In the Margins Ireena: Struggling with Being Black

This is the fifth in this year’s series of stories devoted to Wheaton students who are “different” in some way. These stories are solely representative of the individuals who tell them. This week’s story is by “Ireena,” who is from Ethiopia. The story is based on an interview with Dr. Cliff Williams of the Department of Philosophy, who recorded what Ireena said, then transcribed and edited it.

I don’t remember when I first realized that black was bad and white was good, but I do remember being embarrassed at being identified as “a black girl” in elementary school. I tried as hard as I could not to be associated with black people. All the other black girls and boys were darker than me. They had wider noses than I did, and their hair was much kinkier than mine. When people called me black I quickly corrected them and said, “Oh no, you must be confused. I am Ethiopian. Look at my soft curly hair, my small button nose, and my not-so-dark milk chocolate skin. I am different.”

Ethiopians are definitely not black, I had been taught. And I clung to being Ethiopian, because I knew that being black was a bad thing. I didn’t like being dark. I was very embarrassed and ashamed of it. The lighter you were, the more beautiful you were.

I hated being in the sunlight, because it made my skin darker. It takes only half an hour in the sun for me to get noticeably darker, and it takes a week for it to go away. If I spend several days in the sun, it takes months to lose the darkness that results, in the same way that it takes a long time for a white person to lose a tan. So the longer I was outside, the darker and less beautiful I would be.

I felt betrayed by my body. I felt that the way my body responded to sunlight was ugly and embarrassing, and I felt handicapped in my own skin. It was a scary and lonely experience. I didn’t know how to accept a body that was so despised by my fellow citizens.

All this took place in Zimbabwe and South Africa. When I was fifteen, my family moved to the U.S., where I discovered that the culture of being black was totally different from being African. I did not feel at home in it at all. It was not my experience. I think of myself as African, not African-American. Yet I have been the recipient of the same racialized experiences that African-Americans have.

Sometimes my white friends have put their hands into my hair and said, “Oh, my goodness, your hair is not that bad for a black girl.” A white boy in high school once said to me, “Ireena, you are the only black girl I would date.” I said, “What do you mean?” He replied, “I would never date a black girl, because they are too ghetto, and they’re not really that pretty. But you’re kind of pretty for a black girl, and you aren’t ghetto.”

I don’t know how to respond when people say these things. What the white boy said made me think that I’m less valuable because I’m black. That was hurtful. He had bought into the stereotypical idea of what a beautiful woman looks like—blonde, with blue eyes and the right body figure—something that I totally am not. And he had no shame in publicly saying this to me.

Ethiopians don’t care about lighter or darker skin. In the U.S. we are told that the darker you are the less valuable you are. I hate that sometimes I feel like less of a person because I’m black. But I have come to the point at which I don’t wish I wasn’t black, because I know that God has made me black and that I am beautiful the way God has made me. I don’t want to run away from the fact that I sometimes feel insecure about the way God made me. I want to find value in the way God made me. But that is definitely hard.

Wheaton College is different from the rest of the U.S., because people here are not overtly negative, though they might be subtly negative. Earlier this year I was at a meeting with students and other members of the college community who wanted to know what is going on with students. Someone asked, “What do you students think of diversity at Wheaton?” A white person said, “I am sick of how much our school talks about diversity. I hear it everyday, in chapel, in class, people around me. When I find out there is a diversity chapel, I leave. We need to stop talking about it. It is so frustrating. Other things matter.” Some of the other white students at the meeting agreed.

I felt so devalued at that moment. I wanted to say, “I feel less than you because you said that. I feel awkward that I’m not important to everyone here. How do I say that without crying, without breaking down in front of you? I want you to see how the horrible, overarching biases against us black people affect me. I want not to be broken by them, but I am.”

I don’t want to be thought of as a whining person, as part of a complaining minority. Still, I want to speak up and say that racism is an issue. I want to say that justice always needs to be sought and fought for and yearned after by all of us because we love each other and we want to see everyone flourish. I want to say that Wheaton feels unsafe to me. I don’t feel attacked every moment I am walking around, but I do feel that I have less importance because I am black.

At the same time, I want to say that I thank God that things have come as far as they have. I thank God that I have had a really hard conversation with this white person so that now they understand a little bit more of my pain and that I understand a little bit more of why they don’t know what to do with their white privilege.

Also, I think I’ve experienced something by not living in America that a lot of Americans haven’t experienced—the power of grace and forgiveness when I am wronged by someone, and also the gratitude in reconciliation. I don’t think we do these well here.

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