Teasing. Joking. Kidding. Cracking. The dozens.
These are just a few of the terms we use to describe the way folks make fun of each other as harmless, lighthearted entertainment.
Pretty much everyone (myself included) has joined in on a “cracking” session at some time or another. And some might even say that a bit of old-fashioned, good-natured teasing is a necessary rite of passage to help some of us develop a tougher skin, or to help others of us shrink an oversized ego down to a more acceptable size.
That kind of joking in a communal space — where the exchange is meant to connect us through laughter, signifyin’ and, oftentimes, family ties — can create some really good times and fun memories.
But that was not this:
An anonymous note on a folded piece of paper left on my office desk for me to discover when I was a young college instructor teaching writing at an HBCU. Said note contained a very crude, ugly drawing of a face with exaggerated eyes, nose, and mouth. And underneath it, the statement, “Poster child for a nose job.”
That was it…six little words that triggered big-time pain and not a little sense of shame for me.
I mean, here I was sitting at my desk in an office I shared with several other Black educators — a space in which countless Black students came through to receive mentoring, feedback on assignments, pep talks to build up confidence… and somebody, presumably from within the group that I had always seen as a part of my HBCU fam, decided they would leave me this petty, body-shaming piece of mess.
And it mattered more that this happened to me here.
Where was the solidarity we proudly touted as one of the core reasons for attending an HBCU?
Luckily for me, I had come to the office early that morning. So when I discovered the note, I was the only one there, which gave me some privacy to process my feelings and figure out what I was going to do next. My first thought was to start my own little private investigation to discover who my anonymous tipster was. But then what?
Even if I were somehow able to track this person down, it wasn’t like I was gonna take off my earrings and my heels, so I could engage in a good old-fashioned beatdown. Nor could I report the person to campus police for stealing my joy. (Why isn’t that a thing, though?)
In hindsight, what I really wanted most of all was to say this to the note writer:
This is not okay.
It is not okay to think you have the right to tell another human being what they need to subtract or add to make themselves acceptable in your sight.
It is not okay to say things like: “She is pretty, to be so black”, “It’s a shame she’s got that ugly face on such a fine body”, “If you lost all that weight, you’d be really cute.”
And it is definitely not okay to use your words to destroy someone’s spirit and not own up to saying it to them.
And what I really would have wanted to hear back was simply this: “Sis, you’re right, and I’m so very sorry.”
In today’s culture, however, the idea of recognizing and celebrating the rich, diverse beauty of Black women is still not being fully actualized — even in predominantly Black spaces. Don’t get me wrong, it was more often the case than not that my Black womanhood was affirmed on a regular basis by the brilliant colleagues I worked with and the phenomenal friends I made there. That sister circle gave me life, ya’ll!
But these are facts, fam: Sometimes we can be our own worst critics by imposing standards of beauty and overall worth onto each other that did not originate within Black culture, and were, in fact, often constructed to exclude Black people.
And there are generations of us even today who still feel ashamed of our Black hair, skin, features, and bodies, and in turn, provoke shame in others for not embodying the dominant culture’s narrowly defined physical aesthetic.
As a woman of faith, I could quote the scripture that says I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) all day long. But it wasn’t until years later, after I had gotten married and had my son, that I fully embraced what that meant and erased the shame imposed on me so many years ago.
I remember being pregnant and wondering — like most expectant mothers do — who my child would look like. After he was born, it didn’t take very long for us all to realize he looked just like me. What I also realized was there’s no way in this world I would have told my beautiful little boy that his face had a problem that needed to be fixed.
I am forever grateful I did not accept that note as my truth or believe anyone else who has ever tried to convince me that my nose, my color, my Black woman-ness is not exactly what God intended it to be.
That’s why I’m sharing this story with my sisters, even if it is twenty-plus years later. No one else gets to define me, but me. I took back the power of that note and replaced it with my own note to self: I am fearfully and wonderfully made by God…and so are you.
How have you come to embrace your whole self, and how do you openly appreciate the unique worth and beauty of your sisters?Leave a Comment