I was telling Taika about the time I had chicken pox. “I was eight and my sister was five, we both had chicken pox and we were at home alone while our mum and dad went shopping,” as the 1980s laissez faire Finnish parenting permitted. “When they came back, we got a surprise. We both got Barbie dolls.”
“Ooh, what kind of Barbies?”
“Mine was a Disco Barbie, she was black and called Dee Dee.”
“Ha! And what did your sister have?”
“I think she also got a Disco Barbie but a white one.” (Sometimes my mother and adoptive father went to some lengths to recognise my Afro-heritage – most of the time they didn’t)
“Your sister was so lucky,” she said with a sigh that contained six years of experience of how the reward of merit is not life’s business (Julian Barnes).
“Because she got the white one.”
Maybe I just didn’t expect my 6-year-old growing up in North London in 2010s – in the most diverse borough of the world’s most cosmopolitan city – have exactly the same reaction I had had twenty five years earlier in Finland, where the only black faces ever seen were in the church collection boxes. (How Dee Dee even ended up in our local supermarket’s stock is unknown and the police are investigating. Dee Dee – if you’re still there, go back home or face arrest, the Immigration are coming.)
She went on to elaborate that black was the worst, white was the best, and lighter brown – now she pointed herself – was alright “I guess”. “But you fancy Joshua?” and then, as if there was some logic-based point to be proven, I listed all the people that were darker than us that were our friends and who we loved. She shrugged and I could have launched on a trite parliamentary speech about every child matters. But before you judge me for not doing so, you should know how unsuccessful my “There Are No Girl or Boy Colours,” or “Boys Can Wear Pink. Girls Can Wear Blue,” or “Now Put This On or I’m Going to Get Mad” was. She would just give me a perfunctory nod to please me and next time keep her thoughts to herself for the protection of my outdated world view. I’d be punished with premature condescension by my offspring only because of my hipocritical reaction to an honest cultural observation, one that she perhaps hadn’t thought anymore significant than “why do teenagers like to look cool?” and “why do Americans sound like someone was pinching their noses?”
Instead, I went to You Tube the next day to search for the famous doll test.
The direct in-your-face kind of racism is a pretty rare – although not non-existent – experience in my life these days. But despite being a woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a red-brick university educated city professional with a mirroring social circle, nonetheless she is sometimes reminded of the existence of certain world views when subjected to open discrimination and humiliation from the occasional cab driver or a night club door man. But what possible experiences are my six-year-olds views based on? Perhaps little every-day enforcements like this, which prove this is not an American issue. Or a Mexican issue. Or a phenomenon of a by-gone era.
Superdrug, I don’t think ‘Naughty’ is quite my shade. Don't suppose you have any ‘Promiscuous’ in stock? And look at my friend over here. She needs something leaning towards the shade of a fetish?
Does it matter that I like to colour my hair honey blond? (But I also sometimes wear braids to be gaped by my colleagues as if I had gone through an overnight sex change. “You look like a recipient!” wins the award for the best compliment, ‘recipient’ in our context referring to the Sub-Saharan beneficiaries of one of the international aid programmes our consulting practice charges a few million quids to manage.) Or that I use contouring to make my cheek bones look more prominent and nose slightly narrower? Do these things matter?
Does it matter that judging by what we see, being obese today is a more acceptable beauty standard than being black? When Debenhams introduced size 16 mannequins last autumn this was celebrated – the average size of British woman is officially over-weight – and the equalities minister (yes, I know) Jo Swinson endorsed this “latest move to show women off in representative lights.” Whether we think it’s beautiful or representative or full-figured or whatever, obesity comes with serious health risks. Being Black does not.
The saints come marching in, in their representative lights
I will continue to tell my daughter that brown skin is not a disability and her light-skinness is not why she is pretty – and that girls can wear blue. It feels a bit of a one woman battle that I don’t know where to start. But in the first instance, right now I’d like to go home from the hospital and hug her and tell her how beautiful she is.
Today even more than on any other day, because I have just been told by the doctor that I have cancer.
It is not life’s business to reward merit.
So now if you excuse me, I will get up, comb my hair and put some make up on. Let the one woman battle commence.