If I hid my color story, I would find acceptance — how I gaslighted myself away from my truth and eventually found my way home to self-love.
It started with a misguided direction sourced from good intentions.
“Be White,” she said. There were other words at our parting; it was these two that enveloped a dense layer of shame and confusion on my identity for decades to come. She was not a monster; I believe she was afraid. My beautiful Caribbean Mother knew what lay ahead on the mainland; she had lived it years before in NYC during the ’60s. Sadly, the world hadn’t changed that much by that autumn day in 1980. Society still held — as it does today — skin color as a means of determining worth.
Many of us who “could pass” for white, have chosen that option in various eras and circumstances of our lives. My Mother’s advice was not a radically powerful new tool for wellbeing; it was a highly corrosive, outdated strategy for being anything other than white in America.
After all, to obtain inclusion and reach for the promised dream, one must assimilate. It’s the American way — the melting pot, they say. I see something else, and it’s anything but inclusive. Melting everything in one pot is not diversity; instead, it’s a cultural implosion, a colorless, odorless by-product of self-denial — where individuality and distinction become a generic, one-size-fits-all blend.
My Mother’s counsel was well-intentioned. It was her best Hail Mary play meant to protect me from the scorn of being multiracial in a melting pot of mundane. And she knew better than I, what awaited me in the Deep South.
I know that now.
But on that day, I was angry. I can’t remember if I cried, I only remember feeling like I didn’t want her to see my tears. I’d be damned if my headstrong-know-it-all 14-year-old self would let her know that leaving our island was breaking my heart.
Waiting for my flight to board in St. Thomas, we sat at Sparky’s Bar. On the wall above my Mother, hung a beautiful marlin. Seeing it’s life-force trapped in the taxidermic grip, I felt despondent. My Mother was still talking, but I didn’t hear anything after “be white.” That final rejection as an accompaniment to my island ejection was enough.
No other words mattered to me. Instead, I thought about the marlin; when it took the hook, the fight that ensued, and its final fighting moments before giving up on freedom. Like the marlin, it seemed my Mother had given up. In telling me to deny my island blood, she’d given up on being acknowledged as my Mom. In sending me away, she’d given up on parenting me through my teenage years.
I was spiraling, and no one could catch me.
At that point, I’d garnered lots of trouble, expulsion from two of the three private schools on the island, vandalism, dope, drinking, failing grades, and breaking out of the house after dark. The final straw was the money I’d stolen from her. I’d planned to run away to New York; I’d already booked a one-way ticket on Eastern Airlines bound to NYC. Something had to be done to set me on a new course. In this desperate scenario, sending me off island seemed the only viable option to right my ship.
Sent to Savannah, a city that hadn’t mentally shifted very far from its deep-seated roots of selling humans in the slave trade, I braced for impact. It was far worse than I’d imagined. Hearing the word “nigger” hurled about in conversation shocked me. Growing up in St. Thomas, I’d never heard the word spoken. The first time was when I was visiting New York, around age eleven. In my new city, the “N” word was as common as any pronoun.
I was treading water, surrounded by racists, weighted by fear, and drowning in shame. As a teenager, I was ill-equipped to handle myself in that environment.
Feeling unsafe in the Deep South, I attempted to assimilate into what was, for me, a foreign culture. I began to whitewash my story, leaving behind my island cadence, my family history, my truth, and myself. In Savannah, white people would often ask me, “Are you mixed?” Labels like mulatto, gingersnap, mutt, or half-breed were also cast my way. Those moments terrified me. With sweaty palms and fear, I would deny. Gaslighting myself, I became something worse than a racist. I became a fraud.
What was meant to fix me, nearly broke me — my descent into self- loathing would take on new strength as I denied my essence, my complexion, and my beautiful, Caribbean culture.
Sometimes, I would get close to people and share my heritage with them. Eventually, they would use it to humiliate and insult me. I was too insecure to understand I’d chosen the wrong friends. I laughed at racist jokes, often allowing myself to be the punchline. I resisted any recognition of my family, cutting them off from my life, thereby isolating myself from self-acceptance and love.
My warped sense of self-identity kept me fractured for many years.
Along the way, I interacted with people who noted the falsehood I projected — their commentary both struck and stuck my core. A coworker once remarked, “you always date the whitest guys.” And though I loved to them, those whitest of white guys, there was still something missing — my true self. They loved me too, and then when I met their parents, I got the all-familiar side-eye. The relationships usually ended soon after those introductions.
Once in a public restroom, I was using water to flatten my hair’s natural frizz, a stranger looked me dead in the eye and instructed, “Don’t deny your sisterhood!” “I see you!” she declared. And while it felt good to be seen, acknowledged, and encouraged, I still lacked the empowerment to own my worth. I continued to deny my sisterhood for a long time.
The arrival of my firstborn started the healing process. Motherhood has an uncanny way of hitting override buttons and rewiring false precepts of self. The beginning of the shift came in an unexpected moment. When my husband’s friend came to meet our baby, he said, “she has your skin tone.” I loved that she had something that was uniquely mine.
Loving my children into being themselves above all fear and judgment has urged me to do the same. I encourage them to own their stories and understand that shape-shifting for acceptance will rob them of wellbeing. When they ask me how I know this to be true, I tell them stories of all the versions of self I cloaked myself within to find acceptance. I show them photographs of me with painfully, straightened hair. My soul untethered, the photos look like someone else — I was adrift.
In many ways, parenting has raised me, healed me, and held me accountable to my truth. Today, I find myself embracing my heritage in beautiful, empowered ways. I’m proud to be a descendant of the people who came from islands in the West Indies. I crave my ancestral home; my need to feel closer to the cultural history of the U.S. Virgin Islands grows stronger each day.
Acknowledging my past relationship with self-directed racism, and numerous cringe-worthy moments of denial has not been easily digestible. I struggle to understand how I could whitewash myself. Then, I was a liar, a denier, and an assimilator. It’s taken me years to forgive myself for the shame I’d wrongfully allowed to define me. Today, I am a free-spirited, authentic, mainland born, island-rooted woman of distinction, and color. I am wholeheartedly grateful for the blessings of where I originated and that I’ve found my way home to the temple of my heart.