By Ifeanyi Nwonye
This story was originally published by The kNOw Youth Media in Fresno.
My childhood was saturated with the gorgeous Black art that decorated my mother, grandmother, and father’s homes. The daily Gospel music that sprang to life from my mother’s old TV set and the Afrobeats that enchanted me on the way over to my father’s house when he picked me up. I was fed by the egusi soup that my father served me and adorned by the African garments that he bought me. I was comforted by the Black dolls my mother exclusively bought for me and inspired by the myriad of late 90s/early 2000s Black TV shows and movies she urged me to watch.
As you can see, I had a lot of positive Black influences and encouragement when I was growing up. So, whenever the discussion of “coming to terms” with one’s Blackness came up, I usually counted myself out of the conversation because it wasn’t a journey I identified with.
Or so I thought.
My name, Ifeanyi, is a unisex name most commonly found in Nigeria, where my father is from. In Igbo, my name means “nothing is too difficult for God to handle.” Like many other children with non-Western names, I found it bothersome to give a mini-history lesson to every substitute teacher, nurse, and coach who read it (and mispronounced it) for the first time, even after I started going by “Ify.” Despite the bother, I was obligated to repeat this task because I felt like I had something to prove. I believed that if I could tether the uniqueness of my name to a specific culture, country, and foreign language, then everyone would know that it was an “exotic” name and not a “ghetto” one.
Looking back on my childhood, this wasn’t something that I could easily admit to myself. But, it became abundantly clear when I considered my reactions to the first three Imanis I ever met.
Imani is originally a male name that means “faith” in Swahili and “God is with us” in Hebrew. It is also sometimes spelled as Emani. In America, it’s typically used as a girl’s name, recognized as a staple for African American names, and given different spelling variations like Imonee and Emony. I bring attention to this name because it mirrors the western pronunciation of my own name, which is [i:fɒni:].
For some reason, I never found myself getting along with Imanis very well, especially the first two I met since I would often butt heads with them. Every time I would vent to my friends or family about how much I disdained the most recent one, I joked at the idea that their name was so similar yet inferior to mine because I ignorantly believed that it “didn’t mean anything.” This belief reflected how I internalized the stigma that African American names are to be made fun of because they are supposedly classless, culture-less, and made up.
After retrieving this and a bevy of other repressed memories from the depths of my subconscious, I realized that this was just the earliest example of my own extended struggle with my Black identity.
Amongst all the different social hierarchies and cliques that go on in grade school, almost every class of students has someone in their grade that pretty much everyone disliked. For the purpose of my story, we’ll call this someone in my class “Khalid.”
From 4th to 6th grade, I went to a predominantly white elementary school and I remember most of the popular people and class clowns bickering with and making fun of Khalid all the time. Being the little Black boy that he was, his nose was often the prime target of their harsh words. They criticized its size and shape at nearly every opportunity. In an effort to fit in with my peers, I hardly thought twice about joining in. As I laughed at every cruel joke that they hurled his way, I quickly began to detest him just as much as my classmates did. Admittedly, this was for absolutely no reason other than to make myself feel better about bullying a kid who had never done anything to me.
I continued on, thoughtlessly, with my malicious endeavors until one of the other tormentors said the most haunting words to me: “Hey, your nose kind of looks like Khalid’s.” I was disgusted by such a heinous insinuation and dismissed it without question.
Now, if you want to be technical, yes, Khalid and I had different noses. Relative to his face, his nose and nostrils were bigger than mine and his nose spread flatter on his face than mine. But the fact still remained that we had the same type of nose: undefined nose-bridge, more width than length, plump, and round. I did have Khalid’s nose.
And what did it say about me, knowing that I hated it?
As a young girl and well into my adolescence, I often compared myself to my female peers to determine if they were prettier than I was. The assessment was usually quantified by the amount of male attention they received versus the amount I received. My amount was generally slim to none, so my investigation often ruled in their favor. While I compared myself and “lost” to girls with a variety of different races, ethnicities, and features, the overall trend was that girls with lighter skin and eyes, looser hair, and/or narrower features were more commonly “winners” and I knew that was not a coincidence.
