I have to participate in a never-ending charade for the sake of my college roommates, a charade in which I never make any dark political jokes but always make the bed, with the fitted sheets actually fitted and the comforter pulled back just right in a way that undermines the fundamentals of my personality. I look at my roommates’ carefully arranged spaces with bewilderment — where do they think we are living? An IKEA catalog? A YouTube guru’s beauty tutorial? Did they go to college to continue their educations or to display their assortment of cutesy pillows, each of which comes in a different style, color, and size, but still manages to accentuate the others perfectly?
More updates: I sometimes forget how to open my dorm room door. I have no money and no marketable skills. My roommates are the first strangers in years to see my hair sans headscarf. (Yes, Muslim girls take their scarves off at home. When we pull them off, our heads do not fall off, and no we do not shower with them. You’re welcome.)
Long before the drama surrounding my headscarf, there was the drama surrounding my hair. There were elementary school classmates, sticking their fingers into it and pulling like cotton candy at a street fair. There were endless cosmetic solutions tasked with fixing the testy problem of my heritage: keratin treatments, odd smelling serums, heat-based procedures that burnt my nine/ten/eleven year old ears. There was the one light-skinned aunt who suggested that if I exfoliated hard enough, my extra melanin would fade away, I would come to resemble her more, and all world conflict would immediately cease.
But my darkness is not the kind you can wash down the drain. Moroccan hamams, Turkish spas, American showers, and 18 years later: still nothing. My hijab has made my once-distressing hair completely irrelevant to the public — until now, that is — but the “problem” of my skin remains. I look too “black” to be properly Arab/North African, and the insecurities I have developed after years of familial scrutiny cannot be covered by any amount of cloth.
Whenever I visit Morocco and find myself both blessed and overwhelmed with the aforementioned relatives at all times, skin deep concerns seemed to replace others. After all, in the country where I’m from, wearing the headscarf is not particularly noteworthy. But at the end of every beach day, my complexion would be — and at least one relative would make sure I knew it. They would say: kha’aliti — “you’ve blackened.” From their tones it became clear that this fact was a bad thing, a laughable thing. My mom might ask me if I wore sun protection or worry that my sunblock actually seemed to encourage tanning. An uncle might point out that I looked neither Moroccan nor American, and by the way did I exercise enough back in New York?
American racism is expected, trademark, foundational — the type of thing I write a good slam poem about once in a while and kind of almost learn to live with. But Moroccan racism (that is, the racism I have observed in certain Moroccan relatives) is more complex. I cannot use the excuse of being an outsider when I stake my complaints and write my poetry. “Morocco” is the word I’m supposed to write about in conjunction with words like “homeland,” “diaspora,” “ancestral.” Morocco is to blame for this skin, but refuses to take the credit, distances itself from the consequences, ignores me in my moments of self-destruction.
The betrayal feels worse when I consider the fact that Morocco is a Muslim nation and that its people own a wide variety of skin tones. (Of course, Muslim nations generally follow whichever distorted version of Islam proves most convenient, but my indignation is not a force that can ever be reasoned with.) The prophet Mohammed (pbuh) once said: “There is no virtue of an Arab over a foreigner nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness. Have I not delivered the message?”
Nope, apparently not.
On a good day and in the right outfit — especially if I have my jet-black eyeliner on — I feel cocky in my appearance, mysterious in my ethnic ambiguity, powerful against the perceptions of others. I admire how rose gold looks on my wrist, how brick red blooms on my full lips and accentuates my brown skin. (I do so in my roommates’ mirrors when they are gone, because I have yet to invest in my own.)
But there was a time when I refused to leave the house during the heat (light?) of a summer day. I remember hiding in the shade of a building while I waited for the street light to change, so that I could cross the sunny expanse as quickly as possible. Whenever I noticed the color gradient on my forearms, the strips where my sandals once crisscrossed and my rings once rested — a kaleidoscope of damning evidence — I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had lost something irretrievable.
It’s easy enough to applaud Christian Louboutin for designing nude heels for dark women. To idolize Lupita Nyong’o and to criticize Azalea Banks and Lil Kim for lightening their skin. To curate your Facebook feed so that it exclusively swarms you with articles titled: Brown Women Goddesses Slay in Latest Ad Campaign/Olympic Sporting Event/Political Endeavor.
But am I really comfortable with my own blackness? Are we as a nation comfortable with the physical appearance of blackness? The blackness that goes beyond Kylie Jenner’s appropriated braids, Nicki Minaj’s rear end, and Beyonce’s latest album? Are our childhood lessons and internalized biases as easy to unlearn as a #blacklivesmatter retweet?
I don’t think so.
I can’t pretend to be some sort of social justice warrior for the Black Lives Matter movement, or any similar movement in another country, when I still struggle with my own exterior. To be skin sure, to acknowledge the lessons I have internalized (wider noses = ugly, darker skin = ugly, blacker = ugly) and work to reverse them, will prove more powerful than using an empowering hashtag. That is something I think I will focus on this year: completely accepting the basic, superficial, literally skin-deep reality of my mixed appearance.
My roommates will probably not be bothered about what my skin or hair looks like, whether I look more “black” or “Arab” and where that puts me in terms of traditional beauty standards. In their positions, I know that I wouldn’t: I seem to wield all disturbing critiques of the physical variety against myself.
The chemical treatments that my relatives forced upon my hair when I was a young girl ultimately destroyed it. Years later it grew back jagged and angry, broke off in little pieces when touched: no longer cotton candy but salt, or snow. But the fact that it is slowly healing is undeniable.