I hear you. I see you. This post has a letter from me to you.
I have two daughters—20 and 14 years old. They are my world. They are my best friends. I love to cook with them, drive around town with them, travel and explore the world with them, laugh hysterically with them, cry with them when needed, listen to all their stories—school stories, friend stories, good, not so good, and stories of their day-to-day happenings and struggles.
I loved to read to them when they were little and to feed them, even through tightly pouted lips that didn’t want to taste any veggies. I loved to wash their thick, curly, vibrant hair and brush and comb through every lock until my wrists ached. The end product was always worth it though—the two thick, bouncy, perfect curl balls: pigtails. Super-cute end product that made me a proud mom as I dressed them up, curly pigtails and all, and ventured out into the world with them. I loved to observe the twinkle in their brown eyes as they discovered every new layer of life as it unfolded before them.
It was a delight watching them grow. Grow into their own persons, their own individuality, into their own character. Today we have girl conversations about a wide variety of topics. I now have two best friends who also happen to be my daughters. Best friends who I’m still raising in one sense or the other. Balancing allowing them to have their own thoughts and their own voices with still being that light, that guide, that provider, that clarifier, and that steady rock they still need to keep growing emotionally and spiritually. Especially here in America, where they were born and are being raised.
I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria—a different world. Everyone was brown where I was raised. Different shades of brown, from mulatto to the most beautiful ebony black. We all had curly hair, from tight curls to looser curls. Yes, this changed when we discovered the hot combs and potent relaxers laden with chemicals to aid in straightening out our beautiful tight curls. I must admit, I did quickly get into the never-ending cycle of straightening and retouching my hair every four to six weeks to keep those tight kinky curls nice and straight and easy to comb through. Then were the times I just loved having my hair braided, then in cornrows. Then the extreme times where I just wanted to wear my hair in a short, natural boy cut. I had ever-changing hairstyles, all of which made me feel beautiful and confident.
I remember admiring every beautiful black girl and young woman on the pages of Ebony and Jet magazines, and just dreaming of one day living in America. It seemed like the place to be.
I did achieve that dream. I moved to the US in 1998. I’ve achieved a lot of my dreams—mom, physician, business owner. And some I didn’t dream of or hope for but that came into my world, and I embraced them—author, blogger, speaker at the United Nations.
Leaving Nigeria, West Africa, at the age of 23 and immersing myself into first the UK, where I practiced as a physician from ’93–’98, and then the US from ’98–date, has opened my eyes to some unfortunate realities in this place we call life.
I was reading the August 18 edition of the Economist, and this one particularly attracted my attention, as the headline on the cover was “Modern Love: Dating in the Digital Age.”
I read the article. It stated the pros and cons of online dating. I was relieved to discover the rate of divorce is actually declining because online dating allows people to find what they are looking for in a partner, as you can be as selective as you want. If you find what you’re looking for in a partner up front, and you’re more compatible, that union is more likely to stand the test of time.
I was also excited to discover that interracial coupling and interracial marriages have reached an all-time high as a result of online dating. People are now able to finally leave their homogenous groups and get to meet people of varied race.
These were the good parts.
There was one part that has given me an unsettled feeling and is the main reason I’m writing this letter to all my little black daughters.
A study was conducted in 2014 to find out the desirability ranking among races. This was taken as an average across four American cities. This was the result in a nutshell:
Asian women being the most desirable and black women being the least desirable. The gap between Asian men and black women was quite wide, meaning black women were really much lower than all other groups in terms of desirability.
Wow! My soul went into a state of all sorts of emotions. Really? What would a young black girl think if she read or was told this? That she was the least desirable of all races in America? How would she feel?
Iyabo, you have an important role to play here, my mind told me. Your voice is needed here.
Well, I went straight to the internet to first find out the reasons for this. The Economist did not elaborate on the reasons. I kind of knew some of the reasons already, but I still wanted to find out more.
Well, I did! I found out a lot! Study after study after study said the same thing.
The full details of my findings are beyond the scope of this blog. However, in summary, the reasons for Asian women being desirable by all men—white, black men…all men—made me sick to my stomach. Very sick to my stomach!
More than half the reasons were based on sexual fetishes around Asian women—their petite size and other sexual practices I can’t specify here. Also, their perceived “submissive nature and quiet, sweet nature,” which men like. A few men listed Asian women being well educated and hardworking in nature. However, it was a minority of men who listed this as a reason. The majority first listed the physical appearance of Asian women in relation to men’s sexual fetishes and Asian women’s sweet, submissive nature.