The strenuous relationship I had with my ostensibly Black features was never as simple as “I hate my nose” or “I wish I didn’t look dirty.” Logically, I knew that nothing was inherently wrong with the features that I had, so I never really hated them per se. But at the same time, I still struggled to love them because how do you find value in something that no one else does?
Imagine if tomorrow everyone in America decided that the American $1 bill meant nothing. You can’t use it in stores, sell it as a collector’s item, load it into an ATM or trade it in for international currency. The bill would then become nothing from an economic and legal standpoint, especially if America was all you ever knew.
That is exactly how it was for me in predominantly white and Black spaces. So, to me, my acute disdain for my visual Blackness was just a practicality rather than an assimilation to a flawed mindset. When I began to equate “pretty eyes” with blue, gray, and green eyes or “good lighting” with the kind that made me look as yellow as possible, I saw nothing wrong. Rather than being able to recognize that the issue here was not my features but instead the stigma that was created against them, I chose to abide by this standard and respect it as law.
Grappling with the fact that I would never live up to this standard was a tough pill to swallow. But I didn’t dwell on it too much because there was an alternative: “lightening by association.”
In my early years of having crushes and dating boys, I only allowed myself to pursue crushes that were Black and dark skinned. Even though my infatuation with boys who fit this description was genuine, it wasn’t because my attraction was exclusive to these boys. It was because I believed light skin and non-Black boys were “out of my league” since I had found that they preferred to date girls that resembled their phenotype. Even though most of the Black guys I sought after were also privy to “exotic-looking” girls, I knew I had a higher chance with them than anyone else since this Eurocentric dating pool caused us to both rank pretty low on the list of viable partners.
It wasn’t until my late elementary school and middle school years that I finally started to branch out. In fact, the pendulum had nearly swung in the entirely opposite direction and I began to prefer light skin and non-Black boys. I never denied my attraction to some of the boys who more closely resembled me but, admittedly, I often valued my lighter skin crushes more because I viewed them as more of a “prize” than their dark skin counterparts. Not only did I buy into the whole “light skin pretty boy” stereotype, but I also viewed them as a symbol of status. According to my prettier-than-thou investigation, I knew that most of the light skin boys also ranked high as “winners” in the school’s attraction pool, which correlated to their high social statuses in the school’s popularity hierarchy. I thought that if I could manage to get a light skin boy on my arm, I would improve my standing in both of these areas as well.
Take a moment to think about how we view a lot of conventionally unattractive men who are seen dating gorgeous women. For many people, their initial reaction is to question why this woman is with him (unless he has significantly more money than her). Over time, we slowly start to see the man as being more attractive or, at the very least, we gain a minute amount of respect for him because he must have the best game in the world to be able to get a partner like that. That’s exactly what my plan was.
Even though I became less committed to this plan as I became more educated and socially conscious, remnants of this mindset have still persisted in me even today. At least now I’m more equipped to discuss how I fetishized lighter skin, how I coped with being victimized by a Eurocentric hierarchy by reinforcing it myself, and how all of that is bad. But the biggest flaw I’ve discovered in my plan is that it relied on me gaining the validation of a “trophy” partner and the general population to override the pervasive insecurities that I had about myself. Here I am, more than a year into my loving and affirming relationship with a light skin man who my younger self would count as a “trophy” partner and I am still struggling to find peace with who I am.
This is not to say that self-love can be prescribed as a cure-all to the anti-Blackness that pervades our everyday lives – because my insecurities do not exist in a vacuum and it’s rather ignorant to suggest that Black people should just “love themselves” out of oppression. However, I can still acknowledge that my reinforcement of the oppressive systems that were made to contain me is not productive and that by buying into them I’m just making their jobs easier. So, I’ve decided that on my journey to find peace within myself, I’d rather make them work for it.