“Everyone else here is white. I’m the only one here with colored skin,” she says out of the blue, interrupting the chitter-chatter between my sister’s bridal party the night before the big day. Her hair becomes frizzier by the minute, rolling back into its natural curls after she spent the entire rehearsal dinner gleefully rolling around in the wet grass outside, disturbing whatever effort the hairdresser put into straightening her beautiful big afro the day before. Crumbs from her late-nite Lunchables pack (a special flower girl treat) line her lips and her innocent and goofy gap-toothed smile as she looks around the room.
My heart sinks and I fumble for a response. This is the first time she has referenced race.
Luckily, without any hesitation one of the bridesmaids pipes in perfectly: “No…” she says playfully, pointing at her pregnant belly, which Illyonna half-believes is carrying some sort of puppy/baby contraption inside. “Remember my boyfriend Prashant? He’s Indian, and that means puppy will have brown skin too.”
A couple giggles pass and before we know it things are back to normal, Illyonna relishing in her special night with the ‘big girls’ — which, of course, comes with all of the attention a six-year-old girl could ask for and more.
Some time later she crawls into my lap, her long, lanky limbs finding comfort in the crevices between my criss-crossed legs. She plays with my fingers as she chit-chats nonsense (complete with many many giggles as I playfully question her logic) and I kiss the back of her head a million times before it’s time for her to head to bed. She asks if she can sleep with me — the aunt she never sees enough — and monkey-climbs up the stairs off to her dreams.
I cherish this innocence and I know I will remember the comfort of tonight for a long time. Too often now I have to beg her ‘big girl’ independent self for a hug and a kiss, but that night she was very happily mine and I very happily hers. In these moments, nothing divides us. The color of our skin is a mere difference that holds as little weight as the color of our hair or eyes. I fear a day when that will no longer be the case.
Illyonna is my beautiful, rambunctious, crazy little princess of a niece — sort of. In reality, she’s my sister’s niece by marriage, but I’ve known and cared for the little rascal since birth so I claim her as one of my own.
Illyonna’s thick, curly dark brown hair bounces away from her beautiful almond eyes, complete with full, long black eyelashes. Her mocha skin glows softly underneath her outfit of the day — the little fashionista ALWAYS insists on dressing herself, matching flower leggings with a zebra print top and a winter vest and boots in the middle of April.
And every week she is a new princess — first it was Ariel, then Rapunzel, and the latest I hear, she’s Elsa… In fact, she most recently sported the ‘Elsa braid’ during her flower girl debut at the wedding.
Watching her grow up, I loved how free-spirited and color-blind Illy was when it came time to choose her princess of the week. It didn’t matter that Ariel had red hair, or that Rapunzel’s long, blonde locks stood in complete contrast to Illyonna’s curly fro — she was adamant in the fact that she could be whatever princess she wanted to be, looks put aside.
But now that she has started to recognize race, I’m worried that our white-washed society has thwarted her perception of beauty. She never asks to be Princess Tiana or Pocahontas or Jasmine.
I should clarify here that it’s okay to never ask to be one of these things. I never want her to feel confined by the color of her skin, forced to be the ‘token’ colored princess in a crowd full of white people if she doesn’t want to be. But in light of her recent comments I am worried that she overlooks their beauty and sees being colored as being different, in a negative way — almost as less than. And I am scared because society reinforces this.
Last Christmas I wandered up and down the toy aisles at Walmart waiting for something to catch my eye, when I found myself parked in front of the Barbie aisle staring at nearly 100 different Barbies that took me way back to my own childhood. There were doctors and mermaids, shopping fashionistas and teachers, Barbie mansions, pets and a couple Ken dolls to make your collection complete, and all of them were white. This is where the fear comes in.
I am scared that she is growing up learning that the contrast in the color of our skin echoes into a binary of who and what she can and cannot be. I am scared that she sees white as something beautiful, while color is either portrayed as something exotic or not at all. I am scared, because in 2015, she doesn’t have a Barbie doll to represent her kind of beautiful.
I want to see dolls of every color and race and I want to see these dolls as doctors and teachers and mermaids so that the idea of her becoming these things doesn’t need much convincing. I want her to embrace her wild curls and to be proud of the beautiful color of her skin, and I want these things to fade into the background as ‘just another piece of us’ so that this ‘racial divide’ we face doesn’t pierce the space between us as she makes her way into my lap, her soft skin peacefully next to mine as we drift into the comfort of our sweet cuddles.
I am scared because I don’t know how to make this her reality. And I am scared that I should.
I am scared because as a white girl I don’t know what to say when she asks me why she’s the only colored girl in the room. I am scared because I don’t know how to confront race, and when she asks me for a Barbie doll for Christmas, I am scared because all I can offer her is a white doctor off the shelf, handed to her by another pair of porcelain hands. I am scared, because I realize that unconsciously and unwillingly, I am part of the problem. And I am scared because I don’t know how not to be. And that scares me.