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When I Was Growing

Tara Guillaume


Chicago, IL, USA

When I Was Growing

After Nellie Wong


I know now that I once longed to be white.

How? You ask.

Let me tell you the ways.


It’s in the constant straightening and burning of my hair.

I believed that the kinks made me less than.

I could not casually flip my hair and run my fingers through it.

My ancestors made me ugly.


When I was growing up, I was proud people complimented my grammar.

It meant that I was like them.

I was one of the good blacks.

I didn’t see the racism in that.

To be good meant to be white.


When I was growing up, I was scared to bring my own lunch.

I begged my mom for sandwiches.

No rice and beans.

No plantains.

No salade russe.

I remember when a PTA mom asked me why I didn’t like bananas if I was from the islands.

Following it up with a question as to if I swam to get here.

Homogeneity only applied to me and my people.

I stand out with my black skin.

Let me blend in the lunchroom.


When I was growing up, people would tell me I was pretty.

I wondered if they meant pretty for a black girl.

I wondered if Bobby could ever look at me the way he looked at Shelley.

Or why white people always made it a chore to compliment me but not each other.

Why did they think I needed the extra boost?

I know now that I once longed to be white.

How many more ways? You ask. Haven’t I told you enough?


This poem was inspired by Nellie Wong. While reading her work it dawned on me that I had very similar experiences. I began to wonder if this is a universal thing and feeling that all women of color feel and that we never put into words or pathologize. I always knew I felt less than as a kid but I was never sure why until I went to high school and was surrounded by more people who look like me. Why did I feel the need to compete with everyone? Was it even a competition when I was trying to make it work in an environment that was not built for me? I loved writing this poem more than any other one. It felt like a catharsis. All the thoughts I’ve been wanting to say for a long time finally spilled out. Moving to this country at such a young age and living in a predominantly white area it took me a while to separate myself from all the subtle ways of bullying I got and grow into the person I am today (the kind of person who reads anthologies written by women of color). While this was a sad start to my childhood, It is also a celebration of my adulthood! No longer am I this sad little girl who feels the need to mold herself to the masses. I am proud of the experiences I faced and no longer have to worry about today.  

Tara Guillaume

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