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This article was originally published on louisaleontiades.com and is republished with permission.
Some questions you don’t expect to have to ask in your lifetime, let alone answer. But with the rise of Trumpian fascism, a question has consistently rattled around my white woman’s brain over the last weeks. At what point would I put my own life on the line for others? How oppressed do others have to become for me to risk my own survival?
Growing up in Britain, my notions of fighting for the resistance were informed by watching wartime parodies like Allo Allo where unwilling coward Rene Artois was roped into protecting refugees with comical accents, and recovering priceless artifacts–The Fallen Madonna (with the Big Boobies)–from the clutches of the slapstick Nazis. Some years later, I stopped laughing. Anne Frank’s diaries opened my heart as she gave voice to the persecuted, all the more poignant because I knew that she and many more like her had been killed.
Maybe it was then I first asked the question: would I risk my own life to protect the Anne Franks of this world? The answer was always yes. But hindsight is a flattering bedfellow. Even if I had understood the evil enormity of what was going on, would I have acted to save her life whilst risking my own? And will I now when push comes to shove?
We know the dark path of fascism and discrimination beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yet even with all our hard won foresight, some can scarcely believe it enough to fight against it. Many of us don’t want to believe it. Others believe that protesting peacefully is our best and only recourse. Token gestures of support, so-called allies remaining silent when confronted with hate speech, wait-and-see naysayers. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that those who have dear friends or are themselves persecuted for their race, gender, sexuality, or religion are more likely to resist or activate themselves earlier. Me? I’m a coward.
Yet despite my fear, I send money every month to my intersectional friends. I call out those who post hate and division on my twitter feed. I call in family and friends. I enter into spirited debates in forums. I force myself to read the papers. But my hands shake whilst doing all of this and my heartbeat goes into crazy overdrive. I am permanently hyperanxious. I am often emotionally beaten down simply by reading the newsfeed and whisky is my new best friend. Why?
Quite simply because fighting goes against who I am. I am a ‘fawner’. One of those whom if kidnapped would be highly susceptible to Stockholm syndrome. The good girl. The people pleaser. With powers of denial so inculcated in my upbringing, that I believe and perpetuate lies which are not of my own making. I have little access to my fight mechanism, because as a middle class white child I was brought up to kowtow to power or be outcast. Conflict or confrontation with those higher up the social scale than I risked rejection, abandonment and ignominy. My ability has afforded me enormous advantages in terms of social interaction and as a survival mechanism it has served me well in my society. But its usefulness is running out.
Yet when you have learned that the best, and almost exclusive way to survive is by diminishing yourself in order to support those in power–mainly white men–it is paralysing and seemingly impossible to enter into the fray against them. To a greater or lesser extent you have acted as an object to please them for most of your life, how now can you be expected to act? This is the inadmissable and often unconscious conundrum that many white women face deep in their core.
When looking at the four survival mechanisms–fight, freeze, flee or fawn–one of them overwhelmingly represents a net gain for a white middle class woman such as myself. Fawning, ingratiating ourselves and adapting to how society works both on a conscious and unconscious level, often affords us a better quality of life than fighting, fleeing or freezing. And we are all driven by survival. In my childhood lip service was paid to feminism, whilst we were slut shamed and taught to sacrifice ourselves for others. We were born to a society centered on training us to become the great woman behind the great man, or alternatively suppressing much of who we were and how we felt, to work harder for less money in the business world run by men. We were taught that we had a chance, you see. If we could fawn or otherwise adapt well enough, we could make it. Still we felt like frauds in the workplace, scared to claim our own abilities with anything other than self-deprecation lest we offend. We were taught to fake it, until we made it. We wore our confident masks, but we were still people pleasers, still feeling like frauds.
The rigours of our white woman role is one of Jane Austen’s universal truths. In her novels we learned the harsh lessons of the plain Charlotte Lucas who chose in the absence of any other option, to marry a despicable man and then apologized for it. Of Lydia Bennet who risked disgrace and ruin after being naively seduced by a manipuative and selfish cad. Even of Elizabeth who although spirited, was simply damn lucky. Other texts painted the same picture. Of the rather too obviously ambitious Becky Sharp who was despised, whilst her counterpart the rich Amelia Sedley was industrious and obedient, but described as a ‘tender little parasite’. We read about the abused Jane Eyre who fell in love with a verbally abusive liar, one who risked her livelihood by bigamy, and who, oh by-the-by, locked his Creole wife in the attic. We were supposed to sympathize with him because according to Bronte’s narrative Rochester was Jane’s happy ever after.
