Double-Edged Praise

by Hoda Egeh


It was the summer of 2012, and I was working as a part-time employee at a large retail store. My closest friends were off travelling the world, sightseeing and engaging in summer flings while I was labouring most of my days away for a little over minimum wage. “College isn’t going to pay for itself, and the last thing you’d want is to be in debt,” my mother would say to me as I grumbled about wanting to spend my summer relaxing. “You have all of your retirement to relax, and besides, you need money to travel.”

During one particularly tiring shift, a customer approached me and asked if I could help her find the jacket/blazer section. Exhausted from work and dreading the long list of chores that awaited me at home, the last thing I wanted to do was to spend a lengthy amount of time helping someone. She was the nicest customer I had all night, though, and very amiable.

Her name was Camille and she had stark white ear-length hair, skin just as pale, and weathered eyes that crinkled when she smiled. Upon noticing my Anna Karenina sticker on my name badge, we spoke about our love for Leo Tolstoy’s works while we browsed for blazers. Our search for the perfect blazer took twenty minutes, and when we found one that she liked—a red blazer with black lace-trimmed lapels, one small black button, and shoulder pads—she thanked me. She commended me on my patience and willingness to help, and said, “You’re very pretty for a black girl.”

I was too caught up in my tasks to properly address this statement, so I thanked her, directed her to the cash register, and returned to the section of clothes that I was tidying up. Very pretty…for a black girl. Very pretty for a… black girl. My mind repeated those six words over and over while I folded jeans, pausing briefly on the words “black girl” before continuing to reverberate. No matter how many times I repeated the statement, I couldn’t comprehend it. Was she saying that I was pretty because I was black? If not, and if she was simply complimenting my looks, why did the colour of my skin factor into the compliment? Was it because she thought that despite my race, I was an attractive woman?

Driven by curiosity, I made my way back to the cash register to see if Camille was still there, but she was gone. Being very analytical, I couldn’t get her comment out of my head. I kept repeating those six words fearing that I would forget them, but I knew that I couldn’t. As I picked up strewn clothes off the dusty floor and shook them before hanging them up in their respective spots, I thought back to something my ex-boyfriend said to me in the early days of our relationship: “You look like a European girl dipped in caramel and chocolate.” When I asked him to explain what he meant by this bizarre statement, he told me that I had Caucasoid features—high, pronounced cheekbones, a small nose, a pointed chin, etc. I nodded, but that hadn’t cleared things up at all.

Born and raised in Canada, I knew little about my ancestry. I found myself wondering if it were possible that East Africans were mixed with Europeans. I spent hours scouring the Internet for information on the history of the Horn of Africa, and learnt that the phenotypic features of my people dated back 5,000-10,000 years, around the time of Queen Hatshepsut’s reign in Pharaonic Egypt. Ethiopia and Somalia were among two of the oldest countries in the world.

My ancestors weren’t mixed with Europeans, contrary to popular belief. Explaining this to my ex, I told him that a more accurate statement would have been, “You look like your people,” because that was inarguably the truth. Not that it mattered. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had people ask me, “Are you black?” or, “Are you mixed?” simply because I didn’t look “black” enough to them. It was as if they saw black people as a monolithic lump, and assumed that physical features didn’t vary from country to country.

By the end of my shift, I felt an enormous sense of unease. On one hand, I liked Camille’s compliment—as I do all compliments. On the other hand, I disliked her choice of words. It seemed like she was combining race and physical attractiveness as though the two were synonymous, and placed me on a proverbial pedestal above other black women because I had “attractive” features. In a society where European standards of beauty are generally considered “the best,” where does that leave those who don’t fall directly under that category?

Personal preferences aside, something about classifying a group of women as “beautiful” and marginalizing countless others felt very wrong to me. There are many beautiful aspects in women from all ethnic backgrounds. Their features shouldn’t be placed on a hierarchical scale, but should be celebrated for their differences.

I appreciate compliments just as much as the next person, but I don’t approve of backhanded ones.