She grabbed my boney little brown biceps, shook me, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Dey ain’t no betta than you!”
“Listen and hear,” she said sternly, because as we all know those are two completely different things. “Dey ain’t no betta than you!”
My mother, who speaks English perfectly, will unleash her Guyanese accent when giving a piece of epic advice. I could barely listen or hear between hysterical snotty sobs, but some of her strength must have seeped into my subconscious because all these years later I can still smell her French body cream and the cherrywood in her bedroom.
Affectionately known as Mabear, my mom, a President’s Gold Award-winning real estate agent, an A-level squash player, a beautiful badass cross between Bianca Jagger and Claire Huxtable, and an expert in all worldly things from how to crack a coconut to Canadian hockey trivia to how to bake a perfect English apple crisp, had just taught me my first lesson in self-esteem. Dey ain’t no betta than you. After all this time it still hasn’t fully seeped in. But I’m workin’ on it.
It was the 90s. I was living in, at that time, an all-white middle-class suburb of Toronto called Oakville. In the 5th grade I met Carly Parker. A perfect candidate for me to persuade into friendship. First of all she had no idea I was a loser because she was new and a bit of a free spirit who didn’t pay attention to things like that. She was cool but not popular, beautiful but no one knew it yet, funny but not at other people’s expense. She liked my jokes and the way I dressed weird and sat beside me a couple times in class and this blew my mind. Nobody had ever wanted to sit beside me. Nobody ever even paid attention to me except for my music teacher Mrs. Cerricolla who was a gorgeous 30-something Italian woman with a chin length shiny bob that would swoosh as she would lean down to tell me I had done a good job.
But Carly was a kid, my age nonetheless and a potential person to hang out with at lunch. Carly and I laughed and drew dirty pictures of our teachers and planned our lives as astronauts who discovered new aliens that were exactly the same as humans except they turned inside out. One day she asked me to come over after school and a symphony broke out in my head. This was MAJOR. Going to another girl’s house after school wasn’t something I was usually invited to. This didn’t bother me before since I would just go home and wait for my mom to get back from work and sweep me up in one of her shiny suits and tell me about all the colourful conquests of her day. But this feeling was very different. This was someone my age who was actually acknowledging me as a person worthy of spending extra time with.
I made her cookies. I put together my best outfit. I had butterflies all week. I was as hopped up as a pre-teen Belieber on Ritalin. I proudly announced to my siblings at dinner that I was going over to a friends house after school and they were all thrilled for me. I mean this was as good as it got. Better than my good report cards, better than my natural singing voice, better than the new Old Navy army green cargo pants – this was the big leagues.
When I got to my first class, hair in a half pony tail, Fresh Prince of Bel Air t-shirt, a tupperware full of cookies and all, Carly had this sick look on her face. I assumed she didn’t feel well but I was so juiced on hanging out with her after school that I didn’t mind if I was about to catch bronchitis. She barely said a word to me until the end of the day when I asked her what time her mom was coming to pick us up.
“She’s not,” she whispered.
“What do you mean?” I said, thinking, hoping, maybe we were walking instead.
She lowered her head, hesitated for what felt like an eternity, then quickly blurted out, “She doesn’t want you to come over because she thinks brown people are dirty.”
Before she could even see the tears well up she turned and walked away.
As far as childhoods go, I had an incredible one. Just being a girl born in North America is a winning lotto ticket many would like to have. On top of that I had incredible parents, a brother and sisters I adore and admire, a place to live that was safe and secure and plenty of amazing Guyanese home cooking.
But I never would have had the courage to pursue my dreams and follow my passion if I hadn’t had that lesson. I never would have been able to move to New York and play guitar in the subways and lobbies of record companies until somebody listened. I would never have had the ambition to audition for a label that had just signed Paul McCartney, play and sing in their office, and become their second signing. I would never have had the balls to walk up to Dr. Dre, put my headphones on him and force him to listen to my demo. I would never have endured being told I look like a terrorist version of Lady Gaga (still the funniest YouTube comment). I would never have written for Lady Gaga! I would never have imagined I could travel the world and sing and write songs for a living. I would never have had the strength to love deeply and honestly with abandon. And I would never have had the guts to leave my comfort zone of lyrics and write my first piece of prose for the Canadian Women’s Foundation on self-esteem.
So here’s to all the Mabears out there, instilling confidence, courage and badassery in every little girl who needs it. And for those of you who don’t have one, when this world makes you feel like you might not be enough, just remember – “Dey ain’t no betta than you.”
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