In more modern times Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In advised finding a husband who believed in equality because the most successful women have a supportive man. But murky undertones marred the superficially feminist message. Because whilst a supportive man was helpful, more helpful still was having a man at all: the most successful women in the business world, she said, are married. Western countries confer couple privilege in the form of tax breaks, social lubrication and respectability. Single women without children are stigmatized, single women with children face more stigma and an even slimmer possibility of rising in the workplace without adequate or any childcare – a truth that even Sheryl, as rich as she was, had to find out the hard way. Social stigma, guilt and shame abound but in each case the conclusion is the same. Without a man, your survival will be far more difficult. Find one, keep him or be damned.
For many pant-suited, white, middle-class women, fawning in some way to white men is learned by rote, and through example. Fighting is the realm of the less privileged and intersectional because by definition they are less able to fawn their way across race or class barriers to secure their position in a white world. Fighting is considered to be a less worthy and often lower-class response. After all, as once advocated by white male aristocrat Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the pen is mightier than the sword – but only until sanctioned by men in the form of systemic violence or war. We absorb this philosophy into our psyche, and it’s no wonder that white women have no idea how to be otherwise. Terrified to stand up and fight. Wholly unused to it and therefore ineffectual. And although cowardice implies conscious choice it is how we were built as babies, chastised as children, addled into adulthood. Some of us choose to be neutral and therefore tacitly complicit, to march peacefully – because resorting to violence would be to become no better than savage fascists, or to become feminist; disparaged, derided and attacked by many white men and women who still conform to their invisible moulds– they ‘don’t need feminism’.
Adaptation is the key to survival. But at some point, adaptation also means that you lose the ability to fight for your survival when adaptation no longer works. If that time isn’t now, it is certainly perilously close. Along with a whisky habit, I have been building my courage. It has meant years of first dismantling who I was, who I had been taught to be. The candour in my writing has risked my own sense of self, my friendships and my family’s acceptance of who I have become–a price which is increasingly heavy as I become ever more radical. That is the way of things when you criticise your kind. After years of work, I am still only able to wield the pen. But I need to be ready to act if I’m to be the person I want to be. The person who, when asked whether she would risk her own life to protect the Anne Franks of this world, would say yes and do it.
[Feature Image: A gray scale photo of a person with straight dark hair. The bottom half of their face is covered with the color of their dark jacket. Source: gc6paris]
Three years ago, I experienced a drug-induced mental health crisis during which the police were contacted by a close family friend of mine. I was subsequently beaten up by the police, tasered three times, and psychiatrically hospitalized against my will for six days. I identify as a survivor of police brutality and the mental health industrial complex.
I have “swept my side of the street” as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), and I fully acknowledge my behavior of acting “erratic” while intoxicated and under psychological instability.
Some of you reading this may think, “Well of course you were beaten up by the police for being drunk and disorderly. You should have expected that to happen.” The tone and assumption underlying this comment implies that people who experience mental health and substance abuse issues should expect violence to be inflicted against their own person and body. Many people in AA actually undertake this type of thinking when it comes to dealing with addiction.There is a growing conversation regarding the intersections between mental health issues, substance abuse, and state violence. We hear the stories of police murdering and assaulting folks with psychiatric disabilities or experiencing mental health crises, specifically Black folks and dark-skinned people of color. If it was not for this conversation about mental health and state violence, I would be overwhelmed by shame and guilt. I would think I “deserved” to be physically assaulted by the police. But I am not obligated to think this way.
Yes, people do experience crises wherein they may pose a serious harm to themselves and others. However, this does not negate the existence of mental health oppression: an oppressive society that beats down and terrorizes people so that they literally go “insane”, are “warranted” state interventionism, and institutionalized into a system which will label them, not society itself, as “crazy”.
You Are Only as Sick as the Secrets You Keep
Social science research is presenting more how people who experience trauma and oppression throughout their lives are predisposed to substance abuse and mental health issues. My recovery from drugs and alcohol is related to my recovery from other toxic substances, like cis-heteronormativity, white-supremacy, and patriarchy. They say you are only as sick as the secrets you keep.
When I went into substance abuse treatment this last time, I had to relinquish three secrets to my family: 1) that I was an incest survivor, 2) that I was bi-sexual, and 3) that I was gender non-binary. I remember I coordinated a family session with my drug counselor where I “came-out” to my mother. I told my mother that I wanted to wear women’s clothes and wear make up.
After “coming-out” to my parents in different ways over the course of 3 years ,and when I was finally serious about socially transitioning, they told me I had to move out in 3 months. They told me that I had already put them through enough with my addiction. But in my mind, all I heard was, “We don’t care you are a incest survivor, or that less than 6 months ago you were waking us up in the middle of the night because you were having images of cutting your wrists.” So, I moved out.
