Excerpt from Parable of the Brown Girl by Khristi Lauren Adams
“If God knew I would feel insecure about my skin and my hair, then why would he choose to make me born like this?” —Leah, age nineteen
Leah and I met through a mentoring program at my church when she was in middle school. It took her some time to embrace the idea of having or needing a mentor. Leah was a shy and quiet girl and was cautious about opening up to anyone unfamiliar.
Occasional text messages just to check-in eventually turned to regular Skype conversations over the next several years. Leah considered her child- hood to be full of joyous memories. She came from a loving home with parents who took care of her and her three siblings.
“My parents are really thoughtful and sensitive,” she said happily. “They always make me feel safe and want the best for me.”
Leah often went out of her way to assure me her parents had always been protective and supportive. She went to Christian schools growing up and remembered feeling very anxious about the messages she received.
“My teacher called Obama the antichrist,” she recalled.
Comments like this bothered her, but she could never determine if they were racist or critical of Obama’s politics. Nevertheless, she never felt singled out or ostracized as most of her classmates were black like her.
“Things were pretty normal then,” she said.
However, when Leah switched from her small, multiethnic private school to a larger public school, she experienced major culture shock. She was one of very few black students there.
“It was my first time experiencing microaggressions and racism on a daily basis. I didn’t know how to deal with the fact other people thought negatively about my skin and my hair. They would make jokes about black stereotypes.”
She particularly hated when other students touched her hair without permission. The subtle and blatant disrespect was difficult for Leah to process, so she kept her feelings to herself even though these experiences depressed and weighed on her heavily. Eventually, the negative effects of it all came out in other ways. Leah suffered from severe anxiety and depression, which subsequently turned to self-harm when she was fourteen years old. The physical effects the self-harm had on her body didn’t bother her because she didn’t think she was going to be around long and couldn’t conceive of a future.
Even now, one can see the scars on her frail nineteen-year-old arms. She tried to hide her wounds from her family with adhesive bandages; but since companies typically made those bandages for lighter skin tones, her wounds were difficult to conceal. Leah couldn’t avoid her parents’ intuition. “I was cutting, but eventually I couldn’t hide it anymore.”
When they discovered her scars, they were horrified and scared for their child and immediately took her to a therapist. “I self-harmed because I wanted to see my pain on me,” she admitted. While working with her therapist, Leah realized her depression had led to her cutting. She eventually stopped self-harming and then eventually stopped going to therapy.
Though Leah stopped cutting herself, she next developed an eating disorder. She articulately explained the transition as though she had examined the psychology behind her choices:
“I felt out of control based on the fact that I have darker skin and kinkier hair. Every time I looked in the mirror, I felt broken, and I couldn’t control those aspects of myself, so I became obsessed with controlling my weight. I noticed when I gained weight that I would feel so much worse about my skin and my hair; but when I lost weight, at least I had this that was good about me. “
This time, she went into an intensive day treatment and outpatient program to treat her disorder. However, the atmosphere at the treatment program didn’t help her.
“I was surrounded by skinny white girls. My therapist was white. My dietician was white. I didn’t want to talk about race or racism because I was the only black girl.” As a result, Leah withdrew into herself. Leah was nervous when she finally mentioned her discomfort with being the only black girl in the facility to her therapist. Her therapist, a white woman, didn’t understand but tried to help.
“Sometimes white people say ignorant things without meaning to. She was my therapist but she was also human and I understood that, but it didn’t help me.”
Again, Leah stopped going to therapy. She spent the next few years trying to manage her conditions on her own. Sometimes she would self-harm and other times she would go months without doing it at all. Sometimes she wouldn’t eat a thing and other times she ate regularly. The cycle was endless.
When Leah enrolled in college, she found herself in a new space with new people, but the same issues plagued her. She was alone again, just like in her high school and day treatment facility, surrounded by crowds of people who did not look like her. One night while at a party, Leah drank far too much, self-harming in a different way.
She was rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. The nurses were additionally concerned when they saw her scarred arms and frail body. Leah was taken to an adolescent treatment facility for two weeks—yet another place where she was the only black girl and another place where she encountered racist comments.
“One day, we were lining up for lunch and someone asked where I was. Another girl responded, ‘How could you miss her? She’s the darkest one here.’”
Wherever she went, the racism and microaggressions followed her. Upon leaving the adolescent treatment facility, Leah returned to her first intensive day treatment and outpatient program. This time, she successfully prevented the isolating environment from affecting her progress and graduated from the program after a year. She was proud of herself for graduating. She felt her depression and anxiety were getting better. Still, Leah questioned if treatment could ever truly help her.
“I graduated because there wasn’t anything else they could do for someone like me.”
Since then, Leah has had a few relapses. “It’s not so bad to where I need to be hospitalized, but I’m managing.” She’s less depressed and no longer suicidal, but she admits she hasn’t completely addressed her insecurities regarding her skin color and hair.
“If I could conquer those things then I wouldn’t need my eating disorder anymore.”
Leah recalled meeting a girl in the treatment facility who said God put her through anxiety and depression for a reason. Leah resented that statement.
“If that were the case for me, then I felt like God was playing me. What was the purpose?” she reflects. “If God knew I would feel insecure about my skin and my hair, then why would he choose to make me born like this?”
Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? —Malcolm X
I remember the first time someone called me the N-word. I remember the first time someone called me “darky.” I remember the first time someone called me “nappyhead.” These racist moments remain etched in my memory, teaching me from a young age that black girls are undesired and rejected. It has taken me years to renounce these messages and recover from their harmful effects.
I’m amazed by how much black women and girls have to unlearn. We are born into a system designed to oppose every aspect of our identity, including our skin complexion, hair, attitude, and overall identity as women.
The antagonism we face begins at such a young age and from so many different directions that even the most spiritually, emotionally, and physically protected black girls have a difficult time countering it. As Melissa Harris-Perry writes in book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America:
Black women in America have always had to wrestle with derogatory assumptions about their character and identity. These assumptions shape the social world that black women must accommodate or resist in an effort to preserve their authentic selves and to secure recognition as citizens.
For centuries, prejudice and negative stereotyping have attacked black women and girls’ characters and physical natures. Leah is a casualty of this reality, and she is tragically far from alone. Most struggle in silence like Leah does, trying to find a safe home for their identity.