Her big brown eyes squint together, “what is was like growing up?” She flips one of her box braids over her shoulder, “when I was between 12 and 14, one of my biggest problems was that I wanted to be white.”
Jobila Eigenmann (23), is one of those girls you can’t help but notice. She is not just pretty; she is naturally stunning. Even on a rainy day she manages to sport a natural glow, something everyone else needs make-up for.
It’s hard to imagine the Meghan Markle look-a-like once desired to be anyone but herself. Yet, teenage Jo dreamt of long lucious locks, just like the “pretty white girls”. Their light skin and straight hair won them the popular comeptiton in a prodiminatly “brown” school. Every morning, Jo would reach for her flat iron, frying her naturally wavy hair to the core. “I refused to acknowledge there was a coloured part of me.”
Despite her efforts, her straight hair could not hide her heritage from prying eyes. “People always ask me where I from. I say that I’m Swiss-Liberian and I always have to explain further.” The classic, ‘where are you really from?’, is a question she’s heard time and time again. Some even directly questioning her father’s race. Her response is simple: “My dad is just Swiss”. What they’re really after is her mom’s side of the story. “She’s mixed race so I’m technically just a quarter, I just don’t look it.”
It is not just Jobila’s looks that raises questions about her whereabouts. She herself has grown up in contradictory countries. From Switzerland to Dubai, to Scotland; the stark contrast between the countries she’s called home, showed her the dark side to skin tones.
“When I was in Dubai people would just accept that I was Swiss. I was mixed race. No questions asked. This part of the world is so focussed on where you’re really from. ‘If you’re brown why are you saying you’re from a European country?’ I don’t understand why I have to explain my family’s genome. I don’t go up to a white person and ask them why they are white.”
She casually mentions how people sometimes stop her in the street, demanding to know her racial background. Before I can even raise an eyebrow, she stops me. “People have asked me if I was a refuge. I’ve been told that just because I have a swiss passport it doesn’t mean I’m swiss.”
She smiles apologetically, “It’s fine, it doesn’t affect me that deeply anymore. It’s sad because it’s happened so many times, I’ve become numb to it. They’re so focussed on being pure, and now I’m telling you that I have this other thing and now I’m suddenly beneath you?”
Jokingly we make a parallel between her real life and the fictional world of Harry Potter. “Like in part two, it’s like being a mud blood”. Except in this world the villains aren’t as easy to spot as Malfoy. Here they are undercover, with natural hair colours and no Slytherin status.
The refuge comment was thrown her way during a party. Her friends -all white- ignored the incident. “They just said I shouldn’t listen, forget all about it.” It’s something easier said then done. To be stripped from you identity by a total stranger isn’t something you just ignore. It tells you “that you aren’t good enough”. Jo explains how it can really hurt your self-esteem, “all you’re trying to do is mind your own business.”
“See when things like that happen, I don’t want to fit the stereotype of the angry black woman. So, I don’t say anything. I don’t want to make us as a whole look that way. I don’t want the aggressive stereotype to be a thing. I rely on my white friends to speak up.”
It’s this feeling of helplesness, the idea that you are not allowed to stand up for yourself that strikes me. To be at the mercy of those arround you to fight your involuntary war. If anything, angry black women have centuries of mistreatment to fuel their justified rage. Within the Eigenmann family history alone, countless stories of racism and unfair treatment are to be found. To such an extent that Jo almost appears to make light of her own experiences, mentioning the words “less severe” multiple times.
“My mum and grandma suffered more than I did. What I’ve experienced is more the undercover racism. For them, it was more blatant.
“One of my favourite stories is when my parents went to the pool, my mum sat down at a table and this woman had her bag on the chair next to her. She quickly took her bag, hid it. Then my dad comes, having seen the whole thing. He says: ‘oh babe you’ve got such a nice tan, you almost look like a real black person’. They left the woman looking horrified.”
But not all the anecdotes manage to produce a smile. “When I was born one of the nurses look at my mum and said, ‘you’re the mum’, then looked at my dad and said, ‘you’re not the dad though’. That’s one way to be welcomed into life”.
I find myself lost for words, trying to find something to say to express my horror. Again, an apologetic smile washer over her face. “Things have changed, truly. It’s bizarre to think that when my grandparent’s god married that was illegal in the united states.”
It’s not just the legality of mixed-race relationships, recently African influences have made their way into popular western culture. From afro-beats blasting through the charts to blockbuster movies like Blank Panther attraction millions, black clout appears to be bigger than ever.
