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Are you mixed?

What exactly does the term “mixed” even mean in today’s America? Excluding first through third generation migrants don’t most of us have a little of something else in our genealogy, and a little of something else in that something else? I know that I (along with other “light skinned” [“pronounced skin-did” Kelly, 4.] people of color) have more than a few issues with this question so this week’s reading on hair and skin in the African American community really hit home. Growing up in a mostly lower-middle class minority neighborhood being “mixed” meant that your appearance was that of having a looser (and longer) curl pattern of hair and also lighter skin. One of your parents then had to be some ethnicity other than black-whether it be hispanic, caucasian, asian- answering yes to this frequently asked question somehow made me more desirable and or envied by my African American peers. And since I always said “no, I’m just black” I struggled with this identity issue for much of my adolescent age. “Then why are you so light skinned?” With my response being “I DON’T KNOW! Why does it matter so much?” It took me growing older to realize the effect light skin and “good hair” had on the systematic hierarchy that I grew up in. Along with perming my hair straight for about 8 years I also tried the “curly perm” Mercer mentions in reference to Michael Jackson and his drastic changes in appearance. I was also convinced that curlier or straight hair and lighter skin made me a better person, at least to the people around me. Why have these archaic memes of color consciousness survived within our own community? As Glenn says in her essay Consuming Lightness “[mulattos] were accorded better treatment than “pure” Africans.” And in Welcome To The Jungle by Mercer “[nigger hair] has been historically devalued as the most visible stigmata of blackness”. This spoken word piece by Zora Howard  attacks these memes, stigmata, and ideologies of mixed blood.

 

On the lighter side of the spectrum (pun intended), I went to a mostly white private Catholic all girls high school where my friends compared arms with me after returning to school from their spring break vacations to see if they could get as tan as a “black girl”- and sometimes they did. I would like to say that this bothered me, but not in the way you would probably think. I wasn’t offended by my friends’ wanting to be darker, rather I was upset that while  I preformed extreme measures to Not tan-finding the highest SPF sunscreen, walking on shady sides of the street, avoiding pools- they valued dark skin while my culture who’s naturally dark valued light. And why wasn’t my dark skin beautiful to blacks And whites because even in their fascination and sometimes obsession with tanned skin, it was only valued on the face of whites accompanying long hair and blue eyes. My skin was still normal to them. And why in my community was my skin any better than my beautiful red toned grandmother with strong Native American bloodlines, or my other grandmother with dark mahogany skin from African ancestry? Would Michael Jackson have had such  successful career without his bleached skin and dripping wet flammable hair? These questions bother me.

 

I was recently reading a book entitled Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means To Be Black Now by a local Brooklynite, Touré citing 105 prominent African American men and women of today. His novel speaks in a tone very similar to Mercer in that they agree that much if not all of our African American culture today is a direct result of the discrimination and oppression faced over the years. However also speaking on the fact that as a community we can hinder ourselves and our progress by accepting and fostering dated opinions and thus feeding them to our youth without acknowledging the implications they carry. “Hair remains powerfully charged with symbolic currency” and “all black hairstyles are political in that they each articulate responses to the panoply of historical forces… with both social and symbolic meaning and significance.” (Mercer, 102, 104) So when my sister who’s a licensed cosmetologist and nurse says that she creates a style “based on a client’s personal sense of style, appearance, and personality” and that it is a “challenge to make things work for certain people” I think we should remind ourselves not necessarily of the image we display in our hair styling and fashions but of why we feel so connected to our hair and what it means to us as a person and our history as a people.

Here’s some of my sister’s work and a hair show she competed in in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

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