One of my favorite childhood memories is of listening to my mother describe the look on my father’s face the day I was born. Whenever my mother shares this story, she somehow manages to recreate it with images so vivid I can simply close my eyes and feel as if I were still there cuddled in her arms.
It’s important to understand that I was born into a family with seven children. Each one of us equipped with varying personalities, dispositions and, yes, varying skin tones as well. My mom has the most beautiful cafe au lait complexion that she shares with my two older sisters and older brother. My three younger siblings have skin tones that range from caramel to a golden bronze.
And then there’s me.
My mother says that when my father, a striking man with kind eyes, broad shoulders and deep ebony-brown skin first saw me in the hospital that day, his eyes lit up brightly as he promptly proclaimed, “She has my color, she looks like me!”
Though I obviously have no recollection of that day at all, I’m quite certain that hearing that story heavily influenced the ways in which I’ve been able to navigate my journey as a woman, an African-American woman and a woman of a darker hue.
Both of my parents, and particularly my mother, worked very hard every day to make sure all of their children had exactly what we needed to grow up with minds of our own, confidence to spare and strength to endure. Even after my parents separated and later divorced, I always felt worthy, supported and loved.
I was recently reminded of my childhood as I watched the amazing documentary Dark Girls. My heart broke just listening to the stories of so many young girls with brown skin traumatized by the cruel and hurtful views of those around them. I experienced that same emotion when I began my role as Raina Thorpe on the popular CW show Gossip Girl a few years back. I was truly unprepared for the tremendous impact I’d have while on that show. Each week I’d get the tons of letters from mothers, grandmothers and young girls literally thanking me for simply existing. They wrote me saying they’d never seen a woman that looked like me on television before. Which really meant they’d never seen anyone that looked like them before. And it got much deeper than that. Some fans even remarked that they’d never witnessed any woman with my skin color speak the way I spoke, have a successful career the way I had on that show or carry themselves in such a lady-like manner. Translation: In the very make-believe land of television and movies, women with darker skin aren’t smart enough to speak proper English or capable enough to be employed with a six-figure salary. And we most certainly can’t be lady-like. What complete nonsense!