A few months ago I bought a packet of 24 crayons called “Colours of the world”> It was an assortment of (some) different skin tones. When they arrived, I started to cry. I opened them and began to draw a portrait of my young self, reliving one of my earliest memories.
I was about four years old in primary school. We were required to colour in a drawing of our family. I don’t remember the picture exactly but I remember clearly the panicky feeling I had inside when it came to colouring in the skin of my siblings and father. I didn’t know what to do. I asked the girl beside me and she handed me the “skin coloured” crayon. I sat there in a state of confusion and despair and utter alone-ness the walls seemingly caving in around me before I proceeded to pick up the crayon and do like everyone else around me and colour in my family with this “skin coloured” crayon. I knew that the tone didn’t resemble anyones skin colour in my family and I knew the result would be incorrect but I didn’t have the words to express it and so I pretended in what was likely the beginning of me learning to adjust and make believe that what applied to white people also applied to me.
Little did I know that it would take me almost thirty years to start trying to find the words. It would take me that long to simply acknowledge the fact that growing up in a predominantly white community, I was not, as the dialogue was at the time- the same as the kids around me. I understand why little Adeline found it easier to copy her classmates. I understand that as the years went on she would deal with casual racism, discrimination, being sexualized or disrespected or ignored by down playing each incident or laughing it off or simply not talking about it at all. She would learn to bury the discomfort, try to blend in and spend her whole life trying to convince people around her that she was the same as them, despite the colour of her skin. I want to give her a hug. She had no idea that this outside feeling would become so familiar that she wouldn’t even begin to recognise it as internalised trauma until people around her started acknowledging and speaking up about the existence of “systemic racism” and “white privilege” validating those niggling feelings that lurked in the back of her mind that because of her colour she moved through the world differently than her white counterparts.
I wish I could tell her that that feeling ended with that crayon but in reality, for years she would struggle with knowing what word to use to describe the colour of her skin. She would mainly use “Brown” but sometimes get called “Black” and once “Caucasian” and all of these would make her uncomfortable. She would be okay with the term “Mixed race” but would be told that she should be offended by the word “Half cast”. She knew it was not okay when she once got called “Half breed”. She would hear “Negro” and “Tanned” and “Coloured” and “Mulatto” and “Dark” but also confusingly “Light skinned”. And of course the occasional “Nigger” would slip out and this would forever shock and scare her because everyone knew that was bad. She would laugh at the term “Oreo” or “Coconut” or even “Poo”, not helped by the spelling of her last name. Her future lovers would be more inventive and compare the colour of her skin to foods. There would be brown sugar and black pudding, cinnamon and hot chocolate, toffee and caramel and she would awkwardly accept these words because it seemed important for the white people around her to label her as something.
Later in life she will hear the term “Person of colour” and that’s the one that she will like the most, a term that acknowledges her as a person and finally makes her feel like she belongs to a group of people. I want to take little Adeline by the hand and say Baby, you’ll be ok. Over time you will longer feel a sense of shame or wrongness or complete disconnect whenever someone refers to you as a Black woman, afterall your blackness is as much a part of you as your whiteness. Instead you will feel a huge sense of pride in being associated with a collective of strong resilient survivors. You will learn to find the vocabulary and how to use your words to express your pain. And one day you will open a box of crayons and find all the colours you were searching for that day and the sense of belonging you craved your whole life.