many women who tote the motto that Strong is the new Skinny.  And without fail the critics come running in to bash women with visible muscle definition, calling them “unfeminine” and “manly”.  I didn’t realize men were the only ones with muscles.

If you’re curvy, they’ll find something wrong with you.  If you’re skinny, they’ll find something wrong with you.  If you’re muscular, they’ll find something wrong with you.  We just cannot seem to catch a break.

I have come to realize the only way to win at a game specifically rigged to see you lose, is to walk off the field.  Removing oneself from the equation. I’m going to keep lifting these weights. I will finally feel just as strong outside as I do inside.  And if they have a problem with me, I welcome them to come say something to my face.

I doubt they will.