Rebecca Walker
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PALE AS I AM

by Rebecca Walker
© Essence, June 1st, 2002


     
 

I am driving my pale, war- and winter-weary body down to my favorite strip of Mexican coastline. The huge boulders perched perilously above the waves are stunning, the hot yellow ball of the sun is blinding and the coconut-filled palm trees are swaying. I am taking it all in, but really I am trying to remember if I put on sunblock before leaving the house. And did I put on enough to keep me from getting cancer but not so much that I won't still get the deep brown color I desperately want--no, need--to feel beautiful and whole?

I have always wanted to be darker, and baring my honey-colored body to the sun has been my only option. I have yet to find, on drugstore shelves next to the Porcelana and the new ointments brimming with lightening hydroquinone, the right beauty product for me. If there were such a product, Meladore or Night or some other absurdly named potion, I would buy it in bulk. In lieu of this, I have slathered on olive oil, coconut oil and avocado oil and offered myself up again and again to Mother Sun, frying my poor epidermis and dreaming of the lush, sensual brown skin of Tahitian women, the elegant ebony of African women, the fiery, earth-toned intensity of Maori women.

Inside, I know that I am one of those women, the ones who rule with a glance, traverse centuries with a song and have recipes that feed the world written in their DNA. Outside though, when I stand next to one of my favorite women friends, an absolute goddess who is as brown as mahogany, I feel like the chunky, awkward poor cousin just visiting from Siberia. When she turns to look at me, I feel a kind of shame alongside my deep affection. I am conscious that the color of my skin carries privilege that may wound, a lightness that can betray.

When I was in college, at 18 or 19, my beautiful cherry-brown mother told me that she always knew people would treat me better than they treated her because my skin was lighter. While she was simply stating a fact, her words pierced my soul. This was a thought that haunted and horrified me, because it implicated me in the horror of racism, of White-skin privilege. Even though I was not White, I carried on my skin the same power to hurt by being the one chosen over another, the one better regarded. In my case, this meant being on the ladder of race and power one rung above my mother--the woman who gave me life and whom I adore, the woman I would always want to be served before me, the woman I would always want to get the very best treatment.

My mother's statement confirmed something I had always felt growing up. Not so much that people treated me differently from how they treated her, but that she thought they might and that this complicated her feelings about me. Did she resent me for my privilege? Was there a part of her that could not love or accept me because she knew exactly at whose expense my privilege came? Was there a part of her that was horrified to have a daughter who was marked to participate in the culture in this way? My nagging fear was that my mother would have loved me more if I were darker, if this choosing I did not ask for, this privilege beyond my control, were not a part of our daily lives.

This is a fear it has taken me years to finally abandon. After much struggle, I now know definitively that my mother loves me just as I am. But those years when I wasn't so sure remind me of all that we collectively sacrifice to the race and color wars. I also now hold the consciousness that sometimes I will be treated better than people I love because of the lightness of my skin, but this makes the person doing the privileging the perpetrator of pain, not me. This understanding both soothes and propels me. Because of it, I am even more vigilant in my insistence that all people be treated equally, and that beauty comes in every shade, including my own.

Even though I have yet to give up my love affair with the sun and the deep glow she gives me, I am learning to love what a good friend calls my multilayered fine self. These days I pin up pictures of striking light-skinned sisters, starting with my fierce cafe au lait grandmother, who stares back at me from the wall, daring me to doubt her stunning beauty. I cherish an image of a twentysomething Lena Horne, her hair pulled back in the early morning light. I keep adding to the collection. I know that one day soon I will feel completely at home in my natural unsunned state. Until then, well, pass the coconut oil!

Rebecca Walker, the author of Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Riverhead), lives in Berkeley, California.

 

 

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