I have wanted to be beautiful for as long as I can remember.
Ironically cursed with severe acne as an adolescent, I was used to teachers that, during roll call, would chuckle at their amazing propensity for Spanish and ask: Do you know what Bonita means?
Numbly, I would nod my head and pray to white Jesus that they would leave me alone.
No one listened. Every teacher would excitedly explain, thrilled to pay homage to the A they got in 9th Grade Spanish: It means beautiful. Beautiful name for such a beautiful (they would scan my face and see the acne)…smile. Such a beautiful smile.
Afterwards, a smart aleck with perfect white skin would inevitably turn around and declare: They should’ve named her the Spanish word for ugly. And the class would erupt.
Adopted into a large, white, Mennonite farming family in rural Pennsylvania, I knew that beauty wasn’t supposed to be a high priority. Afterall, you didn’t need to be beautiful to feed the cats, check the chickens, shovel manure, hang laundry, take out the garbage and do a myriad of other chores.
You didn’t need to be beautiful to can beans, peaches, cherries, applesauce and jam.
You didn’t need to be beautiful to go to Church every Sunday and Small Group on Wednesday.
You just had to show up and get the job done.
I grew up on a small chicken farm in Lancaster County where there were not many places where my last name was not known. A few farms over a distant cousin had played outfield for the Philadelphia Phillies in the ‘70s. A few miles away, a great uncle owned a large agricultural business. Other uncles owned dairy farms, chicken farms or pig farms. We were farming people. We weren’t supposed to care about beauty.
As a child, I would watch as my white family members would change various shades of tan throughout the summer.
I would watch them become effortlessly sun-bleached blonde and tan and beautiful. Powerful and pure. Desirable and innocent. White and strong.
In the mornings, I would slather my body in sunscreen and in the evenings, I would layer myself in cocoa butter and Vitamin E oil, wrap my hair and pray to wake up a white skinned, blue-eyed blonde.
I wanted to be the you look just like your mom rather than a is-she-your-fresh-air-kid or were you adopted as a crack baby kind of beautiful. I wanted to be the farm tan and sun-bleached blonde kind of beautiful. I wanted to be the kind of beautiful that fit in seamlessly. The kind of beautiful that you didn’t question.
The kind of beautiful that everyone just recognized as beautiful. Without questions. Without stigmas. Without doubt.
Somewhere around middle school, I discovered relaxers. I don’t remember what first made me realize that wearing my hair in braids and beads was ‘so elementary.’ Was it a locker room conversation? Did someone ask me one too many times why my hair was so kinky? Was it after my white brother loudly declared that girls with short hair like me would never be pretty?
Whatever it was, something shifted.
I wanted to feel the wind in my hair. I wanted to ‘put my hair down.’ I wanted to be beautiful.
And, beauty could be mine for $7.99.
During the next few years, my mom would occasionally relax my hair with home relaxers. The paper cartons showed light-skinned girls with long smooth tresses and wide smiles.
Relaxers for black hair, unlike relaxers for white hair, rely on sodium hydroxide which can cause hair loss and third-degree burns.
Despite the intense burn from the relaxer and the countless horror stories from friends (bald, burns, hospitalization), I would grit my teeth and close my eyes.
Tell me when it starts to burn and we will rinse it right out, my mother would caution, and I would nod and grit my teeth.
Afterwards, I would stand in front of the mirror and swish my hair and wince with pain.
Beauty was pain, right?
The first time I remember being called ‘beautiful,’ was the first day I visited a Waldorf School. I was in 1st grade, extremely talkative, emotive and already classified as a handful.
I guess the teacher had told the class that I would be visiting for a week because as soon as I arrived at the school small white heads poked out of a third story window screaming ‘hello.’
It was equally traumatic and exhilarating.
A tall brick building with a large arched door, Waldorf felt both enchanting and historic.
Large doors with brass handles opened to reveal hallways and classrooms painted in soft fairytale hues: caerulean, rose, dandelion, moss and ultramarine. Pastel silks stretched across windows as elegant curtains and hand painted artwork covered gallery walls in neat, straight lines. Handmade felt puppets, beeswax figures, wooden bowls and spoons crowded in corner tables and display shelves. Chalk art featured fairies and gnomes and whimsical woodland creatures embellished the daily schedules: Circle time, Main Lesson, Snack & Recess, Beeswax, Handwork, Lunch & Recess, Eurythmy, German, Painting.
The first-grade room was on the tallest floor of the building. A bright corner room with large windows and rose colored walls, the room featured wall-length chalkboards, a balance beam, a braided circular rug and twenty-three desks including one with my name.
