I was born in Ghana, and at the age of eight I moved to Italy. In Ghana I was living in a fairly big town, where everyone would dress the way that please their soul, and wear their hair in many, sometimes fascinating, styles. I never knew, nor realised, I was Black until I went to Italy; until I was made aware of my different shade of brown. I never knew I had to conform, until I went to Italy.

I have two sisters, and my mother always took care of our appearance, whether it was the hair, the clothes or otherwise. My mother is a typical West African woman: black, loud, and proud of all things African, especially Ghanaian.

Every morning, from Monday to Saturday, she would wake me up, help me get my school uniform together, and then do my hair. My mother is a typical West African woman: black, loud, and proud of her culture and her ways. She would often braid my hair with the Ghanaian black thread, and send me to school; but she would often not notice the mockery I would receive from my classmates, my White classmates. My relaxed but not that straight threaded hair became my worst nightmare. I wished I could one day wake up and have this smooth and long blood hair I would see on the TV, but that would not happen.

So as a child I grew up hating what I had on my head; hating it so much that I would not go to school. I started dreaming of having long straight hair, the kind of hair you would find in magazines and on the cover of relaxer creams, but that didn’t do what they promised to do. I grew up accepting an unconscious discrimination of who I was and of my appearance, a discrimination I never questioned because I never saw the problem with it; because straight, smooth and long hair was the norm, the beauty standard.

I did have big dreams of having locs, but that was not possible, because they looked untidy, smelly and all round not an appropriate way to wear the hair on your head. (I am glad to say that this is not true! As you can witness, my hair smells of strawberries coated with honey and confidence)

I have been out of Italy for about two and half years now, and it took me a couple of countries, a sea, a different language and a multi-faceted shades of brown, to understand that it was not my hair, and the colour of my skin, but the ignorance of people who are too absorbed in their self-righteous being and doing.

Not long ago I decided, after getting to know a world that I’ve never asked to know, to leave my hair alone, to try to love it the way one loves its own self. I failed and went back to the relaxers, because I was lacking in confidence and support.

Now I’ve found the courage to go back to that decision and to embrace it with all my will, even if it’s hard and “different”, the kind of different I would normally avoid. Now, there’s no greater joy than to experience this crown of hair grow heavy and heavier, like the crown of queen Nefertiti.

The danger of portraying a beauty standard that does not embrace diversity and intersectionality (economically, socially and politically), lies in the discrimination and segregation of a portion of the society, a discrimination that is not only physically harmful, but psychologically damaging (like it was for that eight years old me).

This is the transcript of a talk I gave at the Women of Colour Forum event on “White Beauty Standards” at the University of Manchester Students’ Union on December 11th, 2015. During the speech, I made reference to identity and Blackness in Italy through this article I wrote a while ago. For more information on the talk, or comments, please share in the comments section below or email me at benjamina@theafricanitalianproject.com.

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