From what I can remember, for most of my childhood, I lived a sheltered life. Sheltered from ignorance, prejudice, racism. From micro-aggressions to blatant oppressive tensions. I believe I ‘had it easy’, so to speak. Easier than most, anyway.
While I was born in New York City, I grew up in the smaller, lesser known City of Preston here in the UK. It was there where I attended pre-school, nursery, primary school – all the way through to College.
Though it was a predominantly white city, I didn’t feel ‘different’ to those around me. I remember it as a time where I felt equal, innocent – dare I say – ignorant. And with that, came its trusty sidekick – bliss.
This, however, took a drastic turn as I entered Secondary School (High School) at the age of 11.
I find it difficult to recall the precise moment in which I had my rude awakening, but it happened. I got woke. A great discomfort replaced that part of me which felt safe and secure. In a school educating hundreds of children, I could count on one hand the number of black students who attended. Until then, I hadn’t made a habit of playing ‘spot the black kids’ but here I was, seeking what I could barely find. It wasn’t so much an ‘Us vs Them’ reality, but I began to question why I felt outnumbered. This was my first real experience of feeling underrepresented and marginalised; and sadly, it ensued such great and overwhelming pressures of anxiety from then on. To go from one extreme to the next – from feeling like just another child, to a sore thumb in the institution – made it hard for me to manoeuvre through my five years of study as easily as I once did. The feeling could not be repressed.
I sooner found myself making intentional daily choices to better assimilate into the culture I was living in.
I began to adjust my speech, mannerisms, even down to my lunch preferences. Where I once found joy in bringing a home-made lunch to school, carefully crafted by my West-Indian mother – there was joy no more. I vividly remember being mocked for carrying drink bottles that’d been refilled with home squeezed lemonade, fruit punch, Kool-Aid, and pretty much anything that wasn’t a Tango or Dr Pepper. Too often have I had to compromise my preferences out of fear of retaliation.
But these efforts of integration were overridden by social exclusion, even in my best attempts to blend.
During my first year of secondary school, I ‘relaxed’ my hair. For those unaware of what this means, it is the chemical straightening of kinky hair. Although natural hair has been reclaimed in recent years amongst the masses, this was once a very common thing within the black-female community. It hurt. I burnt. But it was a necessary step for use girls to have our edges slicked (if they hadn’t already become snatched) and our hair flowing effortlessly like the white counterparts around us.
Although I do profess to be a big music lover of all genres, I do acknowledge that my ‘taste’ would significantly shift when around my white peers. No more Gyptian and Serani. No Aretha and Luther. Definitely no Missy Elliot. No, that was too different. Too ‘black’. From then on, it was strictly Katy Perry and Ke$ha. You know… Coldplay and Maroon 5 type of music. On a saucy day, I’d pop a little Vybz before I stepped foot on school grounds, but that was just about it.
During my second year of secondary school, I became the ‘Token Black Girl’ to which all the Black related questions were directed:
“Can black people tan?”
“Do you turn invisible when in a dark room? Or do your teeth and eyes give you away?”
“Do black people get ‘nits’ (lice)?”
I couldn’t help but feel like an exotic museum attraction that left visitors standing in awe, jaw-dropped.
I became accustomed and even numbed to deliberate disrespect and ignorant remarks – the type that should really stay in one’s head, like, “Why do coloured girls wear makeup? You’re black”.
Every year like clockwork, I was asked, “Why do you lot get a Black History Month when we don’t get a white history month?” – not quite being able to vocalise that all we really ever study is white history.
I became a reference of comparison for all things beige and below, with phrases like “I’ve gone so dark! Well, not ‘Makhala’ dark…”, thrown my way.
At the butt of a horrible girl’s joke, I was told that I resembled a Bourbon Biscuit. The gag was weak and didn’t really offend me in that immediate instance, but when I realised that it drew ‘shits and giggles’ from my ‘friends’ – that hurt me, because I knew that it was my complexion they found humour in.
During my third year of secondary school, I was warned that I would be punished for non-compliance after refusing to prepare my chicken in cooking class without washing my meat first.
I was mocked for certain traditions and values I held close.
I went unheard, undermined and invalidated for certain experiences I went through.
I was often teased for having fuller lips. “Fish lips”, they’d call me.
P.E. became one of my most hated classes because it was then when I would be tormented for my wider hips, thicker thighs and larger posterior.
On another occasion, I was advised to date one of two of the only black kids in my year group because ‘he seemed like my type’ … He was not.
During my fourth year of secondary school, I was told by another member of the teaching staff that I looked like a Malteaser, in front of my classmates. Everybody laughed as I held back the tears of humiliation. Mortified at the unprovoked disrespect, I kept it as much to myself as possible. It went unreported, both at the school and at home… I dreaded the idea of the possible ramifications it would cause – ostracisation being one of them.
In one unfortunate incident where my younger cousin was being bullied by a young white boy who had made a number of racist comments, I became heated. Naturally and instinctively, I ‘took up for her’, coming to her defence after hearing the news from the other side of the campus. When the altercation deescalated, I – Makhala Kirwan – was labelled the aggressor. I was the problem. Not the boy. No attempt by the school to seek an explanation was sought. After all, in that moment I embodied the angry black girl, so it must’ve been my fault, right?
As time grew, it became clear that this was not something that could be rid overnight. I realised that I needed to be more accepting of myself, my race, my culture and traditions. As Solange rightly recommended, “Be weary of the ways of the world.” And that is exactly what I became.
It dawned on me that the only way I would sleep at night is if I found peace in who I was. You see, people will always have something bad to say about you, no matter how much you bend to fit what you feel they wish to see. But when you can no longer bend, you eventually break. And I was not willing to let myself come to such a state. I thought, I may as well be comfortable within myself as I go along for the ride they call ‘life’.
By my fifth and final year of secondary school, I slowly started to develop a sense of empowerment in and appreciation for the young woman I was shaping up to be. Prior to that moment, my true identity was so far gone, I honestly couldn’t even tell you who Makhala was. But it was then when I grew.
After FOUR YEARS of transitioning back from chemical relaxers to my natural, thick, God-given hair, I am happy to be reunited with the real beauty I had kept hidden away for so long. Even the fruit punch and Kool-Aid made a reappearance.
It has almost been five years since that moment of enlightenment and while I am still flourishing in self-love, I have yet to fully blossom. There is much to overcome as a Black-female in a western-society like the one I am in now. One which is heavily fuelled by prejudice, micro-aggressions, and racism. Tis true.
The social climate has evolved since our ancestors’ 400 years of slavery, yes. Community comradery, integration and overall acceptance is noted. And diversity within many work environments is acknowledged also, but in my opinion, the ‘War on Melanin’ won’t cease anytime soon. Pessimistic? Perhaps. But until then, I will continue to use knowledge as my weapon of choice in this fight – as, with knowledge, comes power.
As much as I did compromise in the past, not once have I ever wished to be anything other than black. What I did want, was understanding of the Black plight from those who were not, and the capacity to love despite it. Highly naive, I know. But I am fortunate to be going and growing in a generation of proud Black millennials who unapologetically celebrate their blackness, and subsequently encourage others to do the same. The ones who realise that pro-blackness does not equate to anti-whiteness, as they are not mutually inclusive. I cannot express how much pride that brings me. My hope for the future is that the next generations of Black Kings and Queens are just as, if not, more celebratory of themselves and the privileges of excellency embedded in their skin.
I am Black. And it isn’t always easy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Happy Black History Month.