How I Learned the Art of Healing in the Face of Racism

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CFR contributor and editor Sherie James

“Did you always know you wanted to go to college?”

The question alarmed me. Sitting in my first college course, I straightened myself in my seat. The professor’s words were odd because no one else had been asked this question. The standard had been asked of them. Name. Hometown. Major. I looked around the room, the only person with dark skin present, and cleared my throat. But before I began to speak, she said, “I’m sure all of this is not new to you.” She waved her hand at the white students in the room, at the window framing a pristine lawn, while giving me a knowing grin. In truth, it was all new to me. I’d come from a predominantly black school which had used the cafeteria as a makeshift auditorium, and there were only a handful of students who weren’t black. My heart began to beat harder in my chest as silence descended upon the room, but she smiled and moved on to the next student. I realized then that she wasn’t looking for an answer. The question was rhetorical, because to her, how else could someone of my complexion have made it into that collegiate seat without the presence and influence of whiteness in my life?

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This, of course, wasn’t my first encounter with how blackness is viewed. Inhabiting dark skin in this world spans a vast universe of experiences. As a child, whenever I experienced prejudice, I’d turn to books and movies. I’d escape from the message of the world’s idea of my inferiority creeping in by turning to the arts. I consumed novels, movies and TV. Any form of storytelling I could take hold of. I found comfort in these imagined worlds, even though they often didn’t include me. Escapism became my way of coping with prejudice, but it ultimately led me further away from my own life. Reading a book became easier than interacting with people and navigating being black in predominantly white spaces, where stereotypes and microaggressions about my worth invaded my day to day.

This story isn’t just confined to America. This narrative of how dark skin is perceived, this history, spans the globe. The ripples of colonialism, the too often forgotten effects on the psyches of generations, are still affecting minds today. Colorism in black and Indian communities is a direct result of this. A few years ago, I had the chance to visit Mumbai, and I was thrilled to be in a culture that was new and beautiful, filled with brightness and intricacy. It didn’t take me long to see that my skin tone attracted a reception much different than that of my white friends. Often I remained unseen. I passed beneath countless billboards promoting skin lightening lotions and creams. Commercials advertised deodorants, items of daily use that can also bleach your skin. Whiteness and lightness were upheld.

The ripples of colonialism are still affecting minds today.

I remember in one skin-lightening commercial I saw: a dark-skinned woman was ignored and deemed unworthy of attention because of her complexion. She was alone in the world until someone passed her a jar of cream to lighten her skin. Once her skin was bleached, she became worthy, lovable, successful; she was seen. It was no wonder that I remained invisible for the vast majority of my time there. One morning while standing to wait for a train amongst my white friends, a dark-skinned Indian man pointed to me and flipped me off. I was dumbfounded. Someone placed a hand on my shoulder, reassuring me, telling me not to take it personally. But every new encounter with prejudice seemed to chip away at my resolve.

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When I returned from Mumbai, I was tired. I’d had similar experiences abroad in Uganda, and I couldn’t understand the reactions that my skin tone received. I felt broken, and, in the coming year, something dawned on me. I wasn’t living. Not truly. I was simply trying to move through life without acquiring more scars, more challenges about, and to, my humanity. Whether in Ugandan villages, the streets of Mumbai or European hostels, racism has always found me, has always weaved itself into my life narrative.

Racism can strip you of hope, making you wary of people and a stranger to yourself. And one of the most overlooked affects is its ability to strip a person of their dreams. I had become so occupied with not being hurt further that I didn’t focus on loftier ideas, like my hopes for the future. My today was all I could focus on. I focused on getting a decent job, on paying my bills, on being a good social worker. I couldn’t look beyond that.

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But since then, I’ve realized that dreams are important. Truly. They are a beautiful tool to chisel away at the bleakness that hate invites. Dreams are beacons of soft light that can guide your steps out of the darkness that racism provokes and into the brightness of new seasons. Racist structures and institutions are difficult to tackle, and choosing not to compromise your ambitions won’t change the entirety of society overnight. But it is a step we make with ourselves that I believe is real and needed.

Take back your dreams, the forgotten casualties of racism’s war against our psyches, and heal. It took me time to value the art of healing, the impact of treating yourself gently. There is quiet strength in rebuilding yourself anew in the face of trial. So, in case you just needed a push today, a nudge of encouragement amidst the current climate, here it is.

Do you want to start that nonprofit? Do it. Do you want to take that trip abroad? Go. Do you want to write that novel? Finish it. Don’t live your life smaller because someone else has chosen not to see the full breadth and beauty of your unique humanity. Fully encompass the space and life you’ve been given, and you’ll help others to do the same.