faces of (the human) race #4
Name: Hillary Lopes
Identifying race: black
Current Residency: USA
What’s your first memory of experiencing a racially charged situation?
The first time it came to my attention that a situation was racial was when I was on a gymnastics team…I was around 7 years old.
It had always been very obvious that I was the only black girl on the team. I grew up in Providence Rhode Island in a Jewish neighborhood. I was used to being the only chocolate drop…My mom used to say, “You’re just a beauty mark.”
Well, my hair was, and is, really curly. This was before flat irons—My mom used to do my hair for me. She would roller set it in these massive rollers, and then from there, she would blow dry it. It would take her hours.
My mom had done my hair and my gymnastics coaches wanted us to get in the pool and do conditioning. I told them I couldn’t do this one exercise because I couldn’t put my head underwater. The girls all looked at me and I said casually, ‘Oh my mom did my hair.’ … And then it was a big thing, even with my coaches, who were at least mid 20s…I remember having to explain to them what my hair would do if I went underwater.
I was down with the beauty mark game…
but then it all the sudden became more about having to explain [mysefl]…It was the first time I felt like I had to stand up for me. That was a very early awareness that, “I’m different and they’re not understanding.”
Can you share an experience you’ve had with racism or ignorance as an adult?
Yeah, this one happened with someone in the yoga community. It was in the summertime and I had just gotten back from Hawaii. I’m brown, check. Hey, guess what, black people can tan. I was noticeably bronzed and darker. I saw this woman, she’s a white woman, very fair skinned. I’ve known her for over two years, not intimately, but well enough that when she saw me across the street she hollered my name. She crossed the street and…she goes, “Oh my gosh, you look great.” Then, she grabbed my arm. This is the thing, she touched me. I get it, I’m a touchy person too, but she grabbed my arm. Then she said, “In comparison to you I look sick. I wish I had your skin.”
I moved my hand…I was annoyed because it wasn’t ‘Your skin is beautiful.’ It was ‘I want your skin,’ as she’s holding my arm…
I told her that my skin comes with its own little set of problems and issues too.
Then she goes, “Yeah, but at least you’ll look good when you’re 70.”
And I was just like…she did not just say that. For her to just shoot that down by saying I’d look good when I’m 70…I just thought, Wow, no one cares about anything, except for looking good. I can literally go through harassment and pain like you just caused me and you don’t even know it, and it doesn’t matter. Like as long as I look good, I can suffer through what is having dark skin in America.
What was the impact of this remark on you?
It was beyond frustrating because I knew her, so it went from being a “Hi” to me being wildly offended to knowing that because of the person I am, I would to have to take the energy to educate her and tell her we have to talk. I’m exhausted. I don’t need to take the time to educate a whole, grown ass woman. Yet, I have to balance the idea of being hurt, by someone I know, and letting them know they’ve hurt me and how and why.
I had to email her. She said that she felt she had hurt me when she walked away. And yet, she didn’t text me, didn’t email me, didn’t reach out. I had to email her. And that’s the thing about matters of race, it’s often when white people have felt they’ve done something wrong, they don’t have the strength to stand up to themselves and admit it. They want to take ownership of so many other things, except their own faults. It comes down to the people who have been hurt to stand up and say something.
What can people do to prevent themselves from hurting others unknowingly?
It takes awareness…Even if you design your life to never interact with people from different cultures than your own…no one knows what is going to happen. You may find yourself in a situation where you need to rely on these other people for your safety, for a job…and if it came down to that how horrible would it be if you had no idea how to interact with people from other cultures and backgrounds from you.
You can learn it early on and practice being sensitive and undo what we are taught. That’s what actually is required—an undoing of what we are taught and what was done.
Specifically, if you grew up white in America, you have to understand what has been done and what has been done for you. It requires you to re-ask and learn a history that might not be pretty. But what it can do is give you a lesson that doesn’t come at the expense of another person. Watch a documentary, read an article, talk to a friend…Instead of saying the wrong thing to another person.
[For minorities] to be the ones educating is too much work…You’re asking folks who are at the receiving end of pain and marginalization to work to educate you. This is how we stay in this situation: asking those who are in the brunt of this to do more work…for the oppressor. That’s why we have this imbalance.