My Brown Skin

In a White World

By Olivia Malmgren

Photos Courtesy of the Malmgren Family

The author, a high school senior in Boise, wrote the following piece last fall for an English class assignment. It is published here with permission.

Blue eyes connect with mine as we pass each other. The feeling that these eyes are still on me is heavy, the certainty that they are watching me extra closely. This is not the first time I have felt the heavy gaze of society on my back, and it most certainly will not be the last. My eyes, brown as the soil that sprouts rich green grass, takes in the reality of my life. My brown skin causes some people to judge me before they get to know me. My beautiful brown skin.

I have been raised in a white American family by a mom and dad who gave birth to three boys and a girl and then decided to adopt three other kids, two of whom are Black. As I grew up, my white mother always told me how lucky I was to be Black, how she wished she were Black, and how although I wasn’t the same color as she, we were family. We could not be more different. She is a white woman with blonde hair that goes to her shoulders on the days that she straightens it and blue-green eyes that plead with me to understand that she loves me. I, on the other hand, am a Black girl whose hair grows up to the sky in tight curls, and whose skin is as brown and smooth as a chocolate bar. When I was young, Mom was Mom and that was all that mattered—differences or not.

But as I grew, my brown eyes were opened. I did not blend into my surroundings. My hair was always in tight cornrows when other girls my age did French braids. When I was old enough to start wearing makeup, we could not find a shade that matched my skin at the department store. We had to turn to a specialist cosmetics and skin care store. The stares of white women as my Black sister and I walked with our mom through the store was unsettling. I felt I was white, despite having black skin. Everyone around me was white. The ads on TV, on social media, everything pointed towards white culture, and so I had made it my own. Being Black was foreign to me.

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Olivia with birthday cake.
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The author with her mom, Suzanne.
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First time holding a new niece.
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Olivia at an archery range.
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A quiet moment.
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Artwork by Olivia, inspired by a song and by the Black Lives Matter movement.
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I remember when I was young, my sister and I were together with a family friend playing at a park. We were swinging when a little boy and girl came up to us. We did not know these kids, but they wore determined expressions. The words they said shocked me: “You can’t play here. You are Black. We hate Black people.” Those words replayed in my head. My skin is black, but I did not know what that even entailed. How did I need to act to be Black? In what way was I Black? I knew my skin made me Black but what else? Nothing made sense.

That confusion did not leave me. In middle school, for the first time I was called the N word with the hard “r.” It felt awful. But I was still confused as to why being Black was such a big deal and why my white family did not face the same trials as I did concerning their race. I had lived with them my whole life, I was a part of their family, I had black skin, but that was it. I had heard about Black families who were harmed by systemic racism. Blacks who committed crimes. Blacks who were known for being rough and burly, and Blacks who did not have fathers. Blacks who were malicious. I thought I knew that side of being Black and I wanted no part of it whatsoever. But in 2020, I learned a truth about being Black that I felt the need to share.

Being Black is not a crime. Being Black means to be resilient, to be loud, and to dare to take risks and defend yourself when you feel the world turning its back on you. Being Black means finding beauty in every race, being kind and compassionate. Being Black means to be yourself even when the world is against you. It means speaking up and out when something is not right.

I learned these lessons through experiences I had while walking through a store and being followed, knowing that people were suspicious of me simply because I am Black. Or being asked at restaurants if I am there alone, even when I’m standing in line with my white family. So, those heavy blue-eyed gazes can follow me wherever I go. I have done nothing wrong, because another thing I have learned is that being Black means being proud of who you are.

I am Olivia Malmgren. A Black woman. An African-American woman. An individual who loves others, who is kind, caring, and who is harmless.

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52 Responses to My Brown Skin

  1. Ted Gibson - Reply

    February 3, 2021 at 4:00 pm

    So glad to have read your story, yet so sad to understand the need for you to have to write it. As an old white male raised in Idaho with all its built in racism, all I can say is “I see you, I hear you, I stand with you!” We shall rise together.

    • Olivia Malmgren - Reply

      February 5, 2021 at 10:21 pm

      Ted,
      I am so grateful for your comment. You seeing me, hearing me, and standing with me is all I can ask!
      Wishing you well!