Some black men are desirable to white women and Asian women, hence their much higher ranking than black women.
White men are desirable to many women of all races, hence their second ranking.
White women were lower than I’d thought they’d be. That was shocking. The two reasons that stuck out to me in the studies were that some men think white women are too materialistic and that they tend to cheat on their partners.
Well, as you can imagine, there were many reasons for the low ranking for black women. Many sad, unfortunate ones. “Angry black woman” stereotyping was in there, of course. Too overweight, low education, not pretty or attractive enough...I imagine due to our darker skin tone and naturally curly hair, etc., etc., and on and on.
By the way, I have personally encountered angry Asian women. Many! At the dry cleaner’s, at the Chinese takeaway, at the nail shop, even a couple I went out with a few years ago. He was white American; she was Japanese. My then boyfriend, my daughters, this couple, and their daughter were eating out at a restaurant, and this woman was extremely rude to her husband in front of all of us. She called him some names I’ll never forget. She was surely an angry Asian woman.
A white woman talks angrily. A black woman talks angrily. The black woman will surely be labeled “Angry black woman” or labeled as having “a tone in her voice,” while the white woman will not be mentioned at all!
That’s the state of race in America.
That’s the unfortunate reality black women live with every single day.
The state of nasty stereotypes, pre-judgment, low ranking, rejection, lack of opportunities, being viewed as angry, and just demoted to the bottom.
I discussed this study in the Economist and my findings online with my daughters, and as you can imagine, they poured out their hearts—from remarks that have been hurled at them like “You’re so pretty for a dark-skinned girl” to “OMG, your hair is like a sponge” as someone proceeds to run their fingers through my daughter’s hair without permission.
Those comments are among so many others, including demeaning questions about their hair—from when it’s braided to when they’re wearing it natural in its tight curly, kinky state. The only time they don’t get demeaning comments is when they have it flat-ironed and straight, which lies in the comfort zone of most non-black people.
They’ve heard these ignorant, rude, stereotypical remarks from their fellow non-black students since they were little girls.
They’ve both attended private schools in Atlanta, Georgia, from elementary school to date, and they have been either the only black girls in the schools, or the minority.
Imagine a 20- and 14-year-old who’s already experienced so much separatism based on their skin color, natural hair they were born with, and their choice of hairstyles.
This is the danger of stereotyping. The danger of judging a whole group of people because of the behavior of a few, to judging based on looks and perceived acceptable attractiveness. Judging everyone as a pack instead of on an individual basis.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning Nigerian author, nicely described pack judging in her Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” Her Ted Talk was about what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative. This describes the unfortunate stereotyping beliefs America and, in fact, most of the Western world hold.
Black girls and women have been reduced to a single narrative, and it is up to us black women to make this situation better for our little black girls.
We must teach our little black daughters how to be the best they can be. Teach them the importance of education, including higher education—college and beyond. The importance of being confident but with humility; of having strong character and a purpose in life, but with a gentle spirit and respect for others. How to have a voice, but a respectful one. The importance of taking care of their bodies-physically, mentally and spiritually. How to be classy, and how to be in a class of their own. We must, as black women, strive to do better with all this; be great role models, so that our little black daughters can see us living this out, so that they can also strive for excellence in their lives from inside out.
I also challenge every non-black woman to start educating her children about the truths of race in America and how to accept all their friends for who they are to the core and not judge them based on their skin color, unique hair, or other preconceived ideologies.
It must start with us, adults. Women, men, black, non-black.
My little black daughters:
You’re all beautiful. Beautiful from head to toe.
I love your thick, vibrant curls, your bouncy, lovely pigtails.
Your cute, expressive eyes, with shades ranging from the darkest brown to even silvery-grey.
Your pretty facial features, which are exceptionally gorgeous as you evolve into a young girl.
Your curiosity of the world and of others around you.
I love to see your beautiful big eyes sparkle in excitement.
I’m here for you, my beautiful little black daughters. This is one of many letters I’ll write you.
Remember, you’re a gem, a rare gem. Rare gems sparkle. They do so with a bright, gentle, optimistic confidence that stands the test of time. Rare gems don’t buckle from the negative opinions of others. They just stand and shine.
My little black daughters, stay rooted in confidence as you strive to be excellent in your lives.
Above all, spread love always and respect everyone you come into contact with.
Much love, with a sprinkle of permanent happiness,