The 2 most consistent things in my life were activism and addiction. But I never really put the two together until I went into recovery this last time. The movie Malcolm X had always been one of my favorite movies, and one specific scene came to mind. Malcolm X made a commitment to never drink or drug again as a vow of abstinence against the colonizer’s many tools of oppression. Right then and there, a light went on in my head.
It was from this moment that I began to research the intersections between drugs, trauma, political oppression, and capitalism. I learned about the Opium Wars; the creation of crack-cocaine by The Central Intelligence Agency to fund the contras in Nicaragua; how the drug war in Third World countries is utilized as a pretext to displace indigenous peoples from their lands to invade space for corporations to appropriate resources; and how The War on Drugs was utilized as a pretense to politically suppress the liberation movements of communities of color in the late 60’s, such as the Black Power Movement.
It was around this time that I was introduced to a AA fellowships for people of color and queer people of color. I had become estranged from AA fellowships in general because I became aware they were increasingly composed of white cis straight men and unwittingly reinforce many systems of oppression simply by not acknowledging or talking about them. Racism and sexism are considered “outside issues” in AA.
It was also through activism that I became acquainted with other people in different forms of recovery. Within these new circles of radical recovery, I was able to speak openly about mental health oppression, gender, sexual orientation, substance abuse, and capitalism. They accepted all parts of my identity. I could share in an AA people of color meeting about my ambivalence with getting to know white men in AA because I could not relate to their experience. When I speak of my surviving police brutality in radical recovery spaces, it’s seen the context of state violence, and not simply as an incident where my behavior was“needed to be tamed” by the police. In an AA queer people of color meeting, I am able to speak freely about how I used drugs and alcohol to suppress my feelings of being queer or being gender non-binary, and not be seen as attention-seeking.
I am able to speak to all of my identities and not feel pressured to compartmentalize myself out of fear for the white-cis-straight-male gaze. I can now talk about my experiences and not feel ashamed because the people most closest to me understand how individual experiences are contextualized within larger forces which color my circumstances.
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[Feature Image: A photo of a person with their dark hair pulled back, large sunglasses and large silver earrings. They are outside in a crowd on the street. Source: Eric Parker]
Online dating has become less of a taboo over the past few years. With society’s rising dependence on technology and social media, it was only a matter of time before we collectively became more comfortable with the idea of meeting our potential soulmates and friends with benefits’ online and/or on our phones. For some of us, it’s even become fun. There are bars that dedicate nights for people to come in and Tinder the eve away, cafes that give discounts to people who matched on Coffee Meets Bagel.
Now, of course there are the typical stressors behind talking to a potential lover online, but for people of color, there is an added anxiety: is this person racist?
I’ve been off-and-on 5 different dating apps over the past 4 years and have experienced racism on all of them. From the white men who tell me white supremacy isn’t real, to those who think I owe them an education based on my degree in the lived Black experience, I’ve grown tired of opening messages and hoping I’ve not opened a Pandora’s box of ignorance and potential triggers. So, instead, I’ve decided to armor up and make things a little…interesting.
First and foremost, you don’t owe anyone — let alone an ignorant stranger on OkCupid — your time or energy. If they really want to learn about white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, they’d consult the many resources that exist on the Internet, in books, on TV, in classrooms — not some random person of color on a site meant for finding a romantic connection, or people who you share things in common with
Here are the some ways you, person of color, can respond to racist messages on dating sites:
The Passive Aggressive Response
My “about me” section on OkCupid reads: “all about dismantling the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy/anti-feminist, sexist ideologies, and putting an end to police brutality and rape culture.”
Still, I get white men telling me America doesn’t have a culture of violence despite, ya know, its history of violence. This feels passive aggressive to me: they see the kind of person I am/am not trying to engage with, yet they are willing to ignore my expressed wishes to fulfill their own selfish desires, which is an indirect kind of hostility and violence.
So, if they’re going to be passive aggressive, why can’t we be, too? Here’s how! Take a message like:
Well, Theo(dora), if we’re gonna bring up elephants, let’s at least address their magnificent memories, so maybe I — I mean, the elephant in the room doesn’t want you to forget slavery is an ongoing phenomena that you’re still benefitting from because it is still dying at the hands of white supremacy, so it literally can’t forget about it ever. But, I mean, what could I possibly know about elephants? TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE ELEPHANTS, THEO!!!
