Tuesday, 12 April 2016

can you see the real me?

The writing prompt - something I wanted as a child  really made me look back on childhood birthdays and Christmases to see if any disappointment had ever been registered, but I couldn't. I think the fact that we had been taught to appreciate any gifts or should I say be damn grateful for what we got, that  I can't recall any crestfallen moments upon discarding the wrapping papers twice a year.

So what then?

Well, for a while, I would say between the ages of 12 and 18, I deeply wanted something that I knew would never be attained, could never be given, was not in my power and more importantly...I never voiced. Ever. Until now.

I wanted to be white.

Whilst I store my shame about this statement in a drawer marked 'what I shouldn't say out loud', it struck me when thinking about this writing prompt that this unspoken feeling overshadowed an immense part of my formative years.

There were never any thoughts of trying to bleach or scraping off my skin - occurrences which I have read about some severely unhappy black children experiencing - no, because on the whole my homelife was a secure and supportive environment. But up until the age of 9 I was submerged in a London life where we were all just people, just kids, running around in flares and tank tops.

Moving from London to Essex in the 80s was a decision my parents didn't take lightly but I don't think anything could have prepared me for the shift of social identity.  For the first time I felt my colour - now some people may not understand what this comment means. In London I had just been nine year old me then suddenly I was nine year BLACK me - of course I knew what my face looked like but it had never reflected as a negative or highlighted fact about me. I was just ME!

Initially it wasn't really about the wanting a white face thing but as the new kid on the block I just wanted to fit in with all the other kids - who all happened to be all white kids. And at school I was experiencing regular interactions like these with other kids:

Is your skin the same colour as your face under your clothes?

Is your bum black? (This one was called through the toilet door when a bunch of us went to the loo, as girlies do)

At my party we'll play a game where we have to guess who's hands belong to the person under the blanket but you won't be able to play.

Why are you black?

You've got rubber lips.

Bemused I batted these comments away with jokes; I became a comedian thereby I made friends.

Secondary school hit hard. The comments thrown my way were not so funny. Verbal and physical abuse ensued. But you know my parents, teachers and friends supported me and so I really did enjoy school.

But something lay deep; the need to belong as I gradually became aware that I was different to my peer group and according to the world I was in, not in a good way either. I started to dislike what I saw in the mirror; my nose, my lips, my bottom, my plaited hair - no swinging wash and blow-dry for me (Saturday nights were lost to un-plaiting, untangling and re-plaiting again).  And despite the ambitious efforts of my parents to promote black role models, my TV, film and music influences were mainly white and the in-crowd girls getting all the attention in my playground were white. Things became clear when the most popular girl told me that the most popular boy in the school liked me but would never go out with me simply because I was black. Not that I was really interested in boys at this time but I guess then it suddenly hit me that my skin colour was a problem.

When I went to university and later into the working world, the underlying desire was somewhat achieved by relaxing my hair, dying it blond and wearing blue contact lenses. You must understand this was never a conscious decision to make myself white; this was a look that I believed made me attractive and accepted. For a short while anyway. Thankfully I matured into myself my life and soon discovered that I didn't recognize this version of  Me looking back in the mirror so over time these additions were removed.

I'm shutting the draw firmly back now because I do feel incredibly sad that I used to wish my beautiful childhood face away and maybe the next time I'm asked this question, I'll say a Chopper bike, that's what I wanted when I was a kid, a bright red Chopper bike.