Feeling beautiful in white-dominated spaces

How Queen’s forced me to confront hidden insecurities and internalized racism

Credit: 
Alysha Mohamed

I came out of high school dripping with confidence. I was secure in the body I had, proud of my features—moments of insecurity were present but bearable.

In my first year at Queen’s, I felt doubt lace up my spine, replacing any semblance of self-assurance I once had. It was the first time since my awkward middle school years that I questioned whether or not I was attractive, which was jarring considering how validated I felt just months prior to moving to Kingston.

I started to question whether the qualities that once made me attractive had faded over the summer, analyzing the possible causes for this influx of self-doubt. I came up with nothing.

It was an incredibly frustrating experience to feel so insecure without any idea why. My skin was the same, my body was the same, and my features couldn’t have shifted within the span of a few months.

I was comparing myself to every girl on my floor in residence and in my classes, feeling out of place in every setting. I was acutely aware of the fact that hardly anyone on campus looked like me; I felt uncomfortable every time I was the only person of colour in a room. Race had never been something I actively paid attention to, but now it was all I could see.

Suddenly, it all made sense: I was feeling the insecurity of being a person of colour in a white-dominated space.

I grew up around enough diversity to see the beauty in every race—including my own—rather than idolizing Eurocentric features as the baseline for being attractive. Offhand comments in middle school about the hair on my arms or my eyebrows were nothing compared to this newfound feeling of inadequacy, no matter how worthy I once felt.

The playing field was completely different at Queen’s. I went on a few dates in my first year; On one, a boy told me, “You just look so different from other girls I’ve been with.” Another’s opener on Tinder: “You’re the first hot brown girl I’ve seen on here.”

Though they were small micro-aggressions, these comments etched their way into my psyche, leaving me questioning how big a role race played in determining my physical attractiveness.

The gold standard at Queen’s seemed to be white boys, and from where I was sitting, their type wasn’t women of colour. I don’t know whether this was the reality or my own insecurities, but it ate away at me for months.

For the first time, I questioned if men I found attractive would reciprocate the feeling—based on no factor other than my race. I also wondered whether men would find me attractive solely because of my race. Both were terrifying ideas.

When people told me university was a time for growth and change, I wasn’t expecting that to mean my confidence would waver, let alone crumble. I felt unworthy, alone, and embarrassed about feeling so insecure.

Perhaps the worst part was that I felt I was doing it to myself—no one had called me ugly, and no one had explicitly left me out or said anything racist. Everything was so internalized.

This isn’t an attempt to blame white-dominated spaces for simply existing. Rather, I’m coming to terms with the fact that being the only person of colour in a new environment can bring out insecurities I didn’t think I even had.

My ideals of beauty were being colonized with every moment I spent at Queen’s. I straightened my hair constantly, felt the need to prove myself in any social setting, and was consumed with doubt whenever I had a new love interest.

When I came home for Christmas and was surrounded by the diversity I grew up in, I felt my confidence slowly coming back—almost like it had never left. When I was home, I rarely compared myself to others to determine how beautiful I felt.

I knew I needed to translate this into the way I thought about myself when I was at university.

Starting in the second half of my first year, I worked to confront my insecurities and fears. Now, at 20, I’m beginning to feel attractive at Queen’s, regardless of romantic attention or external validation.

That may have been the biggest lesson for me: rooting my attractiveness in how I felt and saw myself, rather than how willing others were to make me feel seen. I need to see myself as a whole, nuanced, intelligent individual who has the strength to be confident even when I’m the only person of colour in the room.

Feeling beautiful at Queen’s is something I still struggle with. It’s a process of unlearning white narratives and patterns of internalized racism that had been buried inside me for so long I forgot they existed.

Grappling with the weight of my own insecurities and knowing they are fueled by an overwhelmingly white student population here at Queen’s proves how much diversity matters. It isn’t just a buzzword institutions can use to keep up with social justice movements—it’s a real phenomenon that impacts students of colour every single day.

Robin DiAngelo, an American author working in the fields of whiteness studies, puts it perfectly when she discusses the idea of whiteness as the norm.

She writes, “Whiteness is […] the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm. Whiteness remains invisible in all contexts except when we are specifically referring to people of color, at which point an actress becomes a black actress, and so on.”

Something similar happens when considering minority students at Queen’s. Whiteness is the norm and standard, so pervasively that it seeped into my perception of my attractiveness in comparison to the majority. I saw myself as a ‘deviation’ from the norm, and it brought out my deepest insecurities. 

I’ll never fit the white, Eurocentric standards of beauty that are so prevalent at Queen’s. I’m beautiful, attractive, and worthy. These statements can coexist, and rather than trying to force them together, I’m content with them being separate, simultaneously true ideas.

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