(TW: self-hate, anti-black sentiments, colorism)
Every Black child that has ever lived among and interacted with White people may have gone through this. A few have been lucky to never feel this pit in their soul, because their parents were close by to ensure their Blackness never got brushed away. A lot of Black people who are now adults are coming to the realisation that this was something they felt about themselves and that it was toxic, thanks to social media. One of the ways I’m trying to heal — because I’m not yet healed, even though I love myself a bit more than I did ten years ago — is by talking about my experiences with hopeless self-hatred, in a series of posts. This first post is about my first time leaving South Africa to live in Lagos, Nigeria in the late 1990s.
I was my worst enemy. Okay, when I think about it, I am still – even now – recovering from hating myself, so I am still my own enemy, but I know how to deal with her now. She’s not as overpowering as she used to be. Yes, I used to truly hate myself. I cursed my own existence, and thought my only salvation was becoming as far away from myself as I possibly could. My self-hatred took on various, unequal dimensions. One: I hated that I was Black, and Two: because of being Black, I thought I was ugly and non-smart. Only two reasons they may be, but they opened the door to a lot more issues I came to have with myself. Most of them were grounded in my looks and they changed shape as the years went on.
My self-hatred formed a large part of my identity; I used it as a motivator to improve myself, well, improve in ways that I thought I could only. I knew there was no way of changing my race, so I wanted to be as far from typically Black as I could go. And my ideas of what it meant to be Black were heavily stereotypically and one-dimensional. I was trying to not be ‘too Black’, it didn’t help that I lived in different countries, being surrounded by mostly white people and feeling this strong inclination to align myself with them, because I thought they were better people.
Being an expatriate in Europe and Asia was supposed to open my eyes and make me tolerant and I believed it did, but I couldn’t even save some tolerance and acceptance for my own race. I didn’t like that I was Black, and I believed that anybody who was Black, smart and/or beautiful had to be the exception. I thought my whole race were, by nature, uncivilised and uneducated, and that only a few managed to break the mould and earn their spot in the ‘coveted place’ next to all the white people. I only woke up from this damaging way of thinking when I turned eighteen when I realised my mind had been lying to me, that the Eurocentric education I was offered was a lie. It was devastating disillusionment, to say the least. I started to question everything, but at the same time wanted to crawl back into the burrow of ignorance and wish I didn’t know any of this. I’m ashamed it had to take so long, but glad it didn’t happen later.
I cannot remember when I first didn’t like to learn that I was classified as Black because I am an African, but I do know that it probably started when I was around four years old. That’s really early in life, isn’t it? What could’ve possibly gotten into me to make me feel that way? I don’t know. To this day, I still ask myself when I think back to my old self, ‘what, who, told you that because you were Black, you weren’t wonderful? That you weren’t special or desirable?’. The same way that famous saying goes, nobody is born hating – with an extra bit added by someone else, they are taught – nobody is born loathing themselves. They learn that shit from somewhere. Either by some entertainment content, some experience, some people, a person stifled by self-hatred lands up in that position by the helping hand of a stimulus. Hatred doesn’t just materialise out of nothing, I’d hope.
But I can’t remember what ever made me think as a little child that people with white skin were ‘better’, ‘smarter’, ‘more beautiful/attractive’, ‘more trustworthy’, etc. I spent the first 4 years of my life in a place where the population was 99 per cent Black. The only white people in that area were farmers or some shop owners but I didn’t even know of their existence then.
So, my parents and I moved to Lagos, my father was assigned there on a diplomatic posting. It was my first time being on a plane and I was thrilled. I was so happy to be in this new place. I adjusted to our nice, tiled, white-walled apartment with several balconies pretty well. That’s where my memories begin: anything before then is blurred and incoherent. It’s funny how nuggets of memory stick with me through the decades, but I forget everything else. Random nuggets, at that.
I remember one morning, my mum and I were in the living room watching TV and I told her – I had just learned how to speak English because the school I went to required it and I arrived in Lagos weeks (or months) earlier not knowing what ‘English’ was – that I had a dream that I had an old white lady for a mother, and that she was nice.
There was an old white lady in a floral dress that came up to her neck in my dream, I was sitting on the floor looking up at her smiling face. She was kind to me and treated me well. But there was nothing in that dream that indicated that she was my mother in that distant world. My mother was shocked to hear me say this, and if I think about it now, it probably hurt her. But nothing more was said of it.
Years later, my parents joked to me – in the presence of other adults – that I used to say I was white, because I had light skin, and we were in Nigeria where a lot of the population has dark skin. So that made me think ‘I’m lighter than most of these people, I must be white’. I actually rejected my Blackness, and I don’t know what my parents thought of that. No, I do, they must’ve thought I was being silly. I was being a silly little child who didn’t know what I was talking about. They had no idea that that proclamation was evidence of something more damaging. I’m glad that it’s no longer brought up.