A drawing of a person with dark brown skin and dark brown hair. The hair has streaks of red and purple in it. The background is purple bubbles. Source: Surian Soosay
The Directly Aggressive Response
Sometimes it’s more tiring to hold your frustration in than it is to expend energy expressing said frustration. So, when racism invades your personal space, a space you’ve spent time cultivating in such a way as to gravitate love and cute faces your way, you are allowed to rage against the machine. If they want answers, you’re gonna give it to ‘em. Let’s imagine you get a message that goes a little something like this:
Instead of biting your tongue, bleeding at the expense of a stranger’s inflated ego, let ‘er rip:
Here’s the thing K(ar)en, the problem isn’t the children. The problem is: authority figures not being taught how to non-violently assess and handle non-compliance; a system set up to capitalize on the imprisonment, endangerment, and death/murder of people of color; people of color being labelled “disrespectful” and “thuggish” for challenging authority, but when non-POC do it, they’re exercising their rights; black/brownness being read as “immediate threat” and “deserving of punishmemt: regardless of behavior; militarized security gauards in schools; non-POC not batting an eye at a child being thrown to the ground, assaulted, pushed up against walls, punched until bloody, kicked in the ribs, shaken by the neck, and — I hate to be the one to tell you this, K — it’s because that child is not White. Not only would there be a mob at the ready if an officer treated a white child like that, that mob wouldn’t even be necessary because the likelihood of an officer treating a white child like that is practically negligible. Go home, K(ar)en. The problem is you.
We’ve heard it all before: “Isn’t #BlackLivesMatter divisive? Don’t we all bleed red? There’s only one race: the human race. I don’t even see color, except for red, which is the color of the blood I previously mentioned. Bob Marley said it best: let’s get together and feel alright. Because ALL LIVES MATTER!”
This would be where you’d drop your links and titles. Copy/paste evert bell hooks, Michelle Alexander, Melissa Harris Perry quote known to mankind. If you think they’d respond better to pictures, attach a few tumblr and twitter memes to that outgoing message. Speaking of which, one of my personal faves is:
Dear white people: no one is saying your life can't be hard if you're white but it's not hard because you're white
(tweet: austin @kvxll “Dear cis people: no one is saying your life can’t be hard if you’re cis but it’s not hard because you’re cis/ Dear white people: no one is saying your life can’t be hard if you’re white but it’s not hard because you’re white Source: austin)
Show the screenshots of conversations you’ve had with white people who have called you out of your name for being open about your experiences being: followed around stores, stop and frisked, told you talk white, called derogatory terms, called a Latin lover/caramel/chocolate/mocha/ebony princess/Mulan/Jasmine/Pocahontas/etc. We have years worth of primary resources proving our systemic oppression. So, if you’re feeling up to it, RELEASE THE KRAKEN!
The Sleight of Hand Response
Another option is to play the ol’ fashioned game of “look over there!” Just completely derail the almost non-existent, one-sided conversation.
He wants to tell you police brutality is both fake and not about race and that we’re ignoring the real problem here — Black on Black crime, so maybe now is a good time to tell him that you once had a dream that you rode a hipster unicorn across the Brooklyn Bridge only to find that your cat had been at your yoga instructor’s cabin in Montreal the whole time! Classic Chewy! Tell them you once ate an entire glob of wasabi and didn’t cry. Tell them about that one time in band camp. Tell them, if you were an undercover agent, you’d want your spy name to be Gulla Gulla Island. Maybe none of that is something they want to hear or have the emotional bandwidth to respond to, but you have every right to take up space in someone else’s life. Because don’t we all deserve to be heard? Regardless of consequence, of the impact our words might have on others?
And when they write back to tell you that you’ve sent them nonsensical trash, tell them you were only returning the favor.
I once had a guy go on a 10 message tirade about how I owed it to humanity to discuss racism with him after I didn’t respond to his first sad attempt at starting a conversation. Oh, the irony; engaging in violent rhetoric against the kind of body you want to have teach you about violent rhetoric. It was sad but mostly amusing, watching this human confront his own (in)visibility, throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get his way. It was an interesting window into white privilege as visibility politics are a part of my everyday life and survival, where being (un)seen can lead to my death whereas being unseen just makes some non-POC irritable.
Like I said earlier, you don’t owe anyone your time or energy. You’re not on OkCupid, Tinder, Bumble, Siren, whatever to prove to racists that you deserve to be alive, loved, seen. You’re likely there to find someone to spend time with, date, hook up with, flirt and sext with — you’re there to have fun. Don’t let the bigots get you down!
(Feature Image: A close up black and white photograph of a person’s face. Their fingers are opened onto the face allowing the eyes to see through. Source: Christiane Birr)
I remember once when I was thirteen years old, and in the middle of PE class. A teacher came along and told us that we would soon be having swimming lessons over at a nearby private school’s swimming facilities. At first, I was excited. I like swimming, I had a swimming pool at home, and my standard swimming costume of a one-piece, a rash shirt, and board shorts was something I felt comfortable swimming in. My hopes were dashed when the teacher told us that we were to wear proper swimming costumes only. No board shorts allowed.
