By Oluwaseun Senbore
“You’re ugly because you’re black”. These were the words spoken to me in elementary school by a white classmate, after I asked him to scoot his chair over because I could not see the board. Little did my classmate know that I already felt like a unicorn among my peers because I was one of a handful of Black students in my grade. His unkind words seared my spirit and have stuck in my mind ever since. Today, I know his words are not true. But when he spoke those words, I believed them.
I carried that belief around like a heavy bag of bricks all through high school and university. This belief manifested itself in different ways. Every time I had a crush on someone, I concluded that there was no way they would like me back because I am a dark-skinned Black female, and dark-skinned black females are not palatable nor desirable—so I thought. I tried my best to fit in and clung dangerously to the acceptance and approval of others. On many occasions, I was ruthless and unkind to others when I thought doing so would benefit me socially. In my mind, if I was the one doing the bullying, there was no way I could be bullied. Today, I know that making others feel excluded is no cure for my own exclusion.
The question of why I keep using the phrase “dark-skinned” might have crossed your mind. I refer to dark-skinned for two primary reasons. First, colorism—prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone—is a reality. Second, I want to be clear that I am writing from the position of my lived experience as a dark-skinned person.
While my classmate was the first to explicitly declare to me that he thought I was ugly, he was not the first to imply it. The television shows, movies, magazines and advertisements I consumed all told me that I was not beautiful. How? Simple: a blatant lack of representation. Growing up repeatedly consuming the same images and never seeing anyone that looked as dark as me had negative repercussions for my self-esteem. This is why representation is important; black beauty needs to be normalized. We need to get to a place where featuring a dark-skinned model in a campaign, casting a dark-skinned actress as the romantic lead or centering dark-skinned females in fiction novels is not cutting-edge or revolutionary. Seventh grade me would have benefited from seeing a dark-skinned model with a kinky afro on the cover of a magazine, as the main love interest in a movie or as the high-achieving lawyer in a television drama.
Please do not misunderstand me. I do not believe that a person needs to be told that they are beautiful to believe they are beautiful. What I am saying is that we do not move through this world in a social vacuum. I may believe that I am beautiful, but if the world around me consistently reaffirms that my dark-skin and kinky hair are undesirable, then I could fall into the trap of believing that I am not beautiful, especially at a young age. This is what happened to me. Today, I am armed with the belief that I am beautiful, with or without society’s approval; but when I was younger, I did not have the shield of that belief to protect me from the world’s flaming arrows. I came to believe that I was beautiful because of my relationship with God. While I understand that not everyone will share my belief in God, I could not write this article authentically without discussing the role that my belief in God has played in my initial acceptance and eventual celebration of the way I look. When God fashioned me in my mother’s womb, no hiccups were made. I choose to love and accept the way I look because I know that God made me with intentionality.
Thoughts carry power. Since realizing the truth of this statement, I have become more intentional about the thoughts I entertain. While I am unable to control the thoughts that come to mind, I can decide which ones to dwell on. So, when my former classmates’ harsh words enter my head, I choose to disregard that thought and dwell on a nourishing thought instead. I still struggle with self-love and self-acceptance, but I constantly remind myself that I am beautiful just the way God created me. Besides, I am more than my looks. My beauty is not one dimensional. My beauty encompasses my passions, the love that fills my heart and the way I express myself.
Black female directors and screenwriters including Michaela Coel, Dee Rees and Nia DaCosta inspire me. They wanted to see themselves represented in television and movies, so they took matters into their own hands. This is part of what AspireToBe is about. Even if you do not see yourself represented in an industry, a profession, school, class, or space, are you still willing to aim?