I started at the American International School of Lagos in 1996, in Pre-K. I remember the first day I showed up to school with my parents, I thought it was a grand adventure. I was so excited to see other children with their parents. My ecstasy ended when I learned that my parents couldn’t stay. I was devastated. I cried hard, but surely I couldn’t have been the only one. I think I had to be consoled by one of the teachers. I soon got over being left behind.
That day went pretty well, I guess, and I already decided who I wanted to be friends with. There were these three girls: Megan, Natalie and Emilie. Megan seemed a bit threatening to me, Natalie didn’t seem like she and I would have anything in common, but Emilie was the nicest. The class was separated into two group, the lions and the tigers. When I saw Emilie go to join the tigers, I made a dash to the next room, following her. Nobody even stopped me. So that day, I got a tiger sticker that I would come to wear every day (I think) and I got to sit next to Emilie.
Pre-K was not a bad time for me, I’m glad that was my first school experience. At every recess, I’d fit myself into the boys’ games and we’d ALWAYS play Power Rangers. I insisted on being the pink Power Ranger because I was the only girl that played with them. I don’t remember many of those boys’ names, except Richard and Oreoluwa (who everyone called Oreo). Oreoluwa was a bit hyper.
Because of those games, I started watching Power Rangers to get clued up. I don’t think it made much difference because in the games, anything went. But it was absolutely key that as a Power Ranger, you had to hold out your fist and hold that arm to defeat the bad guy. If any of the boys I played gave me problems about always joining their games, I wouldn’t remember but I probably deflected them. After a while, I stopped playing with the boys and played with Emilie. We became very close friends, but I knew I was not her only friend. Anyway, I was just glad to be one of her friends. It didn’t hurt that we actually lived in apartment complexes next to each other.
A few other times that I was out of the apartment where now four of us lived (my first sister had been born), our domestic helper Florence took me with her when she went to run errands. I’d even go to the rundown house next to our complex with her, and sometimes my mother, to go and relax my hair regularly.
One time she took me to a birthday party for a child I didn’t even know and I had no freaking idea what I was meant to be doing there. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t like that I was there because I didn’t see a single white face. For a long time, I was uncomfortable being surrounded by other Black people. It’s weird because these were my kinfolk, but I actually didn’t believe I fit in with them, and I thought they could tell I’m not supposed to be there and view me suspiciously. My anxiety only left me once we left.
At home, I played with my white, blonde Barbies. For Christmas, my parents bought me a Vet Barbie set. It came with a work station where Barbie assumedly placed her patients to examine them and it had a sink where they could probably get a wash too. There were even a few little plastic puppies, and of course there was Barbie in a white coat with a stethoscope. I didn’t actually play any vet game with Barbie and the puppies, I set everything up though, only to hold and admire Barbie. Admire her slim, tall physique, long, lustrous blonde hair, her bright blue eyes and perfect pink lips always fixed into a smile. Then I played with her hair. That’s all I ever did, day after day; play with it until it started to get knotty and rough. After her hair became the same texture as mine, I was less enthusiastic to give Barbie any time of the day. I went back to adoring my plush toys.
In kindergarten, I was friends with a Nigerian girl and an Indian girl. We would play silly games appropriate for kids our age. The school in Lagos had a large series of fields where all sorts of sports were played, and there were bleachers that bordered these fields. At the end of one of the bleachers, we always found a white bucket filled with weird, gooey, cream white stuff. We didn’t know what to make of it, so we called it ‘poo poo’. We called anything that was disgusting to us ‘poo poo’. Thus, the end of those bleachers we called ‘Poo Poo Land’.
It was a fun game to go down there and just be by ourselves and laugh like fools. It no longer became fun when two African American girls from another class had spotted us in ‘Poo Poo Land’, heard us call it what we called it and came to tease us for being immature. Two five or six-year-olds calling a group of three five or six-year-olds ‘immature’? It’s hypocritical at best. We were meant to be immature, we were literally immature. But somehow these girls thought they were better than us, and I didn’t like having another kid be mean to me, so that made me shrink within myself for a while.
If my memory serves me correct, that day that Nissa and Catherine wanted to show us that they thought they were more important than us, ‘Poo Poo Land’ died. Perhaps I’m reaching but I had a sense that these girls got their haughtiness from the fact that they were Americans and we were not. I could be wrong but that was one of the first experiences I had when I started to feel like ‘gosh, Americans are really arrogant, they think they run shit everywhere they go’. So whenever I’d see their pictures in the school yearbook, my eyes narrowed and my mouth was a scowl away from letting out a hiss.
I’m sure they forgot about how small they made me feel; if I ever saw them again after that, I didn’t acknowledge them. My five year old swore to hate them until I would hate something/one else. One thing I regret about my time in kindergarten was how I treated the other Black children in my class, specifically the other Africans. I think my encounter with Nissa and Catherine did something to me: filled me with an inferiority complex, so I took disdain to other Africans as a way of making myself feel better about myself.
When it came time for my family and me to leave Lagos, the way I felt did not end. I unknowingly carried it along with me to the next place: Oslo, Norway. And there, it was only just going to develop and fester.