A teacher appeared at the door, his hands chalky and his eyes kind. I don’t remember what pleasantries were passed or how long I hid behind my mom and sister, astonished and horrified that I was actually expected to spend a full week with strangers.
But I do remember that a girl came barreling through the front door, brown ringlets bouncing and picked me up. “You are so beautiful!”
It was easy to be beautiful then. And, it was hard to be beautiful then. I was a black kid. An adopted kid. A girl kid. A loud kid. A sensitive kid. A don’t make me tell you twice kid. I had isms and quirks. I was hyperactive and talkative.
And, I was desperate to be beautiful.
Beautiful people were wanted by their parents. Beautiful people didn’t have other kids ask them what it felt like to be an orphan. Beautiful people didn’t have abandonment issues. Beautiful people didn’t get asked if they were ‘real’ or not.
Beautiful people were just beautiful people. They weren’t pretty for a black girl. They weren’t you’d be almost hot if you were white. They weren’t my mom said I’m not allowed to date black girls. They weren’t oreos or monkeys or n****rs. They were just always human. And, they were always beautiful.
I wanted it. I wanted the bluest eyes and saccharine smiles. I wanted blonde hair and white skin. I wanted to be able to buy my hair products from stores that didn’t offer skin bleaching creams in the same aisle. I wanted to be able to feel the air flip ponytails across my back. I wanted boys to stop asking me if I would have a big butt when I grew up. I wanted teachers to stop telling me that if I ever wanted to be taken seriously, I would need to change my name|hair|speech. I would need to apply for diversity scholarships. I would need to tell my story and make sure to say that I was adopted.
I just wanted to be beautiful.
In Elementary School, I was one of 3 black girls in the whole school. The others were a biracial girl named after a flower whose name matched her beauty and my twin sister. The school was small and the whiteness was blindingly ecofriendly. It was May day flowers and wreath dancing white. It was handmade knit socks and crochet scarves white. Sugarless organic fruit roll-up and babybel snack kinda white. Composting and save the trees white. Liberal white. TV turnoff week white. Tie-dye shirt birthday parties white. Handmade purposefully didn’t comb my hair dreadlocks white. Inclusive white yet exclusive white.
And, I was allowed to play.
Waldorf boasted diversity and inclusivity initiatives before they were a “thing.” Every classroom was mainstream and persons with mental health illnesses were included and expected to participate and engage with the curriculum and the community.
At first blackness seemed like a constant show and tell.
Do you need sunscreen?
What kind of lotion do you use?
Why does your hair stand straight up?
Why does your hair smell like coconut?
Kids asked me questions in between asking another why he sniffed people or why she ate her boogers and didn’t clip her fingernails.
One recess a classmate asked why my knees were ashy and I didn’t know what to say so I made something up: it’s a super power I have that tells me when I need more lotion.
Awestruck, he leaned closer. Woah, I wish I had a superpower.
For at least the first half of second grade, daily recess rituals included hopeful girls asking one another: May I play with you? Status was determined by whether you were the one doing the asking or if you were the asked. Recess and social politics dictated that playing as a threesome was the most desirable. Any more and it became difficult to control dynamics. Any less and your status suffered. After all, playing wild horses required two people to actually be horses and one to narrate the storyline.
As a child, I would often proudly announce that my schedule was booked – couldn’t play with anyone until December I told a child once…in October. Reasons not to play with someone included if they smelled, if they said something mean about you to another classmate or if you were worried they might become more popular than you.
As an adult, I cringe remembering moments like this. And, in moments of desperation, I want to defend myself and write it off as immaturity and ignorance.
After all, it was immature and ignorant.
And yet, child’s play often mimics real-world scenarios. Somehow as seven and eight-year-olds we knew, innately, what we were doing. We knew these were acts of survival.
As I grew older, I would find that reasons to play with someone would evolve to include hair type and skin color. Reasons that would sometimes include me and exclude other black girls. Reasons that would sometimes exclude me and include other black girls. Reasons that would sometimes exclude all black girls.
In middle school, I transitioned from Waldorf to a small Mennonite school. Out of the over 300 plus children in attendance in K-8, I was the only black girl. An adopted black girlfriend of mine transitioned out of the school just as I began, and I quickly learned from my classmates that there were expectations with being black.
Average at basketball, I tried out for the team and, to the utter dismay of my coach, was only good enough to be a part-time player on the ‘A’ team and a full-time player on the ‘B’ team. Where was my skill? Didn’t I watch basketball at home? C’mon, where was the hustle?
As a seventh grader, a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy I liked gave me his phone number and asked me to call him. When I did, his mother informed me that he wasn’t allowed to talk to “people like me.” I remember hanging up the phone in shock. Later, I cried myself to sleep.
