We’re Not Just the Color of Our Skin

I took a deep breath as I gathered my daughter’s hair together and began working moisturizer through her thick bundle of locks. Nicie sat cross legged on the floor in front of me watching T.V. Untangling her chaotic curls usually took long enough to sit through two or three sitcoms. At five-years-old, her hair already reached the bottom of her back. That is, if the curls were stretched all the way out. When I pulled a piece of her hair down to see how long it really was, the tightly coiled ringlets immediately snapped back up to rest at shoulder length. I took out a pick and begin the task of untangling her mass of frizzy spirals.

To me, and to her sisters, Nicie had the most beautiful hair of all of us. Our own bland, straight strands seemed limp and tired in comparison. So of course, Nicie longed for our straight hair that could easily be combed through with a brush in mere minutes. Nicie’s hair was just one of the things that made her slightly different. Unlike her sisters, Nicie’s father is black. Although Nicie and my oldest son shared the same father, her brother seemed more adept at making his darker skin and unique features an asset. Meanwhile, Nicie struggled to fit into a world where being mixed was not yet common, and to some people, even unacceptable.

My interracial relationship with my kids’ father seemed rare when we first got together. Even here in Colorado we got a lot of stares. Almost two years after her brother was born, I gave birth to my mixed little girl in 1992. Her father is black with some Native American mixed in. I am Mexican, white and also Native American. My precious baby came out with pale skin that looked a shade lighter than my own. Within a year her skin color didn’t really darken so much as soften into a honeycomb color. Just enough for people to look at her and know she wasn’t white.

Before Nicie started school she was surrounded by family members of all colors. Her father was black, I was Mexican and white; her older sister was white; her cousins on her dad’s side were black, most of her cousins on my side of the family were mixed with black and white, and she had a white grandma and a black grandma. I don’t think my kids really gave color much thought until they started school.

Nicie was my one child who lived equally with both her father and I after we parted ways. Always one to make sure everyone around her knew exactly what was on her mind, Nicie could be a handful. It was about third grade that she began rebelling against the idea of school. Many days she came to me with sad eyes and a distraught voice while holding her stomach to inform me she was much too sick for school. I usually sent her on her way, telling her to try and get through as much of the day as she could. On the days she stayed home her stomach aches seemed to mysteriously vanish after a few hours. I knew she didn’t like school, I just didn’t know why.

My daughter went to stay with her father while she was in the fifth and sixth grade. When she came to visit several months later I noticed a drastic change. My daughter had always had a bit a baby fat on her since she was little. When she left us she had a cute chubby belly. She wasn’t fat, but she wasn’t skinny. She seemed to be the normal size of any kid in grade school.

When Nicie left us to live with her father she still had that belly. When she returned, that belly had disappeared, along with an extra 15 pounds. I grew concerned about her living situation with her father. Was he feeding her enough? When it came time for me to take her to go back to her dad’s, I checked out the other four siblings she lived with there. They all seemed healthy enough.

At the time I didn’t see it, but Nicie had an eating disorder. Sadly it wasn’t until many years later that the idea even entered my mind. It was unknown territory for me, and maybe harder for me and her father to recognize as she traveled back and forth between us so often. It was only last year that my daughter finally told me the whole truth about it.

Nicie had often found herself comparing her hair, complexion and body to the white girls in her school. Many of them were well liked by their classmates and teachers. Nicie told me that she saw these petite white girls with their straight, easy to style hair and wanted to be more like them. Some of the more mean ones teased her about her “nappy” hair and “yellow” skin color.

My child saw herself as this oversized girl who couldn’t fit into cute clothes topped with a mess of frizzy untamed hair that would never lay flat or blow in the wind. She couldn’t change the color of her skin or the texture of her hair, so she decided she wanted to be smaller. In her mind, she thought she could blend in if she became more like the girls in her class.

When she was with me she would throw up most of what she ate. This only made her hungrier. She admitted to sneaking food into her room after everyone was asleep. While at her father’s house, she simply refused to eat. Soon she was smaller than most of the girls she envied.

Nicie also began straightening her hair more often. She fought against her frizz and curls by burning them into submission with a flat iron. She would spend hours trying to make her hair lay straight, while her sisters and I spent just as much time trying make our hair curly like hers.

I watched as my daughter’s beautiful thick hair became shorter and thinner. The ends broke off from the constant application of heat. Eventually she began wearing hair extensions that weren’t near as pretty as her real hair had been.

Our society has an unspoken stigma that a professional black woman is more skilled and qualified if she has more white characteristics. As if ignoring cultural styles and habits would make a person better at her job.

On the other side of the spectrum is the assumption by some black women that a lighter skinned woman thinks she is better than her sisters of color simply because her skin color is closer to that of a white person. While growing up, Nicie felt the bitterness of some family members who accused her of being “uppity” and often chastised her for not being dark enough.  

Still today, my daughter feels the push from both sides. There is a constant fight to keep her own inner self from being crushed and pushed down until there’s nothing left of Nicie. As her mother, I have my own guilt for not knowing just how complicated it is to be of mixed race while she was growing up.

There are many more mixed-race people today than when my own mixed children were born. It’s difficult to know the real numbers. It wasn’t until 2000 that the United States census offered the option to self-identify with more than one race. Only 737,492 people identified as white and black. In the 2010 census, that number went up by 134 percent, with 1.6 million Americans checking both black and white. Who knows how dramatically that number will spike next year when the census next takes place.

Over the years my daughter has been mistaken for being Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Hawaiian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, Pacific Islander, white mixed with Ethiopian and many others. I wish everyone could see what I see. She is a beautiful, strong-willed woman who is a wonderful mother to her two boys and does not back down easily. She is an over dramatic pain in the butt who has to have everything exactly the way she wants it, and will let you know in a heartbeat if you are messing up. She is a loving and protective daughter and sister who will give everything she has to help the people she cares about. I hope that one day she can see everything I see, not just the package she came in.

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