It was fourth grade. I was awkward, scrawny, bald-headed—aaaand my name was Ida. I had persistent eczema. The flare ups brought an ashy, dark, patch to my upper lip that formed a pseudo mustache just beneath my nostrils. Classroom jokes were on me—the lil’ Black girl who looked like a lil’ Black boy, donning a Hitler-stache. I was the ugly duckling. On most days, I endured the effects of colorism by losing myself among my circle of friends. My psyche allowed me to be as fair-skinned as the Zakiya’s, as hazel-eyed as the Shonda’s, and as long-haired as the Ramona’s. But on the worst day, I was Idahoe, peezy-head, ugg-mug, bald-headed, black, bitch. I was pushed, pulled, punched, and provoked to tears. Ugly tears. Like when-snot-rolls-past-your-mouth-forming-a-goatee ugly tears. Like Kimberly Elise (in pretty much any movie) tears. Just fucked up, hurtful tears. Tears that, one day, to my surprise, were whisked away with ginger words and a tender backhand. Not that kind of backhand. But the kind of backhand that came from Keith Johnson’s words.

Keith Johnson’s backhand pulverized opponents off school grounds after the 3 p.m. school bell. They were words usually reserved for taunting white teachers, schoolhouse fuck boys, and sucker emcees. But on this day, he backhanded every bit of the effects colorism had on my self-esteem.

“Don’t cry,” Keith whispered as he dried my teary eyes with one hand and held my chin with the other. “You are beautiful and them big ole, brown eyes, too.”

Those words, coming from a peer, had a huge impact on me—from that day to this one. I felt that feeling again when I caught wind of a similar moment of uplift at Southwest Baltimore Charter School.

Valencia Clay is doing the work and keeping brown girls lifted. Click To Tweet

Educator Valencia Clay facilitated a forum that opened the floodgates for Black Girl Magic to pour in. In a discussion with fellow students, Janiyah, a 13 year-old student, revealed her insecurity with being a dark-skinned Black girl and shared that colorism makes her feel ugly. When she told her classmates “you can look at all the lighter skinned complexions and everybody’s in love with them and their face and everything,” Ms. Clay shut it down—ASAP. Teacher Boo wasn’t having none of that. In seconds, she set off a lovefest for Janiyah that will make your eyes juicy. I know mine were (cleans smudged mascara). Check it out. They went in:

She visibly fights to cloak her pain when she refers to herself as the black, ugly girl… but when she is showered with love, she can’t take it at all. This is the result of slavery, institutional racism, systematic oppression, media bias, and a dominant narrative that our beauty is in fact, not beauty at all, unless it measures up to neo-exotic or Eurocentric standards. While some aspects of the web of racism are more concealed, colorism is overt. We don’t even need an overseer or a minstrel show to persuade us to believe farcical notions about our complexions anymore; we are highly effective at normalizing it for ourselves. Just look at trending hashtags such as “team light skin” and “team dark skin” which currently have a combined total of almost 700k posts. This pattern of self-hatred is coveted like an heirloom, gifted by those that disenfranchised our #culture. Many of us, who are aware of color casting, rebel against such antics and are unapologetically proud of who we are. We embrace every shade of black and brown from ivory to caramel, to sepia and maple, to mahogany and oak, to ebony and onyx. We find no need to note differences between our complexions, unless it’s a compliment. We walk with our heads held high. For those that I am describing, I salute you and ask that you begin to take a look around: are people still perpetuating colorism in your circle of friends, in your family, on your timeline? Exactly. There’s work to UNDO because these deeply rooted seeds of hate are still flourishing among our culture. We are not free if everybody is not free. Mental bondage is the deadliest of all.

A video posted by Valencia D. Clay (@valencia_valencia) on

I swear for Geezus, Ms. Clay stole a page outta Keith Johnson’s “feel better” playbook and I thank her for it. She’s doing the work and keeping brown girls lifted. Keith did, too. Here it is, decades later and his words still register. I began to see myself different and with love. I gaze into my big ol’ browns. I decorate them with all the MAC and all the Maybeline. I give them wings. I’m a Swan. A Black one. Named Ida.

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Ida Harris

Ida Harris is a journalist and cultural critic covering a range of topics that intersect with Blackness, including art, activism, pop culture, parenting and womanhood. Ida is especially known for her critical writing on sexual assault against Black women and girls. Her work is featured in ELLE , DAME , Blavity, Teen Vogue , and USA Today.

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