My skin is not my culture

Magnifying Glass

If my great, great grandfather, a man I didn’t know, knew that his great, great granddaughter’s skin would be a spectacle to the world, maybe he would have sort ways to smoothen the path for me. Maybe he would have written a manual for me – all his words of wisdom coming alive on pages that would act as my guide, saving me a little heartache.

But my great, great grandfather, a man I didn’t know, didn’t know that his great, great granddaughter would be a woman of the world – a lover of the earth & soil no matter where in the corner of the globe her little feet happen to step on it.

I tire of having to explain my intrinsic humanness – that it actually doesn’t reside in the shade of my skin. I die small, little deaths every single time I meet the question in the stares, the avoidance, the assumptions & the silent judgements.

I blame my parents.

For stitching together a soul that finds humanity in people. If they had told me the world is not ready for the likes of you dear daughter nor is it as lovely as the gardens you imagine in your head I would have better prepared; better prepared for the stares, the avoidance, the assumptions & the silent judgements; for the exhaustion that invades every sinew at the thought of having to explain again & again that my skin is not my culture.

But while I breathe out this blame, I breathe with it a gratitude that sits heavy into my bones. Because without my parents’ insistence that I afford every human being honour & respect, I wouldn’t be the beautiful human being I am today.

I accrued my own humanity by seeing it in other men. I am because you are. This is my culture. It’s got nothing to do with the wild jungles of Africa or the imaginary drums that beat all night or a small brain or ugliness. It’s got everything to do with lushness of spirit, beauty of the heart & character, family, friends, breathtaking connection.

There are no maps on my skin that will lead you to the land of inferiority. I don’t even know the way there. Those legacies are made up. There are no native inscriptions etched deep into my skin. The only etchings you’ll see are the scars I carry for being vulnerable & rolling in this thing called life.

I don’t wear big, coloured earrings because I’m from Africa. I wear big, coloured earrings because I like them. When I was a little girl I would rest my head atop my folded little hands & watch my Mom’s big earrings sashay from side to side as she talked. She was so beautiful. & I wanted to be just like her.

I am not intense & passionate because I am black. I just happen to be because I am. I watch eagles soar the sky. I hold my breath at a sight of a kiss. I cry for strangers. I pray for the broken hearted & lonely. I talk to butterflies. I feel the textures of the world between my fingers. I experience the world from a depth even I cannot name.

But you will not know all this if you don’t look past my skin. There is nothing in this chocolate shade of mine that will tell you how fiercely I love. You have to meet me heart to heart for that, human to human.

There is no mystery here. There never was.

There is no code to crack.

My skin is not my culture. I’m afraid it is as simple as that.

Maybe it is the simplicity that scares people, the disbelief that we could all be… just flesh & blood with the same flaws of a nature & the same fate awaiting each of us – an accounting for that which you did & not what you looked like.

It scares some people to think of the possibility that I, with this skin, could be your sister, your friend, your doctor, your teacher, your nurse, your lifeline, your lover, your wife.

It stretches the imagination that I could be…well, human & that most times when it matters the most that is the only thing that matters.

If my great, great grandfather could see me now, he would quietly lean in & gently kiss this skin. He would tell me exactly what I have come to know; my skin is not my culture.

The thing about beauty


I have no doubt that I am an intelligent young woman. no doubt whatsoever. I know pretty much where I stand when it comes to how my brain works & the magic it can create. I know where I stand with what I do not know & I am not one of those ashamed of knowing that which I don’t know. I don’t go around worrying that people will think I’m stupid because I know I’m not. & I don’t need anyone to tell me it is so.

Beauty, on the other hand, is another thing altogether. I tread her house carefully, on tip toes, afraid to be seen & defined by people who created square pegs. This house…this place is made out of vulnerability.  the walls, tender & fragile. the floor shaky.  it needs to be propped up some of the time.

But as I sit here on this red & blue sturdy ottoman looking through the smoky windows, I realise that the smoke is actually on the outside. the dirt is thrown at this house from without. the healing peace & stillness that lives here is often sabotaged from the outside.

I realise then that we’ve got beauty all wrong. choked up & hanging upside down.

We are born into a world that punches a price tag on white skin, black skin, inbetween skin; a price tag on whether your eyes are filled with colour or devoid of it. my favourite is green.

Even when we object to this selling & buying with our wonderfully constructed words & sentiments, when push comes knocking on the door to take orders, we are forced into a corner & when it really matters our actions betray us. we side with the beauty that the world teaches us to revere. of skin, hair & bone. white skin, silky, flowing hair & thin bones to be exact. & even then, we make gradations that run so deep & thick.

We are conditioned to think of beauty as divided within itself, vulnerable in the face of culture, infact, produced by it. & so we can talk about white beauty & black beauty as though they were two different things, completely unrelated because let’s face it, what do standard brown eyes have on dreamy blue eyes or porcelain skin on midnight dark skin?

