My 5th grade best friend sat beside me on the bench during recess. “Zoe, why don’t you act like them?”
I looked at her with confusion. “Like who?” I replied.
“Like black people,” she said. “You’re kind of like an Oreo, black on the outside but white on the inside. You don’t really talk like them or dress like them.”
People regularly call me an “Oreo” because my personality, speech pattern, and fashion contradicts almost all of the degrading black stereotypes. I get good grades, I speak like a westerner, and I am always clean-cut. Additionally, I am privileged. My parents work hard for me to have a proper education, and I have what every little black child wants, a chance at a good future. Even though I was brought up like most privileged white children, I was never treated the same.
When I first entered the Westborough school system, people were appalled to find out that I was actually decently smart because they were remarkably unfamiliar with black people. My classmates would make remarks about the thickness of my hair while touching and grabbing chunks of the curly strands. When I changed up my hairstyle, teachers would make comments, and students would ask if I was wearing a new wig. Substitute teachers would look at my last name and ask if I speak “African”. Okay, first of all, that’s not even a language. People lost all form of self-control when I was in the room. They never asked permission to touch any part of my body. Instead, they would automatically poke and prod at my skin while pointing out my “huge lips” and “weird almond eyes.” As a black woman in America, you just need to get used to it. Of course, you shouldn’t be okay with it, but you need to come to expect that people are going to try and touch your hair. You need to come to expect that people are going to make comments about your physical features. You need to come to expect that people are going to ask about your ethnicity and ask intruding questions. You need to come to expect that people will treat you differently.
Growing up, I tried so hard to fit in. At one point in my childhood, I practically wanted to strip my African culture away just to replace it with the typical white American “culture.” I remember constantly straightening and frying my hair in order to look just like the majority of girls in my school; I can practically still hear the dry, sharp sizzling my hair made against the straightener. Although my parents tried very hard to instill in me that my culture is beautiful by buying only black Barbie dolls, my slowly diminishing self-esteem disagreed. On top of that, people calling me “monkey” and “gorilla” was not exactly helping me reach acceptance of myself and my culture. I questioned why I should even consider myself beautiful if society clearly says otherwise. Unlike now, when I was younger, there was barely any black representation in fashion magazines, television shows, and cartoons. Unfortunately, in the rare cases that there was any black representation in television shows, the black people, specifically women, were so heavily stereotyped. It was always the generic loud black women with a fake weave, a goofy personality, and an overweight body that was featured on television shows. I didn’t look anywhere close to that.
My desire for European features grew stronger when I turned 12. I believed that the one thing stopping me from reaching my “European potential” was my somewhat wide nose. Thus, I decided to clip my nose with a chip bag clip every night because I assumed that if I applied significant pressure to the bridge of my nose, it would magically become smaller. Occasionally I would even go so far to clip my nose on the bus because I wanted the process to go by quicker. Although the pain of the clip was brutal, I thought it would be worth it. I wanted to look into the mirror and smile instead of cringe. I wanted people to tell me I was beautiful. Most of all, I wanted to feel beautiful. After all, beauty is pain.
Even though I’ve had to endure an atrocious amount of external and internal conflicts because of my identity, all of those events have made me who I am today. I have finally reached self-love and feel empowered by my ethnicity. I love my kinky curls and my brown skin. I love the way my skin radiates in the sun because of my melanin. I love how the color yellow brings out my distinct African facial features. Now, if my sisters ever begin to go through the same situations, I can be there for them. I can tell them all of the wonderful African American attributes that people nowadays want, from plump lips to tan skin. I can tell them how amazing it feels to not have to constantly be under umbrellas at the beach because we rarely get burnt. Although, I doubt they’ll ever have as brutal racial experiences and self-confidence issues as I did. This time around, my parents basically jammed into their heads that their melanin is beautiful. Just recently, I straightened my hair. I went down to show my family and they got into a huge ruckus about it.
“Big sister, what did you do?!” My little sister, Eden, said. “I don’t like it.”
My other sister, Madison, joined in. “Yeah, me too. It looks weird.”
I looked at them with confusion and pointed to my straight hair. “What do you mean? Oh, my hair?”
Madison groaned and looked me in the eye. “Are you going through that white-people phase again? You look so much better with curly hair.”
I laughed and grinned at her. “Girl, never again.
Zoë Akpan was brought up in a small suburban town with less than .o9% percent of black people. People would constantly tease her for her facial features and hair texture; self-love was limited while she was growing up. However, she has finally embraced her beautiful blackness. She wants to share her story for those who are going through a similar journey.