I started to panic. Board shorts were in-fashion at the time, and I was definitely not the only person in my year who was unhappy with the news. My friends tried to console me, telling me that their swimming costumes were also not great for one reason or other. In retrospect, this was really very kind of them, but eventually I got very annoyed and said “No! You guys don’t get to complain about this! You all have normal bodies!”
Admittedly, this was sixteen years ago and the memory is not crystal clear, but I do remember insinuating that I was the only one of my friends who was in any real trouble, and my logic made a whole lot of sense to me. My friends would be alright, regardless of this swimming costume rule, because they had ‘normal’ bodies that looked fine in swimming costumes. I, on the other hand, had a fat body, and fat bodies did not look fine in swimming costumes.
In my defence, I do not think that thirteen-year-old me can be entirely blamed for believing my body to be abnormal. I have always been fat, and, as I have written about in the past, I grew up in a fat-shaming household. Even if my family were warmly accepting of my fatness, I was still a young person being exposed to advertising, hollywood movies, Australian soap operas and similar media; all of which displayed people roughly my age with bodies that were not remotely similar to mine in size and shape. Then, of course, there were the various health professionals, teachers, and others in positions of authority telling either me or my worried parents that my body was so abnormal that its abnormality would eventually kill me.
These experiences are all examples of institutionalised fatphobia, and I am far from the only fat person to experience them. As somebody who has always been fat, I have always known that my body is abnormal, and I hated that about myself for years. When I discovered fat acceptance about seven years ago, I started to look beyond my own body and the heavily fatphobia-influenced thoughts I was having about it, and listened to what other people were saying about their bodies. At this point I discovered that nobody, regardless of their size or shape, thinks that their body is normal.
As it turns out, there is a very good reason for that: nobody’s body is normal.
It just about blew my mind when I first made that discovery. As a fat person whose mind was so occupied with thinking unkind things about her body, I tended to just presume that anybody thinner than me had a ‘normal’ body. But the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a normal body. Regardless of who you ask, everybody will be able to point out something about their body that deviates from the norm, whether it is that their waists and hips are massively out of proportion, or that their boobs are uncommonly large for their frame and they can never find bras that fit, or that their skin is too spotty, or that they’re too hairy, or not hairy enough. There will always be something ‘abnormal’. And if you think about it, it makes sense. We all know that everybody, and every body, is different. How, then, can we then turn around and say that we want a ‘normal’ body? What can a ‘normal’ body possibly mean, if every body is different?
When fat people talk about wanting to have ‘normal’ bodies, what we actually mean is that we want to have thin bodies. That is an important distinction to make, because, while there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ body, there is such a thing as a thin body. Bodies within the parameters of ‘thin’ all come with their own ‘abnormalities’, but thin people are not told to be ashamed of the bodies they possess to anywhere near the same extent fat people are. Indeed, in this new world of body positivity, thin bodies of all shapes are actively encouraged to celebrate their bodies, ‘abnormalities’ and all.
To be clear, being encouraged to celebrate one’s own body is a fantastic thing, and I do not begrudge thin people who practice body positivity in the slightest. But fat people should be encouraged to celebrate their bodies as well, and they largely are not, thanks to the fatphobia that continues to run rampant in our society. I have yet to find a fat acceptance advocate who has not experienced some sort of negative backlash from prejudiced arseholes bleating insincere concerns about our health in order to justify their bigotry.
It is hard to celebrate a fat body when institutionalised fatphobia continues to push against that celebration from all sides. However, fatphobia makes it all the more important for fierce fat folk like us to celebrate our bodies. It is important for all of us to love and accept our bodies from a self worth and self esteem perspective, but when anybody with a ‘non-conventional’ body celebrates that body, it is also an act of activism. Fatphobia tells all of us that fat people should hide away and live in shame of the bodies that we possess. Therefore, the most powerful act of protest and resistance that we can make against fatphobia is to stand up and shamelessly celebrate our bodies.
There is no right or wrong way to celebrate a body, but I personally believe in two key guidelines: 1. Do what you want to do, and 2. Do not apologise for doing it. If you want to dance, dance. If you want to run, run. If you want to eat a satisfying dinner and rest afterwards, do it. And if you want to go swimming in a revealing swimming costume, and take a picture of yourself looking sunkissed and happy and alive in your fat body, do it, and never mind anybody who has ever made you feel as though you can’t.
As a fat person living in what can often feel like a sea of thinness and a thick fog of fatphobia, it can be easy to believe that your type of body is the only type that is not ‘normal’. But the truth is that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ body, and the only thing that makes fat bodies feel more abnormal than thin bodies is the institutionalised fatphobia that tries to tell us our bodies are wrong. The best way that we, as fat people, can fight against this fatphobia is to celebrate our bodies by existing in them unapologetically.