      • Gena Jacob - Reply

        February 9, 2021 at 1:11 pm

        I am so proud of you. You are a wonderful writer with a wonderful message. This was very powerful. I can remember when you first were born.

    • Nick Barkan - Reply

      February 12, 2021 at 7:50 pm

      Really thoughtful. Hopefully the next generation learns to understand that it’s OK to be something you can’t control.

  2. Carol Lawrence-Costley - Reply

    February 4, 2021 at 7:19 pm

    Olivia, I am so proud of you for sharing your voice. It is important that we know each other stories so we can have understanding! Thank you for your bravery and example.

    • Olivia Malmgren - Reply

      February 5, 2021 at 9:54 pm

      Thank you so much Carol! I thank you for taking some time to read and appreciate it.
      Stay safe!

    • Heidi - Reply

      February 7, 2021 at 12:18 pm

      Thank you for sharing your story. Beautifully written. You are amazing.

    • Eliza Schade - Reply

      February 10, 2021 at 12:38 pm

      That was beautiful! The world is better with you in it. Idaho is better with you in it. You are strong and “harmless”. Love.

  3. Aunt Sandy - Reply

    February 4, 2021 at 8:52 pm

    Olivia,
    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us! You are beautiful inside and out!!

    • Olivia Malmgren - Reply

      February 5, 2021 at 9:49 pm

      Aunt Sandy! You are so kind, I appreciate your support! Love you!

  4. Jackie Anderson - Reply

    February 4, 2021 at 9:06 pm

    I know and love this amazing, proud black woman! What a beautiful way to tell your story. Thank you for helping me better understand.

    • Olivia Malmgren - Reply

      February 5, 2021 at 9:56 pm

      Jackie! Thank you for commenting and showing your support it means a lot!
      Wishing you all the best!

  5. Linda Moss - Reply

    February 4, 2021 at 9:10 pm

    Livvy this is so amazing and enlightening. Thank you for giving me a glimpse into your world. I admire you so much for your writing ability but especially for your willingness to be courageous and vulnerable to share so intimately your journey and what it’s like to be you!

    • Olivia Malmgren - Reply

      February 5, 2021 at 10:36 pm

      Linda,
      I am so touched by your comment! Thank you for allowing my article to touch you such a way!

      • Evadean Clark - Reply

        February 7, 2021 at 9:48 pm

        Olivia, I met you when you were still a little girl. What a beautiful young woman you have become. Our daughter and your mom were roommates at BYU and so that’s the connection we have. She and Karl love your family. Thank you for sharing your feelings and thoughts. We live in a troubled time and I feel your hurt and confusion. I love you because Jeanna and Karl love you. It has nothing to do with your beautiful brown skin. You are a beautiful talented person and I would love to know you better. I have a beautiful brown-skinned great-niece and nephew; so talented just like you. My hope and prayer always is for all of us in this old world learn to love and forgive as the Savior does. To love one another. Stay strong and know many of us are standing with you in our prayers and actions. You are loved.

      • Summer - Reply

        February 14, 2021 at 12:08 pm

        Olivia, Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your experience and pain and reality. I am listening and learning. It made me tear up to learn about the awful racism you’ve experienced.
        I see you & love you!
        So proud to be your cousin.
        You are a warrior!

        -Summer

  6. Scott - Reply

    February 4, 2021 at 11:40 pm

    Great article from tiny cousin, she delivered her truths and we should commend her for it.

    • Olivia Malmgren - Reply

      February 5, 2021 at 10:03 pm

      Thanks for sending your support!
      Hope you are staying safe!

  7. Kimber Markus - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 8:43 am

    Olivia is one of the kindest souls I know. She spreads happiness wherever she goes and she loves to have fun! So proud of you Olivia!

    • Olivia Malmgren - Reply

      February 5, 2021 at 10:22 pm

      Awe Kimber, thank you for your kindness! I appreciate it!

  8. Peyton Markus - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 10:47 am

    This is awesome Olivia, you’re such an amazing friend (even thought we rarely hang).

    • Olivia Malmgren - Reply

      February 5, 2021 at 10:00 pm

      Hahaha thank you Peyton, you are the best! lets hang out at a safe distance sometime soon!

