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  • Writer's pictureJayma Anne Montgomery

WHEN FICTION IS MORE THAN SKIN DEEP

'I need to be white.' This is what my ultra-cocoa, brown-skinned four-year-old daughter says to me as I’m twisting her thick, curly hair in front of the bathroom mirror. I felt my heart sink into my slippers. Not this. Not now. I gathered my breath for several moments before responding. 'What do u mean?' I asked her in a voice that I desperately hoped did not betray how terrified I was of her answer. She then proceeded to tell me how she needed to be Elsa and that she needed to have white hair and white skin just like her. Of course, I was then obligated to remind her that she simply is not Elsa. She is Ellie and infinitely more awesome than any fictitious Disney princess. I’d like to tell you that she received what I had to say with gladness. What actually happened was a tearful shrieking match during which she kept screaming 'But I am Elsa!' over and over again. Giant Mom Fail. If you don’t know my daughter, when you meet her, you will think she is merely a darling, quirky, imaginative girl. You would be partially wrong. As my husband would put it, Ellie is probably the world's most naturally gifted child method actor. The words ‘pretend,’ ‘make-believe,’ and ‘fiction’ do not exist in her vocabulary. She is never just playing a role; she is the role. She commits 1000% to whatever character she adopts for the days, weeks, and months ahead and commands the world around her to bend to whatever fantastical setting that this character inhabits. It’s impressive, if not, exhausting. Not too long after she turned three, the tale of the orphaned Norwegian princesses came alive for her. Every song, lyric, and line became fair game for incorporation into everyday conversations. Almost all of her speech was scripted by the time she was diagnosed on the ASD spectrum last year. So, when she calls herself a particular character, I’m not at all certain that she knows that what she is doing is pretending. I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it was to hear my gorgeous ebony daughter say those words with such conviction. I remember some months ago my husband came to me with a similar concern regarding her obsession with long, flowing hair. She would make valiant efforts to utilize household items such as a t-shirt, a scarf, or a blanket as her own personal hair prop. Ellie's features are decidedly of African ancestry. She strongly favors my mother-in-law and my mother-in-law’s extended family including her sister, nieces, and mother. They remind me of people from the Ivory Coast who have skin that is almost midnight blue, impeccably smooth, and nearly hairless. They seem ageless, barely accumulating any wrinkles with the passage of time. Their gums are nearly purple and even their palms and soles appear darker than the average black person. Their eyebrows look manicured and they have bountiful, thick, dark eyelashes that most women have to glue on to even come close. Many people have commented on her exquisite beauty from the day that she was born. However, I know that not everyone finds authentic African features attractive. There is a wild, unpredictable part of me that is hidden away, standing at the ready to pounce the moment when someone says something derogatory about her appearance. That day will be a very bad day for all involved. This especially bad day came for me about a week into kindergarten. My school was in a town that was teeming with one of the largest KKK populations in the state. I was fresh off the immigration plane with an accent so thick you could slice it. I couldn’t open my mouth without getting made fun of so I stopped saying much at all. I was the only child of color in my class. On this particular day, a little boy told me that my hair looked like devil horns and that I was black and ugly. I said nothing and went about my business. Then the other kids caught on and began to describe the darkest things they could think of to describe me...car tires, motor oil, a paved road. The one that stuck was 'teacher's pet black cat.' It was actually kind of clever because the teacher found me to be quite helpful to her in my efforts to escape any interaction with my classmates. However, she never corrected or reprimanded the students. I didn’t realize until years later how strange that was. After a month of mocking and jeering, I couldn’t take it anymore and told my Mom what was happening. It was one of the few times I can remember being thankful for her 'tiger mom' approach to things. Needless to say, they never bothered me again. More than thirty years later, I am watching my little girl struggle with her identity as a black person without any of the negative triggers that I faced. No amount of diversity, inclusion, or critical race theory can change hundreds of years of the American Anglo-Saxon normative. The majority culture sets the standard. Out of dozens of Anglo-featured princesses there emerged one Chinese, one Arabian, one Pacific Islander, and one black woman. I thank GOD for these representations. They are necessary and important. But no matter what things are being done and said to try and overhaul the previous status quo, little girls are still getting the unspoken message that in order to be truly beautiful, they need to possess a certain set of features. This look will never be possible for my daughter no matter what makeup she might wear or hairstyle she might try. I have struggled with how best to communicate to her a balanced messaging about race, ethnicity, history, and ancestry. Teaching black supremacist ideals might feel satisfying in some ways but I would be knowingly perpetuating a mindset that is contrary to the Kingdom of GOD and fostering within her a certain level of disdain towards all Caucasian people. How do you teach your kid to be comfortable and thankful for the skin she was born in? How do I begin to show her the tough lessons that have taken me 30+ years to learn and the many more that I’m still learning? When is the right time to be honest about the even harsher realities that await her? Where do the boundaries of harmless, uninhibited play end and the boundaries of staunch rejection of self begin? I'm not sure anyone has the answers to any of these questions. I don’t harbor any regret about the Frozen merchandise that we have purchased for her or even the Broadway musical that we took her to see that seems to have resurged her waning passion. Rather than get her the long-haired wig she has been asking for, I compromised and got her colorful clip-on hair extensions. She asked to keep her braids in for ballet class the other day and I think that is because there are several other black girls in her class who wear braids, twists, and cornrows. I count that as a win. Most of what she says and does concerning the characters she loves seems pretty harmless and sweet to me. But the skin comment devastates me to my soul. Perhaps it’s because I remember little six-year-old me crying in bed at night asking GOD for the impossible, 'Make me white so I can be like the other kids,' I would plead. The right skin will bring you acceptance. The right skin will bring you ease in life. The right skin will win you admiration and respect. The right skin will make you, well...right with the world, I guess. These statements are never explicitly stated but they are still widely communicated non-verbally through various cultural media. I am watching these false beliefs take root in the heart and mind of my little girl right before my eyes despite my best efforts. I think of my pastor's family's adopted little girl. She is a petite little black girl with a winning smile and a quiet way of curling up into your affections and remaining there. They absolutely adore her. That little girl knows she is loved beyond measure. But they are a Caucasian family with five other much older siblings. She has a medium brown complexion and the most stubborn and kinky of hair types. When will she start to have the natural and powerful urge to look like her family? And what happens when she faces insensitive comments or treatment from others and comes home seeking validation in sameness? The comfort of looking into faces that mirror her facial features and complexion is probably not something she will be able to easily identify or articulate but she will feel it deeply just the same. There is no 'retreat' for her from so-called 'white' spaces when she is feeling bruised and vulnerable because she happens to live in one. I pray for her ardently when thoughts like this cross my mind and hope she comes to view us as the willing family of color in the congregation that can bring her that comfort and assurance in ways that her adoptive family simply are unable to. I feel helpless to prevent the mental anguish that likely awaits these little girls as they come of age in our nation. The mother in me at least has to try and soften the blows that I can. If I do nothing else right with my daughter, she will come to know the difference between fact and fiction someday. If our family does anything of value for this precious adopted girl, I hope we help her to grow comfortably into her skin, see beautiful variances rather than alienating differences in her physical features, and celebrate the wonder of her unique personhood.




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