We are trained to compare like this. to see beauty like this. to see some as the universal cup holders of it as the rest of us scramble for the drops that escape their golden cup while they laugh in derision over our attempts to claim for ourselves our labels of beauty that do not begin with the adjective black

Listen as I drop wisdom as old as the earth into your lap. I’ll lay it on you thick:

The thing about beauty is that it is neither black nor white. It is not Latin American, Asian or exotic. And get this, it is not cultural. For the moment we confine & dress it up in cultural garb, in the ugly petticoats of “it’s a cultural thing – every culture values different things” we exclude some people from our beauty list. Because well, they look good but they just don’t fit into our mental frameworks of what beauty is supposed to be. & so we close our eyes & hearts to them.

Beauty has to be named outside our own insecurities, complexes & complications. If it walks by in long legs – let’s see it. If it smiles in dark chocolate dimples – let’s proclaim it. If it sashays in full, voluptuous curves – let’s celebrate it.

We have to set beauty free. we have imprisoned it to mean only what we are prepared to endorse. It’s much more than that. much more than symmetry. much bigger than our puny perceptions.

Stay here for a while & let that soak right into you. Before you go off into complications of skin, hair & bone where the depth of beauty is lost, stay here a while. stay here. & get it right.

Then let’s teach it to our children.

Race & Fear


She just walked up to me & talked to me.

A Caribbean girl, beautiful & awkward in her stride, in her manner.  As though the world was not quite a steady place. I could sense her soul, open & exposed to the elements. She needed no words for me to know she was craving. needing. love. connection. human interest.

She told me how lonely it was being a black Caribbean woman in Australia. My heart clasped & enfolded itself around hers. I understood every unspoken word she said, every bated breath that escaped from her body.

I had vowed to myself to never speak of race or culture on this blog. Even though these are the things I’m knee deep & thickly steeped into. for my doctorate & for my own every day. They interest me in a deep, under the skin kind of way.

The thing is, I have been afraid. Sucker punched in the gut kind of afraid. of offending. of being judged. of being thought of as overly sensitive.

Talking about race rarely goes well in our world. Other people are sensitive too. Emotions come spilling out. Hurtful words gush out of our mouths. Wrong perceptions are formed & dig their fangs into our conscious like leeches.

I’ve had people question my racial experiences or make excuses on other people’s behalf. I’ve had people tell me my experiences are not unique, that everybody has something that gets drawn out of them & for me it just happens to be the chocolate brown colour of my skin. & so I shouldn’t be asking for more. After all, the world carries on as it always has.

I have been shaken to the marrow every time I’ve born witness to this kind of thinking & talking. Did I say so? No. My heart, my beautiful heart trembled in its fear. Fear of confrontation & having that conversation that cuts deep.

Maybe every tactic in the world has been tried & tested. We can’t change the world anyway & so we go along with whatever is championed as the norm; as the superior culture. & the norm is definitely not the face or body you see when you look at me. Or so I’m told.

I find it funny how we all act as though we stood in a queue before we were born and God said,

“Alas! What shall I make you go as?”

“Well, now. I’ll take the blue eyes, blond hair & porcelain skin, thank you very much!”

No, people, it didn’t go down like that. God didn’t give me the choice to be born black or white. & so I find it deeply disturbing when people act as though they had something to do with evading the black skin; as though everybody else who is covered in skin that is not pure & white made a poor choice.

A lot of us wash our hands off race. with soap & all. Because let’s face it, it’s just too hard. too messy. & maybe we feel it has nothing to do with us.

I’ll break it down for you; EVERYONE. Every single, breathing, walking person is affected by race. For some it is positive & affirming. For others it is painful & frustrating. I know both as some of you might.

There is something really terrifying about living in a world where some people are rendered sub-human. The thought process behind that craziness makes me shudder.

I’ve had to come face to face with my fears. I sat down woman to woman with my own inferiority complex. the one that was stamped on me by virtue of being born, black, African & a woman. & the one the world tries to shove down my throat every single day.  I’ve had to deal with my own prejudices & perceptions about myself, about black people, white people, asian people, island people, nationalities & everyone in between. & because I can personally do these things, I can ask others to do the same thing. I never talk about things I’m not willing to do myself. That is akin to hypocrisy & in my life there is no room for that.

The fear that has held me prisoner in the past is fading & I have a mission to make life better for at least ONE person in the world.  Someone has to benefit from my existence.  I have a mission to talk about race in a way that connects people to themselves & to others.

Because when we take away the fear, race remains in its beauty. The way God intended. right. good. & perfect.

I hope I can grow the courage to lay this beauty over girls who walk up to me & speak to me of fear, loneliness & craving. Thickly wrap them up in the truth of race. & love.