The first boy I ever had a huge crush on was Leon Jackson. He was tall for a seventh grader with a bright white smile that came as easily to him as breathing. He was an artist – he did beautiful figure drawings. He could draw anything and dreamed of studying at the Sorbonne.
He treated me as if I was a queen – he carried my books, walked me to and from school every day. He was always gra- cious and polite to my parents. My dad liked him because he could fix a carburetor. My mother liked him because he always offered to wash the dishes when he came for dinner.
One Saturday after Leon had gone home and my parents and I were having dinner, my grandmother said, “Chile, you can’t get serious about that boy. Think about your children.” Leon was very dark. I don’t think she saw the irony in this since my grandfather was darker than Leon. Maybe she wanted me to marry someone as light as she was to offset my skin tone…. I know she believed that I was already at a disadvantage because my hair was nappy. She never believed I would be able to compete, and she was trying to give me every advantage. At least that is what I choose to believe.
When I got to high school, the only thing I wanted was to be popular.
I was not.
That does not mean I didn’t have friends, I did. I had good friends. Diane, Cloe, Charlie, Morris and his nine siblings who lived down the street, my cousins Donna and Retha Kay, and Junior. They were my posse and they were always there for me. But we were never a part of the popular crowd. We could never compete with them.
I wanted to be popular, and popular at James Madison High School in Dallas in the 1970s meant being a part of the Twins’ crew.
Jeanette and Paulette Mc- Gaughey were fraternal twins in my class. They were the “it” girls at Madison. They ran the social scene, dictated the fashions, ordained who was and was not worthy, and generally were “cooler” than anyone else. They were the teachers’ pets and they walked the hallways as if they owned the school. But everyone in their clique was light enough to pass…. And even though our grades were better, we were never chosen to be in the front of a photo, or on the stage for an assembly. We didn’t look the part.
In college, when pledge sea- son came around, I naturally pledged Delta Sigma Theta sorority. I didn’t have a lot of choice as a double legacy: both my mother and her mother were Deltas. But I also didn’t have a lot of choice because the other Black sorority on campus – the Alpha Kappa Alphas – didn’t rush girls as dark as me. The rivalry – and boundaries were fierce and rigid be- tween the AKA’s and the Deltas at University of Texas, even on a campus where only 500 students of the 40,000 were Black.
“It took a long time for me to be able to accept myself, define myself, and see myself through my own lens and not as a mirrored refraction of others.”
Women and girls compete, compare, undermine, and undercut one another. This “indirect aggression” includes behaviors such as criticizing a competitor’s appearance, like their body type and weight, spreading rumors about a person’s sexual behavior, and social exclusion. Evolutionary psychologists suggest this behavior is a way of protecting ourselves. If we diminish and dismiss other women, we raise our value for men. At least that is what we are socialized to believe. It has created a bullying culture that is hard to escape today, especially with the omnipresence of social media.
But what about our own worth? What do we lose when we cannot be ok with who we are and how we look? How do we learn to value our integrity and kindness instead of our color and our clothes?
Jocelyn Bioh’s brilliant School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is a sharply honed, hilarious dissection of how light-skinned and dark-skinned girls are pitted against each other, and how we are subconsciously raised to compete against each other as women.
Inspired by her mother’s experiences at a boarding school in Ghana, School Girls explores the serious issues of colorism, girlhood, com- petition, and beauty, issues that still impact girls’ and women’s self-image and their interactions with each other. You will recognize the characters at the Aburi Girls Boarding School. They attend your schools; they are a part of your church congregation.
You may recognize yourselves in the play, both in the adults and the girls. Hopefully, you will also recognize the injury and harm we can cause when we try to conform to who other people insist we be, and realize that it’s who you are, not what you look like or how you dress, that really matters.