Updated: May 8
By Skye Patton
Tennis. A sport that had been played outdoors for most of my life. The green or red courts were barricaded by tall rusty fences peering down on the players, perhaps watching the game themselves. The net in the middle of the court, dividing the opponents, always sagged. History presented itself on the court by how low the curve of the net was. The cracks on the courts became hidden opponents, messing up plays for the fun of it. As the Earth spins, the balls spin, and the courts change.
I was never any good at the sport even though I had played since I was eight years old. My mother just wanted me to do something with my life, and so tennis it was. I probably should have stuck with the more team centered sports I played before finalizing my decision as it would have most likely helped with my severe social anxiety. Nevertheless, I played tennis outside in all weathers, from the snow hindering my eyesight to the humidity blossoming my curls. I kept tennis in my life to pass the time, to say I had something to do, and I never thought much of it. If it meant I could get some fresh air and some sunlight to soak in my skin, I had no problem with it.
It was my third year playing varsity tennis at Eastlake High School, my junior year. I had just finished a drill at tennis practice. I cannot recall what the drill was, but it was probably the coach passing balls to the team to sharpen our coordination skills. It was yet another hot day in sunny San Diego, and in Chula Vista, there was rarely ever a breeze. Sweat dripped down my scrunched forehead, my eyes squinting from the sun’s rays bouncing off the rackets. My body was so overwhelmed with heat that I had begun to think my own body was radiating the sun’s energy. “Next!” Coach Roberto calls out. Finally, a break. I walked over to the other girls who had also just finished up their drills and one girl, Sabrina, had a lot to say about the California sun.
“I just hate how hot it is outside! Ugh, why does tennis have to be a fall sport for girls.” Sabrina moaned in the blaring heat.
The team agreed with yeah’s and nods.
“And the sun is always out. Look at my skin! Look at how tan it is. I don’t want to get too tanned, I don’t want to look burnt… like Skye!”
Some heads shot right up at me, others slowly inched my direction, I could not see the whites of their eyes. Sabrina’s sentence rang loudly in the air, stuck a little longer with the heat. Then, the heads slowly returned back to Sabrina and a few nods were nodded.
“Ooh, yeah.” Some people in the team replied. Others stayed silent. I did not say anything.
I looked at my friend of 6 years to say something, anything. She looked me in the eyes and then immediately peered down as if our eyes had never met at all.
Sabrina kept talking, unaware that she had just altered my state of mind.
I guess I really was burnt.
I don’t remember much of what was said afterwards, I simply lowered my head and dropped my shoulders to resemble a hunchback curve and sulked my way over to my tennis gear pretending to look busy. The girls who had heard the conversation didn’t say anything to me afterwards and in fact ignored me the rest of the practice. My other friend, Abby, who did not hear the conversation, could not help but notice my somber state, and asked what was wrong.
“Hey Skye, are you okay?” She asked in a drawn out comedic tone. We both loved to goof around.
“Uh… yeah I’m fine. I’m just thirsty. San Diego is way too hot for me.” I lied.
Yes, I lied. I couldn’t tell her what was wrong because she too, like me, was a brown girl who got browner as the tennis season progressed. I could not tell her that there are people on this team who are afraid to have skin like ours. I could not tell her that although our tennis team consisted of Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, a Middle Eastern American, and no fully White American, they were disgusted at our darker features. So, I told her nothing was wrong.
That moment on the tennis court stayed in the back of my mind. Whenever I showed up to practice, I remembered Sabrina’s words and how half the team reacted. I built a wall between my team and myself. Every conversation became superficial and before I knew it, I didn’t like being on the team anymore. If Varsity tennis didn’t look good on college applications, I would have quit. Tennis was no longer an activity to look forward to after practice. Dread consumed me in class and all I could do was look at the clock. It was moving too fast. Each time the final bell rang all I could think about was the sun, and how it would bake my skin too long, leaving me burnt.
Burnt. It sticks with me still, the word burnt. Sabrina, a fair-skinned Mexican American teenage girl with long brown hair and brown eyes not too dark, called me burnt. She was one of the most popular girls at school, and she was beautiful too. But Eastlake High School is a majority Mexican and Filipino school, so most people at school were brown. There were many popular brown people, and her clique had brown people too. Does she also call them burnt? Or is that word only reserved for the ugly, unpopular browns? The hairy, fat browns? The chubby browns with short hair so she must be Dora the Explorer brown? The hot cheeto brown? The hand-me-down brown?
