In college I wore my hair jet black. I guess I looked good enough; I did get a wedding ring.
Fast forward to a decade ago, when at work, I shared a short elevator ride with a stylish senior editor that I admired; sometimes she spoke to me, most times she didn’t. But on that day, she said, “You know, if you had highlights, the right people will see you around here.”
With that, she exited the elevator and we never spoke of it again.
I asked a coworker what that meant, and she explained that my brown face and black hair just faded into the fabric at the black-owned company, there was nothing memorable about me.
And no matter how hard you worked, if you don’t stand out, you’ll get passed over.
Gradually I dyed my hair, from auburn to strawberry blonde, and it seemed, the lighter I dyed my hair, the more compliments I received and I also ascended the ladder (to the tune of better assignments). I never considered the message my blondish hair and brown face sent to others, until I attended a taping of Oprah’s LifeClass, where our instructor, Iyanla Vanzant, discussed the origins of colorism–the intra-racial discrimination against darker skin tones and kinky hair.
During the show, Vanzant revealed how the preference for European features (light skin, light eyes, fine or “good” hair) within the Black community is especially harmful to young Black girls. (This is a very important show for all of us. Tune in to the OWN network on January 10, 9/8c for the full discussion.)
“Colorism is a mental illness,” Vanzant said.
I was heartbroken when a stunning African American teenager, who sat next to me, revealed that she was teased because of her dark skin for all of her life. At that very moment, I threw my arm around her, and out the corner of my eye, I saw my blonde hair fall on my own shoulders.
Had I also been a victim of this colorism, and not known it? Did the blonde hair make me noticeable to all the right people?
And, where would I be today had I never dyed my hair at all?
I guess I’ll never know now. But I am curious; what do you think when you spot an African American woman with blonde highlights?
The Six B.R.O.W.N. C.H.I.C.K.S.—women who are Being Responsible Obedient Willingly Now Choosing Honesty Integrity Commitment Kindness and Self-Worth—are stronger than ever before, and we are indebted to you, Oprah, Dr. Iyanla Vanzant, the Oprah Winfrey Network, our SBC Correspondents and ChicagoNow for this phenomenal opportunity.
Thank you for believing in us.
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