Society thinks black girls are ugly | Opinion

I never knew I was ugly. Or at least white society thought so.

Growing up, I had never felt so invisible. My college years were marked by excessive school suspensions and meetings in the principal’s office. I was a straight student at a public charter school, but that was impossible to see when my behavior was still defined for me. I was not a troublesome student. In fact, I liked following the rules. So why couldn’t the school administrators see this? Why was I punished much more than other students for the same behavior? During my first suspension in college, I didn’t have the vocabulary to defend myself. I remember sitting at the headmaster’s round table, hands crossed on my knees. His office, devoid of personal touches and colors, mirrored an interrogation room. The door to his office was only slightly ajar, but I could hear everything. It was as if my teachers couldn’t bother to hide their opinions about me.

“She’s a distraction during study time.”

“She can’t keep talking out of turn.”

I was hypervisible – an unfortunate symptom of my ugliness. I was always watched. So, I sat there alone, awaiting a punishment that I knew was too harsh.

What I didn’t realize was that the coming-of-age process for black girls had an added layer of misery: we were ugly, whether we believed it or not. Tarana Burke describes this phenomenon in a book I was introduced to during my first semester of sophomore year. Being ugly, she says, is the “funny way some people interact with those they find physically unattractive…I know that because I’m ugly. At least that’s what the world finds new ways to tell me every day. For Burke, the ugliness the world attached to him was physical. For me, ugliness was about being unimportant, invisible and inaudible when I was a child.

Black women have been considered ugly longer than we have been considered human. Black girls live in a paradoxical state where they are too ugly to be loved, but too sexualized to be cherished. America knows all too well the consequences of labeling black girls as promiscuous; there is no forgiveness or innocence given to black girls who just want to be kids. Black girls experience sexual assault at a higher rate than their counterparts. In fact, one in four black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18.

When I was 12, being ugly meant people didn’t care to understand or hear me. No one believed that I could be a rule-abiding student, even though I enjoyed my education. As black girls, we didn’t have the luxury of making mistakes. Now, as an almost 20-year-old woman studying at Harvard, I am still proving myself. I have trouble navigating romantic relationships because I’m hypersexualized. The ugliness that was once attached to my body turned into lust.

Black women exist in a space between femininity and masculinity that denies us access. For black women, “ugly” means something deeper. This means that we are not seen as fully human and therefore do not fit into the Eurocentric construction of gender. It also means that others define us before we define ourselves.

White society never misses an opportunity to remind black women that they are the most disrespectful group in America. I refuse to continue the cycle of violence perpetuated against other women who look like me, so I’m done listening. To be a black girl in America is to believe that you are beautiful when the world covers the mirrors.

Black girls, I see you. And, more importantly, I’m not afraid to look at you.

Ebony M. Smith ’24, editor of Crimson Editorial, is co-concentrator of government and African American studies at Eliot House.

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