Unity. That is what America believes all us minorities have: unity. We are fighting the oppressive systems put in place to pull us down, so we aim our fists up. Yet, the tale of Icarus unfolds in front of us to represent the silent race amongst ourselves; A race we are forbidden to speak about. Some minorities feel the warmth of heaven envelop their skin, shedding the weight off their shoulders. It is an addictive sensation, oh! How delightful would it be to fly with no fear of falling. But, they look below and see many others shooting for the same fate, to fly and finally be weightless of the burdens they carry. There are only so many spots in this white paradise. The truth is, all wings burn before we can ever reach it.
There is a hierarchy among people of color. The color of your skin and the features on your body rank you. Obviously, I was ranked below Sabrina, and will probably always be ranked below Sabrina. There weren’t any full white players on the team, but their silence affirmed my rank, and their rank as well. Despite the lack of white people, the proximity to whiteness was still desired and thus, a color-based insult occured. This is colorism.
Colorism is the reason why, for my entire life, I bowed my head in shame as I walked past fair-skinned people. It did not matter if they were white, and once again, I barely even grew up with white people. Yet, this belief of white supremacy got to me, and I feel like a fool for believing in it. I’m a fool for becoming obsessed with white-washing filters. I’m a fool for thinking if I scrubbed hard enough in the shower, the brown would come off my skin, like dirt. And I am nothing more than a fool for stealing money out of my mom’s purse to purchase some skin-bleaching cream. Don’t worry, I put the money back.
I don’t want to bow anymore. I want, for reasons completely selfish, to know what it’s like to be bowed to. For the fair-skinned to see the darker skinned perspective, to see the perspective on the lower podium. See my perspective, please see my perspective.
My fourth and final year of varsity tennis was a complete mess. I had completely given up on the sport, and the team actually split up due to everyone’s hatred toward the new coach. There was no emotional final goodbye, and just like that, I never spoke to most of the girls on the team again despite knowing them for four years.
I never spoke to Sabrina again, but I saw her around all of the time. She was a popular girl, of course.
Half a semester later: quarantine.
Senior year of high school was online and everyone was home. Many of my teachers relied on old-school teaching practices, so online school was a wreck. I barely had any assignments and the ones I did were completed with little effort. This led me to have 8 hour screen times on my phone, which mainly consisted of surfing through various social media platforms.
Civil unrest. 2020 was the year for social change, and it began with the Black community in Minneapolis, and the murder of George Floyd. Media channels of all kinds televised his death as a necessary means of confronting racism most people try to say doesn’t exist. Then, many more Black, Latino, and Asian deaths began to fill my For You Page, and people from school shared it on their Instagram stories.
Story one: A gruesome video of a Black man being killed.
Story two: “How tragic! Another Black life lost to racism! Do better.”
Story three: “So lonely indoors HMU”
Endless tapping, endless scrolling, endless death. It was all too much for me and probably every human who had to witness such events occur on social media. So many students at school who I recall complaining about how Black people don’t deserve affirmative action; students saying the N-word despite not being Black; and students shaming others for being darker, were sharing these posts, uploading stories calling out racism. How interesting. I see Sabrina’s stories.
My blood boils.
I stare at her posts for a very long time. A tragic death, her personal life, an infographic, repeat. At first, I am at a loss for words. “You feared my skin color and now you’re woke?” I pondered this question for an absurd amount of time. I guess it is possible. She called me burnt and feared to tan my shade a year and a half ago. A lot can happen in that time. There’s no way of telling if she’s changed or not unless someone exposes her, so I’ll never know her attitude towards darker skinned people.
Unfortunately, this period of the racist truth of America became a trend, and all trends come to an end. People shared the most traumatic experiences of people of color and then moved on like it was nothing. I wonder if Sabrina thought it was nothing. I wonder if Sabrina remembers what she said to me. I wonder if she remembers the awkward silence that lingered after her words and how no one came to my defense. I wonder if she remembers, but I know she does not.
College served as liberation. I questioned my existence among other minorities in my life as I had never really grown up with full white people. My time alone made me put into words the discomfort I felt growing up but could never express. I grew up with nothing but diversity, which is supposed to be better than living in a segregated environment, but I was never truly equal in this diverse pool of race and ethnicity. Among some of my own communities– the Asian community and the Latino community– I was trained to be humiliated by my brown skin and the features on my body. My pedestal never quite reached the pedestals of fair-skinned minorities. I could never reach for the sun. It was in college where I began to take note of how I acted around certain demographics and how they reacted to me. I wanted to break free of this ridiculous insecurity, I just didn’t know how.
I am still learning to love myself. I am part of a person-of-color run organization, Charcoal Magazine, and it is there where I can face these demons head on. I know my skin will always be undesirable to others. It is inevitable to hear more slurs and insults about the brown that envelops me. But, I step out into the sun, and I let the sun soak in my skin, and I smile because it feels good. I pick up my racket and I bounce the neon green ball, it’s time to play.