Featured Thoughts. IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD. by Vanessa Willoughby

Vanessa WIlloughby, SuperSelected, Race, Beauty

“I once stumbled upon the documentary Dark Girls. A woman was discussing the international practice of skin-bleaching. Someone in the room asked, “Why would anyone ever do that?”

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD by Vanessa Willoughby

Someone once told me that in regards to racism, it was all in my head. I wanted to accept this as straight fact, maybe even retain it as a shimmering pearl of wisdom. But then the thought triggered conversations that I had shared with my parents, an African-American man who had a soft spot for the Black Panthers as though they were a family-favored sports team, and a Filipina immigrant, whose marriage had been an anomaly amongst the residents of her own home overseas and Connecticut’s white, tight-lipped suburban crowd. And so I replayed the comment in my mind, let it echo like the silent cries of some beady-eyed bat. I clenched my jaw and felt a shiver of disgust.

I am twenty-five years old and I know that I am supposed to worship at the sacred base of the golden fountain of youth and be a proud flag-bearing member of The Millennials, but sometimes I feel like I could slip into a chemical fog, become some short-circuited neurotic like an early Joan Didion protagonist, all cold marble floors and empty rooms, resigned to a self-made island.

I read a study that linked racism and discrimination to poor health. Who knew?

I am the sum of my parents and I am the collision of nurture and nature. I was taught the tools to succeed in a world that assumes that everyone lives on an equal playing field. At home, my father pulled out books from his modest collection. His books were the proof of his introspection, byproducts of the instant intoxication of the written word. I did not learn about Eldridge Cleaver from the public school system, but from my father. I did not learn anything about Malcolm X under the guidance of the public school system other than his fondness for the phrase “white devils” and the fact that he died by assassination like Martin Luther King.

Racism is a permanent fixture in my head. Humming, floating in ether like an atom. A flickering light bulb in a bare basement. Fragments of memories, the realization of one’s own outsider status, the endless loop of rage that dies and ignites, dies and ignites.

I once stumbled upon the documentary Dark Girls. A woman was discussing the international practice of skin-bleaching. Someone in the room asked, “Why would anyone ever do that?” His eyebrows sprang up to his hairline. I thought of crafting an explanation that would first and foremost act as an exercise in brevity. I ran through the odd mash of what I label “knowledge,” the standard, school-issue textbooks and the words of authors and mentors that I’ve adopted as teenage lullabies and spiritual mantras. I could’ve chirped back some Pollyanna song and dance but it would’ve been as useless. Nothing would have sunk into the absolute depths of my companion’s consciousness; candid confessions stitched with unadorned honesty would only serve as some looming, iron-cast wall.

So I said nothing.

Was it my fault for equating silence with civility?

I am twenty-five and the only thing I’ve truly owned are my experiences, lugged from month to month, year to year like sacks of coal.

I wonder why people invested so much faith in the election of a black President when history has been known to hold a grudge. How can I construct an identity based upon my experiences when some people insist that those experiences are not relevant, that they are the symptom of an overexcited mind, the late-night scribbling of an awkward introvert?

The stance of colorblindness makes me, to say the least, uncomfortable. To be colorblind suggests a willful ignorance, a determination to deny and discount reality. Media-journalism darlings such as NPR and Slate reported on the racial empathy gap, a study that shows that people assume black people feel less pain than white people. I wonder if this lack of empathy can be the motivation behind a comment uttered by a (white) friend of my father. When discussing my father’s elementary-school-era playground battles, my father’s friend was flabbergasted. I had no idea you ever experienced racism! I would never have guessed. When will the burden of proof be eliminated?

I am twenty-five and my baggage is not the kind crafted by Hollywood Kingpins. My baggage does not involve quirky hang-ups a la Lena Dunham’s Girls. My image is not the blue print for some smash hit fictional bestseller and emulated by pop culture fanatics. But I do not want to exist in a world where my very existence is controlled by a commitment to self-inflicted blindness, not when I have already endured and survived a slew of self-inflicted wounds.

About the Writer.
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