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Gabrielle Gorman’s “Dear America”: When You Don’t Love the Skin You’re In

On December 8th, I attended the 2015 My Hero Awards, where my dear friend Kayla Briet won the Emerging Artist Award for her work in film, music and technology.

While Kayla’s work always mesmerizes me, another award recipient named Gabrielle Gorman brought me and many others to tears with her experimental film “Dear America,” for which she won the title of 2015 Student Honoree.

I just watched the live stream of Kayla’s film screening at the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami, and Gabrielle’s film screened shortly before hers. Watching it again made me question why this film touched me so personally. After all, Gabrielle’s film is about not loving herself as a dark-skinned black youth. She candidly discusses how she wanted to bleach her skin and shrink her large lips–how she wanted plastic surgery to look more like Michael Jackson. While I’d never had such desires, her film somehow resonated with me, and I wasn’t sure why.

I got to thinking, maybe it’s my white privilege that has made me feel comfortable in my own skin. Maybe it’s the fact that I look more like Michael Jackson once he’d reached the middle of his many surgeries than when he was in the Jackson 5.

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In costume for Halloween, 2014

I knew, however, that I’d wrestled with loving my body. Then I remembered why.

Growing up, I lived in the liminal space between two races. I had olive skin and “mixed race hair.” Instead of inhabiting this space, I wanted to look more like others. But not white others. I wanted to look more black.

I loved my skin in the summer months, when the back of my hand got darker than my palm. I loved wearing braids my senior year of high school and thought that would make me less ambiguous. (It didn’t.) In my late 20s, when I started gaining weight, I happily watched myself get increasingly curvy. My happiness didn’t stem from a desire to look sexy. I was happy because the curves made me feel more black. Like most youth and young adults, I wanted to look like I fit in somewhere instead of feeling watched–a desire that Gabrielle discusses as well.

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Me in 1993 after a trip to Indonesia.

Is my experience the same as Gabrielle’s? Definitely not. But Gabrielle doesn’t think this matters. Her video also features a mixed race youth who wears labels like “Oreo,” and Gabrielle says, “We can’t afford to say any longer […] ‘You have dealt with different struggles than me because you’re lighter skinned than me or because you’re darker skinned than me.'” And I think that’s why her video touches so many people. We all wrestle with self-acceptance, for varying reasons and in varying extremes. Gabrielle boldly speaks what many of us think but would not dare utter.

Gabrielle Gorman
Photo courtesy of Liz H Kelly, Goody PR

Thank you, Gabrielle, for being so brave. And so strong. And so beautiful. Thank you for now loving yourself just as you are, because you help all of us love ourselves a little better, too.

Uncategorized

Going Natural: When LinkedIn Profiles Turns to Racial Profiling

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed a few weeks ago, I came across a status update that was upsetting, though sadly not surprising: “That awkward moment when your decision to wear your hair natural comes up in an interview… and not in a complimentary way…”

My friend Sonia had interviewed for a position as a Social Media Specialist for a marketing startup in New York City. The interview took place in the common area of WeWork, a coworking office space where the startup had put down temporary roots. As distracting commotion took place around them, she and the rather cold interviewer had the following exchange.

Interviewer: “Is that how your hair is in your LinkedIn picture?”

Sonia: “…Yea.”

Interviewer: “Not straight?”

Sonia: “Nope.”

Interviewer: “Oh… Interesting…”

He then made qualifying statements, such as, “So you say you’re good at SEO,” and “You claim to be a good writer.” I didn’t ask Sonia if she still hopes to get the position, but my guess is no. According to an HR specialist who wishes to remain anonymous, “the freedom for businesses to judge candidates on their appearance is supposed to be used in terms of disqualifying people for appearing unkempt, dirty, unwashed etc., but some shitty people use it as a way to get around hiring people of color.” Ironically, the marketing startup plans to represent law firms. Clearly this interviewer hasn’t been trained to avoid comments that could very easily, and rightfully, result in legal action.

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While Sonia doesn’t plan to sue, it’s well known to many in the PoC community that not only will businesses often discriminate against people of color, but they will also ascribe beauty standards that demand that employees follow Western ideals of what it means to be “well kempt” and professional. Sonia never hid the fact that she has curly hair. In fact, she displayed her hair quite clearly on the aforementioned LinkedIn profile. The interviewer made the “mistake” of admitting that his company screens its employees based on appearance, and an appearance that has everything to do with race. Could Sonia make the choice to go straight? Sure. But it would be costly, time consuming, and would ultimately damage her hair.

When Viola Davis’s character took off her wig at the end of the first episode of How to Get Away with Murder, it was one of the most magical moments I’d ever seen on television. That moment was followed a year later by her Emmy win, which she accepted while wearing her hair in a beautiful, natural afro.

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Not that women who do wear weaves, extensions, or wigs should be castigated for their choices. A few years ago, a black feminist friend of mine made the bold choice to confidently re-embrace weaves and extensions, despite any backlash she would receive from our feminist / academia circle. She said she decided to make the change because she realized no one should be able to decide her hair choices for her. The same was true for Viola at the Emmys, and the same should be true for Sonia when she interviews for a job.

Sonia’s curly hair does not need to be tamed, and ironically, many women with straight hair would love to have that volume. Young Amandla Stenberg, an emerging mouthpiece for black feminism, recently said, “Someone once told me that it’s a small revolution in itself just to be a person of color and be a woman and be yourself.” Sonia participated in a small revolution that day, just by staying true to who she is.

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Sonia on the day of her interview