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Black Experiences / Race / Self Worth

My Racist Education: Unlearning Reasons to Hate Myself

"As it drained I felt a rawness--a sore, hollow, familiar feeling: I wasn’t Black enough."

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Written by Kel Williams.

Art by Sasha Roberts.

I’m a black woman and I’ve never had a weave. I didn’t even know what a bundle was until a couple of years ago. I didn’t understand what a sew-in, leave out or closure meant.  I was generally unaware of anything having to do with getting extensions, braids, etc. I told myself and others that I just wasn’t interested, or it was because I didn’t think I had the personality to pull off a certain style. People would normally just give me an ‘eh, fair enough’ head tilt and shrug, and drop the subject. One day at work, at the end of a shift, someone asked me yet again if I’d ever “gotten a weave,” and I gave my usual answer. The person who asked looked confused and said, “What do you mean? You’re a black woman; isn’t that normal to do?” I started to respond and stopped short. What did I mean to say?

I felt the force of my shame? guilt? anger? self-loathing, fear? threaten to burst all my veins and flood me to death.

My body reacted first. It’s always quicker to fathom what I’m feeling than my mind is. In the pit of my stomach a roiling swell moved upward until it felt as though the heat behind my eyes would melt them. I felt the force of my shame? guilt? anger? self-loathing, fear? threaten to burst all my veins and flood me to death. I felt my breath catch in my throat and I knew that what had spurred this upset inside me had nothing to do with that one person, or that particular day, or my hairstyle at all. I don’t remember what I said, but I found an excuse to leave hastily. I remember crying in my car for what seemed like a week but was probably only fifteen minutes, releasing the river inside me that had risen high after so long. As it drained I felt a rawness–a sore, hollow, familiar feeling:  I wasn’t Black enough.

I knew Black girls with similar complexions that seemed to be able to be Black effortlessly, but I was somehow messing it up.

That is what my experiences had left me with. White people at school would ask me which of my parents was white because of my light complexion.  When I responded with “neither” they would seem surprised, but quickly reassure me that I was “basically white” because I didn’t talk like a black girl.  It makes me feel strange to think of it now.  If I didn’t act like a normal black person (whatever that meant,) I wasn’t really black.

The other Black girls in our predominantly-white, small, southern town would taunt me at school and church. They called me weird and told me that I thought I was white. They told me that I thought I was prettier because I had light skin. They asked me why I wanted to be white so bad.  That could not have been further from the truth. I wanted, more than anything, to be like other Black girls. I knew Black girls with similar complexions that seemed to be able to be Black effortlessly, but I was somehow messing it up.

Black boys could become popular in school if they played sports or were funny, but the Black girls could never–we were either too loud or too quiet, too dumb or too arrogant, a tomboy or too developed.

I didn’t understand then and maybe I still don’t fully understand how it affected me to feel like the only “normal” identity available to me was a malignant stereotype: white America’s projection of what Blackness is. It has been marked indelibly onto the social rubric of my peers and onto me, telling us that if we don't want to be picked on, bullied or called names by other Black people, or seen two-dimensionally as “one of the good ones” by white people, we’d have to limit ourselves to prescribed speech patterns, kinds of clothes to wear, or music to listen to. I was born Black and born female, but there was no room for the person I actually was in what constituted a Black girl to those around me.

…[M]aybe I still don’t fully understand how it affected me to feel like the only “normal” identity available to me was a malignant stereotype: white America’s projection of what Blackness is.

Black boys could become popular in school if they played sports or were funny, but the Black girls could never–we were either too loud or too quiet, too dumb or too arrogant, a tomboy or too developed. My brown knees were dirty like the back of my neck, like my coarse, dark body hair. The pain of adolescence was compounded with the pain of feeling unlovely, unholy, unclean. I became obsessed with death and dying, began to self-harm and made plans to kill myself someday, somehow. What saved my life then, truly, was spending my last two years of high school at a performing arts magnet, where I was exposed to more Black people and other POC in all our wondrous diversity. I made friends for life there, and learned that I didn’t need to change myself to be accepted, to be liked, to be loved.

It’s taken me years to shed my internalized racism, and the task is ongoing. It’s been slower and more painful than I’d like to admit. I still struggle every day interacting with willful racists and incidental ones, but there are some things I don’t struggle with anymore: I know I’m Black and I know I am enough. The rest will flow from there.


About the Author

Kel Williams is a singer, songwriter, poet, actress, and Lord of Rings enthusiast, living and trying to make a living in the South. Some other words to describe her: bisexual, bipolar, Black, and beautiful! Blessed. Cashapp: $kelwilling

Follow on IG: @kel_ill | Follow on Twitter: @


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