  9. Tiffany Larson - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 1:32 pm

    Olivia! WOW!! I am in tears. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything that is unfair about our society. I’m sorry for what you’ve suffered and the stares and hurtful, evil words. But I’m proud of who you are and your strength! I am happy to hear you growing in understanding and power. Thank you for helping us to see through your eyes and understand a little better. We can all do better. Thank you for your example and your profound words. Thank you Suzanne for raising this strong girl with so much love and empowerment. I am just as moved upon reading this as I was when Amanda Gorman spoke at the Inauguration! Keep writing, please!

  10. Lauren Malmgren - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 2:54 pm

    I am the proudest older sister in this moment! To be 17 and so well-spoken and talented just amazes me. I am the luckiest to be your sister Olivia.

  11. Jan - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 3:37 pm

    Beautifully written Miss Olivia! I sure miss you and your beautiful smiling face!

  12. Heather Loughmiller - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 8:24 pm

    Olivia — I knew your mom and dad before they were even married to each other, and I knew your big brothers when they were tiny little boys, but if you and I have met, it would probably have been a brief encounter. Your family moved to Idaho and I moved to California. But I must say, Miss Olivia, that I could NOT be more impressed with your article. Thank you for your candid, honest, insightful words. I hope we get to meet some time as “grown ups” (if I ever grow up, that is). 😉

  13. Alyse Madison - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 8:25 pm

    Olivia- I just love this! You are one of the kindest people I know. Thank you for sharing this- you are a great example of strength and compassion!

  14. Lori Sume - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    Olivia, that article was amazing! Never let anyone think you are worth less than them! You are beautiful and you are here on this earth for a purpose! You have nothing to prove and if anyone thinks they are more important, then they are the one with issue. For one thing, they are insecure. Your skin color and your heritage are beautiful! Stand out and be proud!

  15. Sarah Everett - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 8:50 pm

    Olivia! Your words are profound and eye opening. You are a beautiful soul, proud, capable and intelligent. I’m blessed to have read this and, more importantly, to have had the opportunity to know YOU. You’re a light for us all and I am thankful to read your words and absorb these truths. Thank you for your courage and your beauty.

  16. Traci Smith - Reply

    February 5, 2021 at 10:53 pm

    Livvi, thank you for your beautiful words and the insight into your life and for helping me to see you more clearly. What a gift with words you have to match your radiant spirit

  17. Holly Perry - Reply

    February 6, 2021 at 12:30 am

    Olivia I have loved you since I met you…years ago now, because you are you! Beautiful, strong, smart, loving. Thank you for writing this wonderful article. Keep sharing your voice and those beautiful eyes EVERY DAY!!!

  18. Diane Steinmetz - Reply

    February 6, 2021 at 7:25 am

    Olivia, what an amazing young women you are. Reading this was so enlightening. You are a great roll model for everyone especially your friends and peers at CHS.

  19. Sally Beil - Reply

    February 6, 2021 at 9:48 am

    LIVVY!! You have a true God-given gift of writing. I loved this. And I hear you. You always had the tenderest heart. Keep pressing on love. Sally

  20. Laurel Davis - Reply

    February 6, 2021 at 6:14 pm

    Olivia , you are so beautiful in every way! Your story is so well written ! It gives us a glimpse inside your innermost feelings and experiences. Thank you for sharing !
    I’ve known you since you were a newborn baby, and to me you are funny, beautiful , bright Olivia! And you have beautiful brown skin!

  21. Carolyn Sharette - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 8:57 am

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings! Beautifully written. It’s a gift to get a glimpse into others’ life experience. It helps each of us to grow and connect in more meaningful ways. You are changing the world for the better!

  22. Ollie Jean Smitheram - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 9:29 am

    Oliva beautiful girl, I’m speechless with emotion. You are without a doubt an outstanding young woman. Such a great example to others regardless of the color of their skin. You are LOVE.

  23. Pam - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 10:12 am

    Livvy,
    What a beautiful article! You are a beautiful person inside and out. Well written and well said. Loves and hugs from The Johnson Family!

  24. Chris Bryner - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 10:41 am

    As the white father of a brown girl here in Boise, your story hits home. Can’t wait to read this with my daughter. As she finds her way in this world, your experience can help to guide her.

