Gender & Identity, Life

In third grade, I learned that white is right

The classroom burst into laughter, and all the confidence I had walked into my new school with withered away in seconds.

I never really understood the importance of hair when I was younger. I remember dreading getting my hair done by my grandmother, or Mama as I used to call her, on our front steps, her hands pulling and scraping at my coarse locks.

By the end of our sessions, my face would be covered in tears as I cursed every comb that yanked at my hair. I hated the process more than anything and I would do my best to avoid it all costs. My preferred methods of avoiding the inevitable involved hiding behind my bedroom door or in the bathtub, but for some reason Mama always found me. It was my own form of rebellion, no matter how many times she dragged me back to the exact same spot. We’d make it into a game. Well, at least I did. Mama, not so much. I’d hide and she’d find me, getting angrier the better I got at avoiding her advances. Eventually, she’d set me down and tears would overwhelm me once again.

Tobago had been my home for most of my childhood. It was a tiny gem of an island hidden away in the depths of the Caribbean. It was easy to live there, a constant breeze blowing fresh island air wherever you went, with close friends always nearby. Complain to those same friends about getting my hair done was easy, since they knew all too well the aggressive hands of the women in their lives.  Our similar brown skin and eyes held a warm, comfortable understanding on what it was like to be Caribbean, on what it was like to be black.

When Mama was too busy watching her shows, usually something to do with our lord and savior Jesus Christ, I was running wild and my hair was usually a flying mess. It was loud and in your face, always vying for your attention. I loved letting my hair out and just running about, even if I would soon decide that running was an overrated, ugly activity.

I was eight-years-old when Mama did my hair for the last time before I moved to America. It was time for me to go live with my mom and my older sister, who had settled in Maryland a few years ago.

Moving was hard, but I was excited to go. Mama had plaited my hair into intricate rows and I had to admit, I was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. At eight, I had the confidence to shame any forty-year-old man in the midst of a midlife crisis.

When we arrived in Maryland, I was dumbfounded. I had visited once or twice before, but I had never truly understood what being an American was like.

But when my first day of third grade arrived, I was prepared. I had spent all night packing my new supplies, picking the perfect back-to-school outfit, and making sure my hair was neatly plaited.

Filled with nervous excitement, I made my way through the halls and headed to homeroom, my mother hot on my heels. I walked confidently through the building even if I had no clue where I was going. Eventually, ten minutes after the bell had rung, we found my homeroom.

As I opened the door, I was shocked. Pairs of light blue and green eyes peered at me quizzically. I had never seen so many white people in one room before. My teacher, Mrs. Erdman, was white; the small students were white; the accompanying parents were just as white as their kids. Even the walls of the room were white. I was blinded and something uncomfortable pulled at my chest.

It was the first time in my life that my mother and I were the only black people in the room. I didn’t know where to look. There was no one that I saw that shared my brown skin or brown eyes; their gazes held an uncomfortable disinterest and disregard, eyes that held different experiences than the ones I had.

After the parents left, Mrs. Erdman told me to introduce myself.

“Hello, my name is Arielle,” I croaked out in my thick Tobagonian accent, a nervous smile adorning my lips. “It’s nice to meet you all.” I expected the students to clap or perhaps say “hi,” but I never expected to hear the entire room burst into laughter. The smile fell from my face and that feeling I had when I walked through the room returned.

The confidence I had walked into school with had withered away in seconds.

I stood motionless, as Mrs. Erdman tried to calm the kids down, while a distant “Why does she talk like that?” sailed into my ears. Immediately, I sat down in my assigned seat, trying to stop myself from crying and wishing I could go back home. Not to my apartment across the street, but back to Tobago, where people didn’t laugh at me for no reason.

The rest of the day went horribly. Everyone kept staring at me and whispering. I sat quietly doing work by myself, when I felt a sudden hard tug on one of my plaits. I brought my hand up to my head, gasping silently, and turned around to see a girl laugh in my face.

“Ew, what’s on your head?” she squawked, her friends around her laughing again.

I felt attacked, but I was scared and didn’t know what to say. I turned around and didn’t respond. They spent the rest of class pulling at my hair, telling me how ugly it was, telling me I didn’t belong there. I just sat there and did nothing, hoping Mrs. Erdman would notice. She didn’t.

From then on I realized that there were very important distinctions in America that nobody warned me about. My hair, my skin, my eyes were overlooked because there would always be someone better and whiter to look at. Being white in America was a privilege. It didn’t matter if I was better, smarter, or quicker than anyone else, I didn’t matter. I wasn’t important.

It didn’t take me long to understand that I would never be considered equal in America compared to my white counterparts. But it took me years of insecurity and self-hate before I finally learned to appreciate the melanin that gave my skin its pigment, to finally stop demonizing the darker skin I had no control of, to eventually learn to love my hair.