Growing up as a white woman in the south, I have always been aware of the privilege I have due to my skin color. I knew I would have an easier time dealing with the police than someone with darker skin. I knew people in society may assume I am more educated than others because of my caucasian skin. I knew all the major issues my privilege could play a role in but I failed to consider the mundane, everyday hardships people who look different from me face. That was until I met my college roommate, Janita Echagile. Janita is an African American whose parents immigrated from Nigeria. She shared many stories about growing up as a black girl in the south. These stories opened my eyes and helped me deeply understand the challenges people of color deal with. Growing up is hard enough but it is even worse when you feel as though your appearance doesn’t fit the beauty standards. Janita shares her experience feeling like that. Eight year old Janita Echagile looks around her second grade classroom. Her eyes scan her peers as she begins to compare their appearances. She notices the uniformity of her classmates, caucasian with straight or wavy hair. Why couldn’t her hair look like that? Why was she the only one with braids? This was the first time Janita felt she was different from the other kids.
In the later years of elementary school Janita branched out with a new hairstyle. Over the weekend her mom straightened her hair, this was Janita’s first time wearing it to school. She was ecstatic to finally have her hair “like everybody else”. The humid air of springtime greeted her as she got dropped off at school. Janita couldn’t wait to show her friends. While she walked from the carpool line into school, the air’s moisture caused her hair to lose some of its sleekness.
“Hey guys my mom finally straightened my hair!” Janita greeted her friends with enthusiasm. Her companions looked at her strangely. She began to realize the spring humidity got the best of her hair, leaving her with a frizzy mess. Immediately the friends began making comments, “your hair doesn’t even look straight.” Janita began to feel small. “Your hair will never look like ours, you will never look like us” another friend chimed in. Feeling defeated and betrayed by the comments, Janita left school early.
Middle school began and Janita continued to experience the isolation of feeling different. But it soon became clear to her why she felt this way .It was because of her skin tone. Janita’s parents moved to America from Africa so they didn’t have a full awareness of the horrors minorities experienced in this country, neither did Janita. She was aware that race mattered but it wasn’t until a middle school history class that she began to grasp what it meant to be black in the south. This was the first time she became deeply educated on the concept of slavery. Learning about the enslavement of black people made Janita feel even more isolated due to the way her skin looked. She continued to wear her hair straight almost every day in middle school. “I made the choice to straighten my hair because it was the only representation of beauty I saw,” Janita said as she reflected on the times. “I’m black and they’re white…I knew I wasn’t desired because of the way I look.”
It was time for high school and Janita adopted the thought process that she was “undesirable” due to the color of her skin. “I truly hated myself because I was black, I would wish I wasn’t all the time.” The high school curriculum dove deeper into the history of racism which only added to the self hatred Janita was experiencing. Janita decided to model her life after white people, hoping it would help to make her feel “normal”. She went through the years of high school drowning her racial identity with her shame. Janita experienced prejudice from the black community for “acting white”. She couldn’t understand why it seemed so complicated to be black.
Senior year started and Janita experienced a change in her philosophy. Graduation was approaching, Janita gained a sense of awareness as to what that meant. She was never going to see these people again. The individuals she experienced growing up will be gone in a matter of time. “Graduation made me realize life is short, I might as well love myself.” Slowly Janita freed herself from her self loathing inner monologue. “I felt like I missed out on so many experiences because I was busy hating the way I looked.” She started living a life of self love, embracing her skin tone. Wearing her natural hair with pride rather than shame.”I am still on the journey of fully loving myself but at this point in my life I know being black is my superpower.”