  25. Kathy Bylund - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 11:02 am

    Olivia you were such an adorable and sweet little girl! It’s so awesome to see you grow into an amazing, intelligent and beautiful young woman. You have an incredible future ahead of you! I didn’t know you were such a great writer.

  26. Jacquelyn Meyer - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 1:25 pm

    Beautiful story, Olivia! You are a beautiful, bright human being!!

  27. Valerie Crawford - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    Olivia, first of all, I miss seeing you and your family! Secondly, Wow. That was amazing, and beautifully written! Thank you for sharing your words with the wold. This is a message every person should listen to carefully. ❤️❤️❤️

  28. Karen Heath - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 8:40 pm

    Olivia I have never met you but I am certainly impressed that you are only seventeen ! And you have wonderful insight into today’s world and what is happening to you and others all around the world! Stay strong and keep writing!!!

  29. Jamie Olsen - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 9:26 pm

    This is Beautiful, Olivia! I’m so grateful to know you and your family. The support you have with your amazing parents will sustain you through anything. And you are showing just how strong you are here. You are an inspiration.

  30. Deana Braden - Reply

    February 7, 2021 at 10:54 pm

    Olivia,I remember the first time I saw you. You were so beautiful, and I loved those big brown eyes. Growing up, you were always so full of life and so happy. You made me smile! I am so proud of you and the beautiful woman you have become. Stay strong, and keep writing!

  31. Olivia Edvalson - Reply

    February 8, 2021 at 9:53 pm

    Olivia! This is so well written and felt. You are so strong, beautiful, intelligent, and just lovely. You have a light about you that I noticed the very first time I met you. Keep sharing your story and shining your light!

  32. Debra McDonald - Reply

    February 9, 2021 at 5:46 pm

    Such a beautiful, insightful essay! We also have a black granddaughter with 3 white siblings. Altho living in Colorado in a much more diverse community, as her white family, we need to understand that your underlying feelings may at some point be hers.
    Bless you for sharing. I have no doubt…you are a young woman leading us to a more diverse, unified society. God is saying…Yes!!!

  33. Elicia Zahm - Reply

    February 10, 2021 at 9:36 am

    Olivia!!!! So so so proud of you!!!!!!!! You and Kate went to Andrus with my son, Jake Zahm. Thank you for your boldness and bravery to speak out. This is such an example to brown and black children in Idaho, like my youngest daughter. We are part of a club called Brown Like Me. It’s a social club for brown and black children in Idaho. Find us on Facebook bc we would love to have you there!!! Tell Kate and your momma we said hi!! Hold your head high, my dear. You are going places!!!!!!

    • Heather Gray - Reply

      February 10, 2021 at 7:54 pm

      Olivia,
      What a wonderful paper. You are a talented writer. I enjoyed your insights. Thanks for your bravery in being vulnerable. You are a beautiful young woman!

  34. Andy Moore - Reply

    February 11, 2021 at 4:22 pm

    Hi Olivia,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. My daughter is 4 and she is black. I know that she will have the same thoughts and issues that you shared. Hearing your perspective and helps me to prepare for what she will go through. There have been many times (pre-covid) that we have attended events/concerts in Idaho with 10 to 200 attendees, and far too often, Ruby is the ONLY black person there. So far, she hasn’t noticed, but she will and I know it will hurt.

  35. Frank Mansuetto - Reply

    February 11, 2021 at 9:34 pm

    I meet you and your family for the first time at Claire Hemmwrt my grand daughters house. I went shooting with your dad and flipped out when I met your race car mom. But the real thing that blew my mind was that after four children your parents still adopted. Being from New York where families were smaller this was remarkable to me. The synergy in a family so large taught me that love is key. I was happy that Claire had you as a friend and you spent time with her. I live in Idaho now and glad you are my neighbor.

  36. Stephen - Reply

    February 12, 2021 at 9:18 am

    Eyes are watching you closely because you are so beautiful.

  37. Julia & Stephen Woodall - Reply

    February 19, 2021 at 4:04 pm

    Olivia – what a beautiful writer you are! We loved your article and were moved by the truths and insights you shared so frankly. You are a talented, beautiful, and loving young woman. We love you!

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