What Do You See When You Look at Me: Beyonce, Colorism & Identity

What Do You See When You Look at Me: Beyonce, Colorism & Identity April 28, 2016

Beyonce's Lemonade image from Billboard
Beyonce’s Lemonade image from Billboard

I am an adoptee from Colombia. I was born in Bogota. My adoptive sister, six years younger than me, is also from the same city and same orphanage — we are not biologically related. She has golden skin and, especially as a child, golden hair. I have olive-brown skin and dark brown hair. We look nothing alike. When my sister was in elementary school someone made fun of her for being adopted and from Colombia. She came home and crafted a child’s story about how she was born in the hospital down the road and was biologically my adoptive parents’ child. Within the short moment of choice, in a scared child’s imagination, I became the only person of color, the only first generation immigrant from a Latin American country, and the only non-biological child in my family. It stayed this way until she was nineteen years old — when she was ready to reclaim her true story. I didn’t realize it at the time– I didn’t have the language or the understanding for it at the time–but I resented her for much of our early years for this choice.

By the time I was able to unpack my anger at her erasure of not just her personhood but the passive rejection of mine I was in a place where I can see her choice as that of a scared child, without the emotional resources to deal with the vast difference contained within her, and the skin type to have a choice about who she wanted to be. I didn’t have the choice — I was a brown skinned girl in a very white world, in a very white family, and in a very white community, in the New Jersey suburbs of the New York City metro area. I could not be who I wanted to be outside of who I was — so I was forced to figure out how to be me, and navigate that in the midst of a family that did not understand the first-hand experience of racism with a single child in the family who had to learn to navigate it on her own. This included being called spick, spoken to in slow English, and being told my hair looked like Aunt Jemima — among many other things.

I am reminded of this story of my childhood, this part of my experience of becoming, and my sister’s unbecoming — under the pressure of culture and racism and negation of difference — as I see the news stories fluttering around social media this week about identity and color, colorism and unseen racist ideology. Specifically, I am referencing Piers Morgan’s response to Beyonce’s Lemonade and the evolving and powerful iteration of her work and expression of the fullness of her identity — as a woman, and more specifically as a black woman with power and voice. The other reference point is the shocking series of pictures posted by Lil Kim in which she has lightened and contorted so much of her naturally beautiful personhood to such an extent that in mental health we might identify this extreme change as a version of body dysmorphia. I would go further that is a colorism-informed type of body dysmorphia and identity dysmorphia that maybe needs its own category and definition.

It reminds me of the paradox of owning one’s own shape and shade and curves and history of self and people, and the erasure of that very same thing. It also reminds me that the unseen racism Pierce Morgan expressed, with such clarity but no insight into it, is indicative of the ways in which black and brown skin is seen as offensive — often not as boldly and obviously expressed as with him, but felt by so many who don’t say it out loud. It makes people uncomfortable. And for some the discomfort of difference is so much that a personal erasure and dysmorphia can form which forces one to negate their own selfhood as a form of cultural self-protection from an insidious and pervasive inner hate and fear of people of color found in so many who can’t even see it.

British actor, singer and TV presenter Jamelia wrote a response to Piers Morgan’s white-privilege-laden post stating:

Beyoncé has always been black, she just did what millions of black people feel the need to do to gain success, she made her black palatable to you, which is why you’re such a big fan! Same thing Oprah did, and the Obama’s. This is what black people do, along with working twice as hard to get half as much, we dilute ourselves and our culture, so you accept us. I guess some of us have had enough. Being black is not an affliction. No race should be seen as such. Celebrating our heritage should not be seen as a threat. We just want what you have, fairness and equal potential, and if you don’t give it to us…we’ll fight to get it for our children.

I remember the first time someone said the “N” word in front of me. I was at a friend’s uncle’s house on the way back from volleyball camp at UNC Chapel Hill. I don’t remember what he was talking about or what the context was, I just remember I was a thirteen year old person of color, girl alone at a table, and privy to something I should not have been. I remember thinking afterward that if I was wearing the garb of my indigenous fore-parents, the Quechua people, or had an accent, or carried [at the time] my birth name of Mateus [which I have recently begun to reclaim] that he never would have said those words in front of me. I showed up in his home as a palatable person of color — which means he didn’t have to see me at all. Which meant that he could be racist and not be worried about being outed or called out; and I was still a girl who didn’t know what to do with the fullness of who I was, let alone confront those spouting bigotry while not even seeing me.

I feel pain for Lil Kim — who articulated feeling less than the whiter and lighter skin women in her midst and feeling negated by men over her natural and beautiful self. I feel sad for the childhood version of my sister — who, as a child, didn’t know what to do with the rejection of her full selfhood based on the origin of her birth, the genetics of her body, and the identity as an adoptee who was othered. I feel deep hurt, personally and communally, for every moment as people of color, and specifically women of color, when we have to show up as less than the fullness of ourselves to placate a culture that sees our fullness as a threat or just not good enough.

Tough Baby Teresa
Tough Baby Teresa

Also, I am grateful for the strong voices of women, like Beyonce, and like all the amazing women of color in the fight for justice and equality, who speak out to the voices of power who try to stifle our true selves. I hope each day I continue to live further and further into the fullness of myself, into my brown skin, my indigenous and Spanish lineage, my wild hair, my curvy hips, my Latin breasts, my bold lips, and all that makes up who I am — inside and out. Some days it is easier than others, and for those of you that don’t experience it just know that it is often a battleground inside and out to find who we are and live it out loud. Let us all be the fullness of who we are — and co-create a world where we don’t have to apologize for it anymore.

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