A Woman's View: The Colours Of Growing Up

Written By: Jenica McKenzie

When I was a child, I never understood why I was called "black". Now that years have gone by and I've grown up, I don't understand why people tell me that I'm actually not "black". What does that even mean?

My mother is white, with her bloodline being populated by several generations worth of Canadians. Before that, her ancestors were Irish settlers who set up shop in Arkansas before moving to the Great White North. My father is Jamaican through and through, being the first of his family to make his way to Canada. Somewhere along their respective voyages, they met, boinked, and into the world came my sister and I.

The end? No, not really.

I grew up in a particularly European area of Toronto. A Greek community that also had Serbians, Macedonians, Italians, and then maybe a small amount of people of colour. There were no problems in my neighbourhood and no shortage of parks where kids can mingle and safely play in. There was only one problem: none of them looked like me. My sister and I stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of the of the "usual" crowd. Both of us were tall and thick. Our noses were stubby and our hair seemed to defy gravity by coiling straight towards the sun, deepening (especially in the summer) our already darker than normal skin tones. Even at that age, I knew it was going to be a problem for me.

There was an evening when I was over at my friend's house that stayed in my memory. We were playing in her backyard when I realized that I was staring up at the sky, thinking "Why am I a different colour than everybody else? Why can't I be white?" There was a multitude of reasons why I started having those thoughts; thoughts that I would keep having, long after that day was over. Playing with other people's hair during sleepovers was hell and taking group photos made me much more visible in contrast with everyone else. Even when participating in the inevitable Spice Girls dance group, I could only ever be Scary Spice. Now there's nothing wrong with Mel B. but Baby Spice was my favourite. I identified with Emma Bunton because even though I was not white and blonde, I was always the youngest in any group. However, because of how I looked like, I HAD to identify with Scary Spice or I couldn't play.

Then puberty hit and everything got worse.

All of a sudden, I, and apparently everyone around me, started caring about the way I look. My hair was too nappy and thick while my body was too curvy and hard to dress. My pre-teen years were spent in the mid-2000's, the era of the stick-thin white girl. And while Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie were uttering "That's hot." every 5 seconds, I realized that the phrase never applied to me. Every beauty ad I looked at, every T.V. show I watched, every single piece of media that targeted young women always had a white lady, thin and absolutely perfect. When that was all you saw, that was all you could ever relate to. The media's depiction of the black woman was that she was always angry, harsh, rough, ugly, and distasteful. Ghetto trash and criminal. I don't think any of the previously listed traits is something anyone wants to be. So what did I do? I poured chemicals on my head, burning my scalp on a bi-monthly schedule just so I could get rid of the curls and kinks in my hair. Since I couldn't achieve the perfect body, I hid mine under a huge mega sweater and some baggy jeans every single day. My beauty routine followed that of any other North American tween at the time; that is, a beauty routine for white girls. In my teen years, I got into the habit of adding straight long weaves to my hair that were a literal bitch and a half to maintain. Frankly, I didn't know how to properly do it, but anything was better than showing my natural texture. Anything. Even if it meant leaving said weave in my hair long past any kind of expiry date and making it look ratty, knotted, unkempt. Anything was better than showing what it really looked like. Leaving my natural hair as is meant (to me then) I was ugly. It meant that I was harsh. It meant that I was distasteful. It meant that I was ghetto trash. It meant that I embodied every negative depiction of my skin colour. It meant that I was black.                                             

jenica mckenzie

   And then I woke up. Very slowly, I woke up.

I started to realize that there was nothing wrong with being black. Rather, there was something wrong with the way black people were being portrayed. I abandoned my weave. Not because anyone wearing a weave was hiding their "blackness", but because that's what I was using it for and I was done cowering underneath it. I started immersing myself in Jazz and Funk, changing my mindset, and learning to love myself and all my flaws. I continued to relax my hair for a while until this past March, when I decided to just shave it all off. You may have noticed, my hair is one of the things that I feel defines me the most as a black person. I felt like it was time to embrace it in all its natural glory.

So I've finally gotten to this point in my life where I've accepted - no, not accepted, loved - my race. I've learned to love blackness and black people and all the different shades of colour they come in. I've learnt to ignore the false images that they put out to the public and instead just seek out my own truth.

We are kind. We are gentle. We are strong. We are beautiful. We are amazing mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, family and friends. We are nothing less than people and we never will be. Unfortunately, even now after everything, I still have people telling me that I'm either not black or not black enough. What even is the phrase "black enough"? How would you even begin to judge that? It's as if you trap somebody in a box, punch a few air holes into it, and tell them that they're just going to have to stay there forever. But it's okay because there are air holes anyway so they don't have to do anything. Who would have that kind of authority to be able to decide what another human being should be identified as? No one has and no one ever will.

With everything that's been going on in the world in recent memory, we shouldn't waste so much time and effort just to put other people into neat little categories. Categories that shouldn't even be around in the first place. As the American writer Robert Fulghum once said, "all we really need to know, we learned in kindergarten." Just be kind, remember to share, and make sure to live a balanced life between work and play.

No matter who you are, whatever your colour, everything's going to be okay.

*Edited By: Miguel Carlo Mojica*

 A huge thank you to Jenica for sharing this deeply personal story. 

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