I’ll never forget sitting in my first university English class awaiting the return of my first graded essay. I can’t recall who the professor was or even the topic of that essay, but I do remember what happened moments after I glanced down at the paper seeing that “A” written approvingly in the top right corner. Sitting to my left, a pretty blonde girl who was one of several upperclassmen retaking this freshman level course leaned over to ask, “What did you get?”
“An A,” I replied, slightly taken aback by the sudden interest in me.
“How did you get an A?” Instinct told me that her inquiry was less a question and more an accusation. I shifted uneasily in my seat and diverted my eyes from hers. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know what answer would get her to go back to ignoring me.
“I read the book and just answered the question,” I half-whispered, realizing that her friends were also interested in my response.
“Where are you from?” she returned.
“I’m not from a suburb. I’m from Chicago.”
“What year are you? I’ve never seen you before this class.”
“I’m a freshman.”
With a disgusted flick of her wrist, her blonde locks flew in my direction, and I knew the interrogation was over. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief and decided that for the rest of the class, I’d look only forward or to my right, avoiding as much as possible any of the heat that was burning on the left of me.
I’d like to say that this was our last such exchange. I’d like to say that I was more self-assured in my responses to her questions, but I can’t. When she asked about how often I washed my hair and smiled haughtily at my “once a week” reply or when she condescendingly wondered aloud about how brave it must be to wear shorts without shaving my legs, I shrunk into myself more and more. But every other week, when those graded essays were returned, mine with A’s in the upper right corners, I could see her feel as small as she made me feel.
You’re starting to learn that life for a girl isn’t easy, and soon, like me, you’ll learn that your blackness complicates things in ways you cannot control. If you want to know the truth, the first time I encountered a mean girl wasn’t in that college English class. It was probably on the playground or in the classrooms of elementary school, and those girls were black like me, black like you. The first time I was called a bitch or a ho or was ridiculed about my hair or my body was by a girl who had all of those things done to her by other girls who looked like her, too. And, I suspect, even that mean girl from my college class had some other blonde girl in her past deride her and hurt her feelings, too.
You’re starting to experience these same things now, and it’s a nasty, vile right of passage that I wish women across all cultures would teach their daughters is a worthless, counterproductive cycle that takes us all much too long to grow into our fullest potential. I wish we would sit our girls down and tell them that we won’t allow our progeny to grow up believing that putting each other down and harboring petty jealousies and harmful insecurities will build confidences shaken by generations of being told verbally, through media images, by men we value and respect (and those we don’t), and most damagingly, I think, each other that we are small, insignificant, and undeserving of the destiny for which God has purposed us.
It’s not easy to empathize with someone who hurts you, and I’m not asking you to ever be anyone’s punching bag, but having a clear understanding of a potential root cause of a person’s unpleasantness will allow you to cast it into a productive perspective for yourself. You won’t solve all of the world’s ills with perspective taking, but you will learn to recognize the onslaught aimed toward you isn’t about you at all. And that will allow you to ignore it or be intentional in your timing and method of addressing it.
You are not what people say about you or even what they think about you. You are not your failures or even your successes. You are so much more and greater, and guess what? So are they. Give yourself the benefit of loving yourself so much that you can love them enough to forgive what they don’t even realize needs forgiveness. That is our charge as Christians. It’s not simple. It’s not even practiced in a widespread way by other Christians, but it is freeing and empowering and right. Try it out for a while. Practice it even when it’s hardest to do so, and I’ll promise you that one day, it’ll be just how you live, like how you breathe, without even thinking about it. And you’ll find yourself with much more joy.