The next time I saw him, I ignored him. He followed me around after choir practice, apologizing Then he told me we should stop being friends. He had prayed about it and it would make things easier for him. And, that was okay, right? I understood?
A few weeks later a classmate, whom often called me an ‘Oreo,’ told me that his parents said that people like me could never be a “Proverbs 31” girl. I walked into the bathroom and cried.
People like me. Oreos like me. Things like me.
In eighth grade, a classmate would, much to the hilarity of my teammates, lift my field hockey skirt to see if I had a big butt. I was too horrified and embarrassed to report him.
In class, a cocky white boy would sit on my lap and apologize with an oops, I didn’t see you there. On the bus rides home, he would whisper sexually explicit things to me and shove me into the wall.
Late night bus rides after basketball and field hockey games would turn into weekly nightmares. Forced to sit in between horny adolescent eighth grade boys, I would have pens shoved in my hair, pencils shoved down my shorts and hands grope my back, chest and butt.
They would only stop if I cried.
Their apologies were often bold threats and excuses: you are such a baby. Can’t you take a joke? It’s not like we actually like you. You should be flattered we are paying you attention. If you tell anyone we will make it worse for you.
After asking one boy why I was always targeted, he laughed and said: because you’re not, you know, like the other girls.
In desperation, I went to the school’s guidance counselor and confided in her what was happening. She was one of the boy’s mom and told me that she didn’t believe me. Her son would never participate in things like that. Certainly, I was mistaken. This sounded like drama and she heard that I caused drama.
I never went back to her again.
Another time, during track and field practice, a popular classmate wanted a select group of girls to watch her run and then tell her if her butt bounced while she did the long jump. I just really want to have a bouncy big butt. She whined, and then she pointed at me. A big butt like her.
In 9th grade, after a classmate grabbed a hold of my breast in the middle of gym class, I remember feeling astounded that my white male teacher, Mr. T, stepped in. The boy was sent to the principal’s office and Mr. T asked me if I wanted to file a complaint. He said that he was going to and that it would be my decision to write one, but he recommended that I did.
Out of all the times I had been sexually harassed in class and at school, this was the first time that a teacher stood up for me.
This was the first time a teacher didn’t say that it happened because I caused drama.
This was the first time I was believed and supported.
I wrote the damn report.
Later, when a popular classmate would slap my butt, hard, in the hallway in front of a crowd of boys, I chased him down and slapped him across the face.
Never touch me again, I warned. “I just wanted to see how firm it was.” He laughed before declaring: never touch me again, crazy b**ch.
The next day a rumor went around that I was crazy and slapped him for no reason.
No one sat with me at lunch that day. Another told me that I should apologize. No one wanted to hear what had actually happened because no one cared.
People cared what happened to be young, white beautiful people. Once, after the same classmate that wanted a big, bouncy butt told another that a boy had looked at her weird, he was shunned from the next class party.
Just like that.
No one told her stop causing drama. No one accused her of being mistaken.
She was believed because she was popular. She was believed because she was white and beautiful. She was believed.
Just like that.
Historically, the first time I verbalized my ‘otherness,’ was when I was four. My aunt recalls this moment by my alleged declaration: there were “too many white people” at the family reunion.
While I don’t remember this incident, I do remember the first time I learned to associate my skin color with items that were dirty or burnt. The first time I was called a n****r. The first time I was spat on.
Transracially adopted into a rural, white, farming family, my modes of representation were limited to the very few black adults and families I encountered in public places
Although my family was a part of a small, vibrant community of transracial adoptive families that met once a month, I struggled to find racial representation in media, literature, education and music. Many of the adoptive families were large white conservative families that adopted one or two Black or African children.
While, as an adult I can recognize that the transracial adoption group’s goal was to normalize transracial families and provide support and resources for families and adoptive parents; as a child, I dreaded the meetings for many of the same reasons. Abandonment and trust issues, while ubiquitous, are also an integral marker for many adoptees.
Knowing that my story would be told to others without my permission, terrified me.
What if nobody wanted me? What if they told my parents to un-adopt me? What if everyone only knew the worst parts about me?
What if I was truly unlovable?
I would often overhear my adoptive parents talking about my issues with other adoptive parents and I felt overwhelmingly betrayed, hurt and angry.
Didn’t they know how much it hurt me? I would wonder. Didn’t they know?
As a child, I would often wonder if every black woman I saw could possibly be my mother. If every black boy could possibly be my brother.
I was desperate for representation but struggled with the cognitive, linguistic and emotional ability to articulate this.
I was desperate for something to make me loveable and wanted. Inherently trustworthy and honest. Innocent and pure.
Beautiful and white.