[Featured Image: A photo of a statue of a naked person. Behind them is a blue sky with clouds and water. There is also grass around the statue. The statue’s hands are behind its head. Source: pexels. com]
“I learned a lesson at Sunday school,” said my domestic partner-in-crime. “It said that God prevented our rise to power by making us speak different languages so we couldn’t understand each other. Different languages aren’t a blessing they’re a fucking punishment.” He’d just got off the phone with Vodafone internet support in Berlin, our home of mere weeks. They didn’t speak a word of English and his German is non-existent right now. He works online and can’t work, or earn a living without the internet. He is just another anecdotal proof that not being able to speak a common language diminishes your power.
I work online as a radical feminist activist in English and my audience is supposedly well, worldwide. But although English might be a common language for many it also erases many distinct and important differences.
It was eight years ago that Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com suggested that the fourth wave of feminism was online. And certainly for the last six years as I’ve lived on a remote carless island in Sweden, the way I’ve learned about feminism is from online publications delivered to my curated feed via Facebook and Twitter. It has been a godsend. Fourth wave feminism I’ve learned is intersectional, queer, sex-positive and trans-inclusive. These are the lessons that have been circulated to me, a native British English speaker, mainly from America. There’s only one problem, I don’t speak American.
It’s not just the newer terminology which is unfamiliar but the different uses for old terms. I’ve recently had the opportunity to write for a widely read American magazine. During the initiation attended by diverse writers, we introduced ourselves.
“And where does your heart sit right now?” said the Californian editor.
Um… in my chest?
I understood the words, but not the meaning and I was powerless to respond. Culture shapes language, and language shapes culture. Often it’s like the proverbial chicken and egg; impossible to discern what came first. But since the hottest English debates are raging in America right now, it’s their culture which is shaping our modern English language, a language I’ve studied and loved for years. But due to an global online anglophile community, English is now getting increasingly and more rapidly nuanced. Terms and acronyms enter modern online parlance at the speed of light–‘caudacity’, ‘becky’, ‘juggalo’ and ‘MGYOW.’ Rarely a day goes past where I don’t have to look up a new word.
Since the internet is perceived as globally accessible a radical ‘fourth wave’ feminist such as myself is expected to know what’s going on. Often, I don’t. It takes me a long time to fully understand the gist of what’s being said, necessitates an urban dictionary open on my browser and background reading to identify who first coined which terms and in what sense. But I do it, because it’s my work and my passion. Many more people aren’t in my position, they simply don’t have the time.
Europe is far more fragmented than North America. Movements do not sweep the continent like they do over the pond because the cultures and languages are different. Europe has no common culture and no common language. It barely has English as a second language. Hell, it’s my first language and I still struggle. Sweden, for example, doesn’t understand racism as the Americans have defined it. At least not yet (if ever). They cannot since their country wasn’t directly built on the backs of slaves. Racism still has the old-school meaning there, racism is only understood and accepted as personal prejudice. And whilst I can clearly see prejudice enshrined in their systems–especially regarding the recent influx of Syrian refugees–it is of a different texture and thus less comparable.
You can’t educate with words which don’t mean the same thing or which are not culturally appropriate because it facilitates denial and makes re-education that much harder.
As a movement, feminism takes on different flavours in different countries. That much is obvious. Fighting for equality in Kabul, is not the same as fighting for equality in London. Empowerment for women in China is needed in a different way, not least because middle class women are traditionally in charge of investing the household income earned by the man. But the assumption that those who speak English speak an English which can be mutually understood is a common misconception.
The online fight for equality brings other complications too; for one, accessibility dictated by how and why national media distribute particular news items. The headlines I scanned briefly on Saturday August 12th in between feeding my family and other household commitments, included Angela Merkel’s progress in the run up to the German election, and a suicide bomber killing fifteen in Pakistan. I heard about the events in Charlottesville a day later, and only then when an online American feminist suggested that my silence on Charlottesville could be seen as complicity. Feminism is intersectional, they said, and my silence was complicity. But as I have to repeatedly remind them, Britain is not America, Europe is not the United States. There is no such country called Anglostan outside of the internet.
America is at war. I don’t like war but fascism is oppression and as a believer in equality I will fight it. But the reason America is able to fight hard, maybe more effectively than the rest of us is only because the intentions of each side are explicitly understood by the other. Trump has exposed it all in his unambiguous, racist misogyny. There is something to be said for his one syllable simplicity. When you can’t understand someone else’s position you cannot fight against it, and neither can you fight for it. Other more traditional politicians have known this for years, they cover their true intentions with clever words and lies leaving the public bemused and apathetic.
