“You’re really pretty for a black girl.”
Did my co-worker really just tell me that I am ‘pretty for a black girl?’ I suppose that was intended to be a compliment but I can’t help but feel hurt by the subliminal racism so ironically transparent in that comment. I gave her a half-hearted smile so she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable, then quickly faced my office cubicle with confusion. My eyes protruded unnaturally from their sockets as I tried to figure out what I ought to do with the words I had just heard. ‘Pretty for a black girl?’ The phrase replayed in my head, over and over again. Wow. In all honesty, I used to think people were being petty when they reacted badly to having someone say those exact words to them but now that it’s me… I don’t feel pretty, or flattered – quite the opposite really. Yet I struggle to decipher what that really means and why it continues to rub me the wrong way.
I’m a twenty-two year old graduate with a BA (Hons) English degree, currently working for a publishing magazine platform known as ‘HappyHour’. I grew up in Notting Hill, here in London, among the rich and snobby where no expense was spared in my upbringing. My parents, God bless them, after years of trying, couldn’t have children of their own and so adopted me, Hannah Stephens, into their very white family. And no, I’m not using the word ‘white’ as a comical sly dig to reflect their predisposed uppity nature… I mean they, my parents, are white. Hands, feet, face and all! And as implied by Cheryl, the lady sitting in the cubicle opposite who found no fault in her earlier comment of my prettiness (“for a black girl” of course), I am not… White, that is. When I was barely a week old, I was abandoned on the steps of a Fire House without so much as a hat to cover my not yet developed head. Station Officer McNeely took me in and sought out immediate care before being taken to the nearest neonatal ward. Some short time after, Kenneth (Ken, for short) and his wife Heather adopted me and brought me up as if I were their own flesh and blood. Maybe that’s where they made a bad judgement call; raising me as though I were no different to Rebecca and Laura, the blonde haired blue-eyed long-legged twins next door. They’ve always been so generous and I, with all my heart, appreciate all what they’ve afforded me. Not just in the monetary sense of the word, but all the life lessons and values mum instilled in me, the support and encouragement I received from dad – things not all children are fortunate to have, like, a loving and safe place to call home. It could not have been easy raising a black daughter in a neighbourhood so predominately white but I can’t help but think they sheltered me from the realities of life far too much.
I remember my mother taking me on a trip to Croydon, a different area of the city, when I was just 8 years old. I had never been there before but it was significantly different to the neighbourhood I was living in at the time. I remember seeing so many black people, people like me, roaming the streets. I can’t quite describe the rush of dopamine which flooded my brain – it was so pleasantly unusual for little Hannah. The only other black people I knew of were the Jamaicans who had a restaurant on Church Road, who nodded at me on my way to school. I took it as a sign of respect. I didn’t really know them, but I came to realise how common it is for black people to greet each other in passing, especially when in areas where they are the minority. In Croydon, however, I don’t think I spotted more than 10 white folks that day. After the long drive, we parked just outside of a row of shops and crossed the street to where a handful of fat black women were seated, laughing and drinking from plastic bottles filled with what they called Kool-Aid. “Are you lost?” one asked. Mum clutched onto her Fendi and pulled me closer as she replied “No, thank you, this is just the place I was looking for.” We entered the building where many piercing eyes looked our way. “Can I help you?” another inquired, “Please, yes. I… I’d like you to, uh, make her hair like mine.” Heather replied, “I need to be able to manage it. It’s just too wild for me… untameable!” Heather laughed. The lady did not. At the time, I didn’t quite know what she had meant, but I had come to learn rather quickly. “I just think she’d look so much more beautiful if her hair was a little less ‘kinky’… All of her friends at school have lovely long hair too, so maybe it would help her fit in.” She smiled. I smiled back and took a seat in the salon chair. As always, I knew she meant well. Be that as it may, something became ever so clear from that moment on. No matter how many times we called ourselves family, we would never go through life the same. I returned to Notting Hill with chemically straightened hair and an overwhelming sensation in the pit of my stomach.
Every now and again, I am subjected to a bigoted opinion here or a stereotypical remark there. But everybody knows, there are some things you just do not say… taboo phrases which aren’t appropriate to vocalise to a person of colour. Still, me being the non-confrontational type always ends up awkwardly shying away from the pressure. For some reason, I find it difficult to conduct myself when I’m asked things like, “Can I touch your hair?” from a non-black person. Yes, it may seem trivial, but I’m not a dog, so I don’t think that that request is really appropriate. Questions like, “Is that your real hair?” or “How long did it take to do your weave?” Are, again, not proper. And what is it with those “I mean, originally“, people? You know how that one goes because in all likelihood, you’ve either asked or have been asked something to the effect of, “Where are you from… originally?” or maybe “Where are you really from?”, at some point in your life. If I tell you I’m from England, why do people automatically assume that I’m foreign?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard the following:
- “I know the perfect guy for you” – because after all, this is 1822.
- “You don’t act black…” – sorry, how does black act?
- “You don’t sound black…” – yeah, well you don’t look ignorant. I guess we’re both wrong.
- “Will you teach me how to twerk/dougie/ nae nae?” – no.
- “I love rap music”
- “I have black friends” – congratulations.
- “Every black person can either sing, dance or play sports” – Still very much inappropriate.
- “Why can you say the N-word, but I can’t?”
And those are just to name a few. I mean, I’m not going to cry about it, but I don’t believe they are socially acceptable words to fall from your mouth. Comments like, “I’m so tanned, we’re almost the same colour.”…who would actually want to hear that? I don’t. I also don’t want to hear how “articulate” or “well-spoken” you think I sound because all I hear is “Wow, where is your Negro-dialect?” I don’t wish to be referred to as “you” people. And in this moment, I really don’t want to be told how pretty I am “for a black girl.”
I guess you could say that I became accustomed to white people being ‘accidentally racist’, from young… after all, 9 out of 10 times, I was likely to be one of very few black people they even knew. But I suppose it serves no purpose, pretending as though these comments aren’t offensive because what Cheryl, like many others, essentially meant when saying “you’re pretty for a black girl” was, “I wouldn’t normally think of group X to be Y, but you, of course, are an exception.” And while all may not find that particular phrase racist, I think we can all agree, it is so very rude.