I was the kind of kid who was too introspective for my own good. A movie that captured my imagination had the ability to make me retreat so deep into my mind that I sometimes didn’t speak for hours. In the case of Anastasia I barely spoke for days. There is a special place for fiction in the human imagination, especially for people like myself with holes in their creation story (I’m an only child with no dad). I always wanted someone to rescue me, someone to take me on an adventure, or someone who was somehow a part of me to take me from the monotony of my reality.
A few months ago I went with my family to see Into the Woods. As the previews for upcoming fairy tales rolled I was surprised to see so many films led by female protagonists — something Hollywood is just beginning to capitalize on. However, as the twenty minutes of previews came to a close I felt a familiar disconnect that I remembered from childhood. It was twofold: there was at once the familiarity of shared womanhood and the joy of seeing that reflected on screen, but I also felt the distinct alienation created by years of under-representation. After the fifth preview it was clear that none of the people in these stories looked like me — none of them ever really do.
One of the stars of the new ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat, Constance Wu, describes that certain American tendency like this: “[Imagine] that a producer says, ‘Guy and girl meet-cute at an ice skating rink. They fall in love, but then she has to move away.’ If you say that to anyone, including an Asian person, you picture a white person because that’s what’s become normative to us. “ Within the American psyche there are infinite stereotypes of minority women as sassy friends, charming maids, promiscuous villains, and tiger moms. We are not the ones made to save the world, or even be rescued by a prince.
I felt it when I was little and tried to imagine myself as Drew Barrymore’s intellectualized version of Cinderella. She didn’t look like me. Her story, no matter how much it felt like it might be mine, was not for me. In the country I live in my life is not a part of our historical commitment to the protection of womanhood. We are not the ones to be saved; we are not the beloved.
A part of my naturally dark brown hair is blonde. I’ve had blonde highlights in my hair since high school. When I got them, I said it was to “highlight my skin tone.” My hair is often straight, which I justify by saying it is easier to maintain than my naturally frizzy curls. Beyoncé has blonde hair too, usually borrowed from the heads of Scandinavian women who undoubtedly have plenty more blonde, straight hair where that came from. Straight blonde hair is a commodity that even Beyoncé, the most influential woman in the world, feels she must possess in spite of the natural way her hair grows from her head.
I’ve come to recognize over the years that the reason my hair is blonde is because it makes me look more ambiguous than I already am. For most of my life I wanted to be white. The first time I remember feeling it was when I was 5 or 6 years old as I watched my white friend get out of her swimming pool and effortlessly towel-dry her hair before dance class. My hair was a bit more of a task. I remember the effortlessness with which my white friends seemed to collect dates, spend summers on the lake, and drive nice cars to our suburban schools. I know that every white person doesn’t flow through life carefree — no human does.
What I also know is that I internalized early on that the more I emphasize the white side of me, the easier it is for me to navigate the world. When I walk through New York City and my long, highlighted hair is straight and flowing, people go out of their way to accommodate me. It happens when my hair is curly too, but I have lived in this American life long enough to know the difference in how I am treated when I look whiter vs. when I look blacker.
I am the descendant of American slaves and American slave owners — both from my black mother’s side. In the U.S. the shame of slavery is held on one side or the other — the shame of having been slaves, and the shame of having held slaves. In both cases humanity was replaced with a more barbaric state of being. The weight I felt in the theater is reflected in the history of America just as much as in my own ancestral history.
From day one American law dictated who was valued and who was not, and for most of its existence the law explicitly protected white supremacy. We built fortresses of laws and narratives to defend it. The one-drop rule was created to ensure black people could not pass as white to reap the benefits of a racist society — much like my ability (or privilege) to carry the whiteness that makes my life more pleasant. America has almost exclusively white representation in both its real and imagined history, which should remind us that in spite of its multicultural makeup the U.S. was created to be a white nation.
It took 25 years for me to believe that I am enough just as I am. 25 years of blonde highlights, attempts to fit into straight-hipped jeans, and regular run-ins with flatirons. But what does any of this have to do with the current unrest in our country? What do two decades of my own insecurity have to do with a society so sick with guilt and shame that even the term racism makes blood boil and people fill with rage?
It has to do with representation, misrepresentation, and a cycle of misunderstanding which breeds the most insidious kind of ignorance. There is constant dehumanization on all sides — from my own perceptions of white friends with carefree lives to the perpetuated narratives that paint most poor black people as criminal. Neither of those things is true, yet our country rests upon stereotypes like these to separate the “us” from the “them.” There are “those people” and there are “good people.” There are thugs and there are patriots. There is no room in between.
Ideas like that manifest themselves in the minds of little black and brown girls who grow up believing they are not beautiful and have no place within the protection of this nation. It settles in the minds of little black and brown boys who internalize their place as “them” and not as “us.” It burrows in the minds of little white boys who believe they will grow up to protect “us” from “them.” The combined thoughts of the individuals form to create the thoughts of the collective, and the cycle of racial trauma in America continues with no foreseeable end.
As the previews came to an end and the feature film began I felt the pain from my young thoughts settle in my adult mind. But now I feel that I can protect her. I can tell her that she is perfect, and that the lines of history that converge within her make her as beautiful as any woman she may admire onscreen. I’m thankful for the forces of education, family, and love that have led me to the truth about my own worth, but what about the rest?
I fear for this country. It is a nation so invested in its righteousness it fails to see its faults. Our shared memory is so detached from reality that the only way to heal is to consciously dismantle it. My fear is that we will continue to refuse to do the work necessary for a healthy society, that children will continue to internalize queues that say this world is not made for them, and that over time we will find ourselves deeper and deeper into the woods.