Some things are clear to me, they translate well, are delivered in the timely fashion and they are the things I can fight for. Black lives matter. Fourth wave feminism must be inclusive of all, not anti-trans and not anti-men. And yet it’s occurred to me that I am spreading myself thinly, less effectively online, shouldn’t I be focused on fighting the battles in my own backyard, somewhere I can make a difference? Instead of sharing an article about punching Nazis to an audience for whom it feels largely irrelevant?
British equality battles are weighted by colonialism, feudalism, classism, and island mentality. We need the appropriate verbal arsenal to fight these things because the communication, words and style used by Americans for America often won’t work in Britain. And more widely in Europe each nation is very different and often anti-American. Fighting the issues which led to Brexit is not the same as fighting the issues which led to the election of Trump, not the same as fighting the far right parties–AfD in Germany, FN in France or the SD in Sweden, even though the same words are often used online to describe them all.
Fighting the feminist fight in Europe means understanding and adapting to each nation’s differences and our battles have been actively set back by the flood of English discourse and the ensuing cultural erasure which propels its way from across the Atlantic thanks to the ubiquity of the internet.
Though America provides certain models which are undoubtedly useful, we need to translate them into the ciphers of our individual cultures and our differently-constructed systems. Our own prejudices whilst all rooted in insecurity and entitlement should be described in the language and fought with the culturally nuanced behaviour that can make sustainable changes. This will allow us to take progressive steps to create a deeper understanding of how we can eradicate our own unique and heavy legacy of harm.
[Featured Image: A photo a person standing in a crowd. They have long brown hair. They are smiling and the word ‘Slut’ is written on their cheek in green ink. They are wearing a dark shirt. Next to them is a person with long dark hair. They are wearing a purple bra and the world ‘slut’ is written on their cheek in purple ink. Source: Charlotte Cooper]
This article was originally published by Vibe.com and is republished with permission.
“We got a little bit of black in us!” is what the Puerto Ricans that I grew up around in the South Bronx used to joke. The idea that blackness was something beyond skin color never made much sense back then. But the older I got, the more I realized how prevalent those African roots were in my own Dominican heritage. “It’s a brown thing, baby,” an aunt once told me. “And black is beautiful.”
Being Latino is complex enough. With all the cultures, religions, traditions, geographical compositions and mosaic of hues encompassed, it can be hard for Latinos to define themselves, and damn near impossible for someone on the outside to fully absorb the multiplicity of Latino culture. Now add Afro or black into the mix, and the questions about cultural makeup and identity are endless. But the reality is that these two identities are far from mutually exclusive, and have been speaking to each other for eons.
VIBE VIVA solicited a number of responses to the question: “What does it mean to be both black and Latino?” The narratives we collected were each told from the perspective of a woman; they share what it really means for them to grow up black and Latino. Because as Christy Martinez points out, it can be incredibly complicated, and especially conflicting if it meant “denying our blackness after generations of exposure to political and societal anti-blackness.”
. . .
Christy Martinez, 23, Bronx, New York
Being raised in a typical Dominican household meant many things. It meant listening to lots of merengue and bachata (especially as you cleaned the house). It meant being raised Catholic despite the fact that everyone contradicted all its doctrines. It meant having pride in our deep roots of revolution. But it also often meant denying our blackness after generations of exposure to political and societal anti-blackness.
I was taught since childhood to only acknowledge conventional beauty. To flaunt my light eyes and fair skin. To only be attracted to someone who would “advance my blood line,” and to ultimately hate who I really was; a Latina of AFRICAN descent.
Once I started learning about my African roots, it felt as though I discovered a couple chapters of my life’s story that had been hidden. Interestingly, a lot of what I discovered showed me just how much Latinos have in common with Africans and the multitude of ways our cultures crossover into one another. So much of our foods, music, dance, dialect and lifestyle have been influenced by Africa. It’s a shame there’s not more acknowledgement of it, because our similarities hold the key to our unity.
Being an Afro-Latina means not having to apologize for my blackness anymore. I’ve found pride in the not-so-convenient features I was told to hide, like my kinky curly hair, round lips, thick hips and wide nose. It means using my powerful voice to talk about the plight of Afro-Latinos in the world through the lens of a woman, because we are a silent majority who matter too. Ultimately, this new-found identity is an opportunity to continue to find myself and inspire others to stop accepting the labels of society and do the same. Being an Afro-Latina has changed me life, I will never be the same… and I’m thankful for that.
Diomara Delvalle, 26, Brooklyn, New York Growing up as a black Latina was actually very confusing for me. When people would ask “what are you?” and I would reply “Panamanian.” The answer would almost always be: “Wait, so you’re Latina? I thought you were black?” This was always a very exhausting question to answer and explain.
