By Haley Debnam

Being a black woman is exhausting and the journey to rejecting self-shame seems impossible. But it’s time to hang up my black shame and it’s time to do it now.

Day by day, I’m learning that my black is beautiful and that there is no universal standard of black beauty.

No one teaches you how to navigate womanhood and blackness. Two equally important characteristics, but society still manages to alienate them. At the same time, no one teaches you how to navigate your blackness when society holds you down to a stereotype. In this world, you have to learn race through trial and error.

I didn’t always know I was black. In fact, it wasn’t until 4th grade that I learned that my body bore a different skin than that of my playmates.

“You look like a burnt woodchip,” the pigtailed girl said. I stopped swinging and paused to listen closer. She kneeled, picked up a pile of chips, and held them beside my arm. Sifting through the chips, she snickered and left me to conceptualize what she meant and how she meant it. Through innocently harsh words, I learned what race was.

What did she mean by burnt woodchip? Where were we different? Why was being different wrong?

That night, I went home and replayed the encounter with my mother. Burdened, she took me by the hand and sat me down. She then placed every doll that I owned on the floor. With tears in her eyes, my mother pointed out the diversity and beauty of each color and each doll. She explained that there is not one race, nor color, nor shape that stands above the other. Here, I was taught the value of racial identity without shame. That’s one lesson that I still struggle to apply.

As children, my mother never taught my brother and me to see people for their race. She recognized people as human first and color as secondary. When I reflected on this as an adult, it made sense that I wouldn’t have noticed someone’s color, and even ignored my own.

Photographer: Nick Childs

Throughout my education at small white institutions, I became shameful of my black skin because it didn’t fit into the majority. With this, I tried to force myself into the culture that would never accept my own. I began relaxing my hair, shopping at Hollister, and wearing ungodly amounts of eyeshadow. I rejected anything that the majority deemed different. I embraced everything that would carry me further from being me, and closer to being more like “them.”

When I got to high school, I had fully convinced myself that I could fit into white culture. And toward the beginning of college, I did the same. For a moment I was proud, having assured myself that others bought my act. It wasn’t until I heard comments from insensitive students that I was back to doubting myself self-worth.

“I don’t get why black people dress like that,” I heard from a group of students as I walked on campus. Like what, I thought? Continuing to walk to class, I watched as they shook their heads in disapproval of another student’s creative taste. I wanted to stop walking and with bravery ask them what they would rather the student wear. But of course, I silenced myself and harbored yet another example of when being different was wrong.

By pointing out someone’s attire, those students made it clear that there was a level at which everyone should strive to achieve acceptance. That level hadn’t been formally established, but the group of students seemed to be on one accord. Watching their mindset, I realized, no amount of Hollister or eyeshadow could make someone less black.

I began to wonder how I differed from the white community when I tried so hard to fit in. I took note of the clothes I wore and how my body didn’t match the “standard.” I started to notice where I stood out.

Even at family events, I was pinpointed for being “too white.” At this point, I was shown that I couldn’t fit in with white people because I was too black and I couldn’t stay around black people because I was too white. There was no crowd that accepted me with open arms. Where was the line, I kept thinking?

I’m convinced there is no line. Black women have been marginalized, sectioned off, and discredited their worth for years. Mainstream media glorifies specific demographics and body types which doesn’t adequately represent the whole. By letting this problem fester, shame is perpetuated from an early age and girls learn to compare themselves to the “standard,” when there shouldn’t even be one.

The narrative that black bodies are not the standard and not good enough teaches young black women to reject themselves. Like myself, there are young girls who have been indirectly taught in their white environment that their efforts of being like the majority is wrong.

And that’s what I had done, I hadshamed myself.

As I stood in front of the mirror, I struggled to recognize the girl who stared back. She seemed unsure of who she was and where she fit into society. This girl didn’t know her true worth. She looked down on herself for trying to find herself. She refused to see that she was deserving of this world, no matter what crowd she decided to be in.

There is no reward in shaming yourself on something you can’t control, like race. Color can’t act or dress a certain way. For that reason alone, it’s important to write your own narrative. I’m learning to do exactly that.

No matter how many people or platforms have said it; you are beautiful in whatever color, shape, or size you are. There is no standard, “we all bleed the same.” 

So, chin up. Take your shame and put it in the back of your closet. You won’t be needing that for a while.