Recognizing my roots: how braids forced me to understand internalized racism

By Jamie Linton, Columnist

“You’ll do great.  Put on a fake smile and show them how white you can be.”

That was the advice given to me by my best friend in response to my pleas of anxiety before my first day of sorority recruitment.

I wrote my Common Application essay on the internal racism I was a victim of during high school that, at the time, was merely a ploy to get universities to notice me and acknowledge my minority status.  It wasn’t until college that I realized the true impact that western beauty standards were having on my darker friends.    

I grew up white-passing in a middle class neighborhood and therefore had rarely suffered the oppression that darker women of color fall victim to on an everyday basis.  

It wasn’t until I went through sorority recruitment at a predominantly white university that I truly felt the impacts that internalized racism could have on young girls of color.  

As I squeezed into my J. Crew outfit to line up outside the various houses with 68 other Lilly Pulitzer-clad freshmen, I couldn’t help but notice how out of place I would feel if I didn’t have straight brown hair, artificially tanned legs and a last name that could easily roll off a Western-speaking tongue.

Although I reject the stereotype that all Greek women are the same, I now understand how wrong it was to ignore the nervous comments of my Indian friend whose main concern was that she wasn’t “white enough” for this process.  

That was, until I slept in braids: my hair turned curly and I immediately felt ashamed of the way I looked. Then I walked into a friend’s dorm before going out to a party and they all squealed with excitement thinking I was finally embracing my hispanic roots.  I turned away in shame and instead of accepting my friends’ compliments and “you look so good!”s, all I could think about was how different I looked.

 I vowed never to leave my hair in braids without washing it ever again because then I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the white-passing privilege that I had never lived without.  At that moment, I fully understood my privilege — I had seen it from both sides.  

This experience promptly triggered a flashback to when I had first read my Nigerian best friend’s editorial where she described her attempts to scrub the black off her skin in middle school. I now was better able to understand her pain.

She will never be white-passing no matter how hard she tries; she has to live with the judgment of not living up to western beauty standards and the pain of internal racism that follows.  For me, at the end of the day I can always go straighten my hair and scrub off my spray tan.

 Luckily, the University makes a strong effort to be inclusive toward ethnic minorities and teach the importance of microaggressions. Fortunately my sorority and the RSOs I have joined celebrate diversity despite the generalization that in order to be accepted, we must all look the same.  

I applaud the University for understanding the impacts of these aggressions and attempting to teach college students the severity of their actions, because you truly cannot understand the impacts of society’s beauty standards until you experience them yourself.    

Jamie is a freshman in Media.

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