Having a teenaged daughter who has two black parents, a white step-father and bi-racial half sister is perfect fodder for anyone who wants to write a family blog on race, identity and family. Almost daily she says something that raises issues I think are appropriate for this blog, but not always does she give me her consent to talk about them. Yesterday, she told me something supremely interesting, but when I asked if I could blog about it, she said "No." I even offered to change it up some. She still said no. I think she's being slightly unreasonable-- after all, none of her friends would EVER do anything as boring as read her MOTHER's blog-- but I respect her and her privacy. You'll all just have to wait to find out what she revealed in one of our (ongoing) mother-daughter talks yesterday. She did, however, give me permission to recount today's story.
It begins in Walmart (like any good story) with a discussion over makeup. I had promised her she could start wearing it in high school and now Sisi wants a ton of it. Since she starts that institution of higher learning this Fall, she's lobbying hard to build her supply: eyeshadows, mascara, thick black eyeliner.
"No," I said. "First, it's still summer. You're not in high school yet. Second, until you're buying it yourself, I'm in control of how much makeup you can wear. And I think mascara and a little lip gloss is enough. Maybe a neutral shadow. We'll see."
She argued with me: I'll spare you a repeat of all that. But what she said when she finally gave up on eyeshadow and liquid eyeliner is where I once again confronted questions of race, identity and the double-standards of it all. Because after a long pause, she asked, "If I saved my money and bought them myself, could I have blue contact lenses?"
My daughter has perfect eyesight-- she only wears glasses in costumes or in the sun--so the purpose of these contact lenses would be cosmetic only.
Sisi in her doctor costume last Halloween. Very fake glasses.
But her suggestion triggered so much more in me. In the space of a blink, I thought of Toni Morrison's masterpiece, The Bluest Eye-- the story of a black girl who longs for white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.
I thought of the story I read of the Caribbean woman who paid close to $8,000 for a surgical procedure to turn her dark brown eyes blue-- a procedure that failed-- and nearly went blind in the process. (Read about it here.) I think of James Brown singing "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud." I think of chemical relaxers and hair weaves, of colorism, of just how hard it can be to affirm that "black is beautiful" in a culture that makes daily assaults on brown eyes, kinky hair and curvy figures.
My daughter, like most teens is a voracious consumer of this culture... and now she wants blue eyes.
"Absolutely not," I said before I had really thought about it. "You have beautiful brown eyes, why would you want to cover them up?"
"But you let me dye my hair," she reminded me.
True. I did. Not only did I let her dye her hair, I let her dye it purple, in the hope that being allowed to do it would get the desire for "crazy hair" out of her system once and for all. It worked.
"So what's the difference?" she demanded.
The difference of course, is everything that blue eyes suggests to African Americans about our "insufficiencies." And I was about to say something along that lines, but instead I thought of my other daughter, my Lil Bit, with her green eyes and fair skin. In my mind, I fast-forwarded a decade, and imagined her asking me the same question: "Mom, can I have blue contacts?"
My initial reaction was the same-- "Why would you want contacts if you don't need them to see?" but after that, I had no issue. There were no concerns of pride in racial identity, no worries about self hate, no need to defend the choice beyond reasons of finances or frivolity.
As soon as I realized that I was applying a double standard to my daughter's choices about how to experiment with the beauty God gave them, I knew I was probably being unfair to Sisi and loading her up with the same limited (and limiting) notions of black beauty that hamstring the choices of so many. I realized that because I'm sensitive what others have defined as "black beauty" (e.g.natural hair, brown or black eyes, a big butt, or whatever) my automatic refusal to even consider her request was, in fact, applying the same kind of double standard that black women are subjected to daily. If we choose to straighten our hair-- we're trying to be white. When white women straighten their hair, it's a choice. When we wear weaves or wigs, we're trying to be white. But when white women wear "extensions" they are enhancing their natural hair. When we change the color of our eyes, we're trying to be something we're not. When white women do it, they are experimenting with a fresh look. It's a double standard and it's silly and unfair. While the black community as a whole may continue to define "blackness" and black women according to narrow and specifically "authentic" images, it's not something that I want to perpetuate in my own family.
It is absolutely essential to me that BOTH my girls grow up to believe in their limitless potential. That potential is not simply in academic, career or professional opportunities: it also extends to much more mundane choices like how they wear their hair. And while I still think it's silly to wear contacts if you don't need them to see, if Sisi actually saves her money and insists on buying them, I'll do my best to see it like the purple hair-- as a mild and youthful exploration into counterculture. Blue contacts would also bring her some questions-- and perhaps even some disdain--from some who might feel that her choice abandons something fundamental about black identity. I know we'd have to have a lot of conversations about all of that. Still, I believe my daughters can have a strong black identity-- even with purple hair and blue eyes.
What I really don't want to see is any tattoos... but, for now at least, that's a worry for another day.
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