I ask Jo what her opinion is on the worlds newfound interest in African culture. She reluctantly starts her sentence: With the west-African influence in pop culture…I like the music; I like that it raises awareness. Now you even see white people with pumped up lips, big butts, big breasts -the classic black woman figure-.”
She pauses briefly, “but no one looks at the actual black woman twice. Why is it the Kardashians? Why not Justine Skye? She does the same thing, but she’s in the bottom. It just that she’s black and they’re white. You’re white you’re allowed to adopt these things, but as a black person you can’t be yourself and be successful.”
The adaptation of black beauty standards quickly leads us to the topic of Rachel Dolezal, a caucasian woman who made waves in America by openly identifying as black. The outrage of the black community is shared by Jo, whose box braids now furiously shake in outrage.
“The problem with this Rachel figure is that if she wanted to, she could go back to being white and there would be no repercussions.” This luxerty isn’t extended to the black community itself. They can never shed their skin tone when it no longer serves them. For Jo there’s two sides to this story, “I can be called black, but I would never identify as white, because white people wouldn’t accept me as such”.
For those who are a marriage of different cultures, a single identity is not one the table. “Where do I belong? I’m not fully white, I’m not fully black.”
For Jo these worlds leave her stranded in the middle, something Rachel Dolezal never experienced. She was allowed to make a decision, an option Jo never had. “There are things about me that are very Caucasian, the way I behave for example. And obviously my skin isn’t as dark, my features aren’t as black. Still, I am not accepted”.
While the white community never fully opened its doors to Jo, the black community lead by example. Stirling’s African Caribbean Society became a place where she was finally able to openly express the “coloured part” she’d straightened out all those years ago.
“I didn’t grow up surrounded by a lot of black people. All my uncles and aunties are all older, the same with their kids. When I came here and I met all these people I realised we had this in common ‘oh my mum does that too’, ‘we have the same food!’, I made me feel more comfortable because there were people I could relate to.
“I have a younger brother but he’s white passing. If he’s with me, you can tell he’s mixed race but if he’s on his own he can pass for a white person. I could never speak to him when stuff happened. Of course, I had my mum but it’s different with someone’s who’s your age.”
The fact that Jo had to wait until her twenties to feel like she belonged, prompts me to ask the question how this could have been different. What can the non-black community do, to ensure no girl will have to burn her hair to a crisp, to recognise her own beauty?
“Just remember that people are people. Just be normal, don’t make it about where you’re from”
She describes an instance with a friend, who so actively wants to avoid racism that she finds herself treating black people differently. “Even though it is not coming from a negative space it still creates distance.”
“I get the ‘I don’t see colour’ thing, but of course you do -you have two eyeballs. People with different colours can still have the same interests as you; it is all about communication”
It is this focus on the individual, on the humanity within everyone that can truly close that invisible gap. It is not about melatonin levels, passports or heritage. It is about what kind of person is presented to you if you truly listen, not what you believe its cover tells you.
As I quickly write down some keywords Jo continues her sentence. “I don’t think that’s just white people’s duty as whole. You can’t feel responsible for what other people are doing just because you’re the same race.”
She describes how she wished there was more representation within the black community itself. How growing up with role models who mirrored her image, could have been vital. “It makes me sad to think I that is was so uncomfortable in my own skin; having curly hair, having dark eyes. Young people are so malleable and vulnerable. ”
As Jo puts it, “growing up is tough enough”. The braces, pimples and grow spurts take up enough time in the mirror. Imagine if on top of that, your skin colour and hair texture trump all your other insecurities. There is no face-wash or mascara that can hide that element of yourself.
I find myself thinking about teenage Jobila, in her room straightening her beautiful curls. Her arms soar, all to have hair as sleek as Hilary Duff. Mimicing the only role models available to her.
“The closest I could look up to was Pocahontas, who is not even black African but native American. Pocahontas and her white boyfriend, that was my mum and dad.”
What if Jo had her own Disney princess? A leading role in a fairy-tale. Box braids swaying in the wind, a pink sunset unfolding behind her. A little bird lands on her gown, a dirndl dress made from traditional Liberian fabric. Her big brown eyes would glisten as she bursts into song;
whether we are white or black skinned
We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains
We need to paint with all the colors of the wind “
The hair straightner would be turned off, all skin colours celebrated. Bed time stories wouldn’t just mention Snow White, but also Dark Beauty. No one would have to explain their kingdom, their passport or the pigmentation of their skin. We would simple all be royalty, living our own fairytales.