My family knows they are black people (people of African descent), so this was never something we had to discuss. Because I went to school in Panama for a short period of time, I saw all the various races and colors Latinx people can come in. Having interactions with lighter Latinx people and non-Latinx people as a child left me questioning myself.
Was I black? Was I Latina?
It was not until I researched the history of Panama did I have a firm understanding of my background. It was not until I Googled the definitions of race and ethnicity did I realize you can FULLY be both.
Afro-Latinx was not a term I used growing up. However, I’m glad it was created because there is growing visibility of Latinx people of African Descent. This term also sparks conversation that either enlightens people or exposes them for their ignorance and/or anti-blackness. Needless to say, being Afro-Latina is amazing. So much culture.
Shyane Dejesus, 27, Astoria, Queens My Afro Latina-ism is different from yours or any one else’s. Yeah, some may argue that we are one, but in retrospect, we’re not. I personally don’t identify with Colombian culture [for example] just as much as I don’t identify with white culture. And that’s because I’m the product of a mother who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, who later came to Brooklyn and met my daddy, who was born and raised in Brownsville—Brooklyn to be exact.
It wasn’t until recently that I found out my dad’s dad is actually from Trinidad. Let me also point out I don’t relate to Trinidadian culture either. So you might ask: “Well who the hell do you relate to?” My answer is ME.
My Afro Latina consists of permed hair (trying to go natural), black cousins, growing up laughing obliviously to racist jokes, playing double dutch, being the only nine-year-old that could braid hair, do my own hair, and yep, I was that chunky girl who ate too much beef patties with coco bread.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I learnedAfro-Latina was even a term. I just always said that I was black and Puerto Rican, and let me tell y’all I said it with pride. I was never ashamed to be from either side. It’s when I became older that I chose to identify with being ONLY black (due to ignorance). I don’t speak Spanish, my mom only speaks Spanish to her mom, and to be honest, a majority of my friends are black because I grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods. I speak “black slang,” I have “black” hair, my brothers are black, my boyfriend is black and let’s not forget my daddy is black. I also grew up with a family who was and still is unapologetically black.
It’s actually quite simple: I’m a black girl who identifies with Puerto Rican culture, and yeah I’m obsessed with arroz con pollo just as much as I’m obsessed with macaroni and collard greens.
Kayla Zapata Fory, 24, Accra, Ghana On my identity as an Afro-Colombiana: Being black and Latina is not mutually exclusive, I am proud to identify as both. Learning to accept mi afro-latinidad has been a winding journey, exploring the mosaic of my cultural identity. I look in the mirror and am reminded that the roots of mi pelo afro extend to Africa, just as my favorite sancocho. I am humbled by the resilience of my people and derive strength from ancestors that have come before me.
Jasmyn Santiago, 25, Jacksonville, Florida
Identity crisis! For as long as I can remember, my race and ethnicity has always been questioned. I am pretty certain many Afro-Latinas have struggled to figure out where they “fit in.” Too light skinned to be black and hair too kinky to really be “Hispanic.”
Growing up, I never knew “what I was.” Many times I would be asked was one of my parent’s white because I “have” to be mixed with something. Being asked “So do you speak Puerto Rican” and feeling shamed when you let them know you don’t speak Spanish. Sitting through standardized tests or job applications trying to figure out which box to check: “black, non-Hispanic” or “Hispanic” (with no option to be black and Latina).
Truth is, Hispanic is my ethnicity, Black is my race, and American is my nationality. I am a black Hispanic-American. When will [people] ever get that right? An ex-employer has even asked me “So, you’re black today,” as if I could choose when to switch off any portions of who I am at any given time.
Having to explain yourself to everyone posing the question, “What are you,” is exhausting. Who am I? It was not until I became an adult that this became clear. I am the best of both worlds. My heritage runs deep. My Hispanic roots and my African roots intermingle. My ancestors can all be traced back to the same place…. Mother Africa. I love being Latina. The Hispanic culture is rich in all we do. My PR flag is raised high. We are proud and not quiet about it.
And I love being black—descendant of the most resilient people. Spreading my #blackgirlmagic everywhere I go and I don’t care who it bothers. Ultimately, I had to learn that being Afro-Latina was truly something unique and beautiful. It gave me the outlet to educate others about my culture. It definitely has its challenges, but I love it. When I became comfortable with who I am, I realized I don’t have to choose sides… I just am! I’m both and so proud of it! To choose one side over the other is deny parts of what makes me who I am. I am all-inclusive! I do not have to validate my blackness or my Hispanic roots to anyone. If me being Afro-Latina confuses you, I’m sorry—not sorry.
Damary Caraballo, 32, Bronx, New York I didn’t embrace my full Afro Latina-ness until my late ’20s. As I reflect now, I think it was because my light skinned, green eyed abuela treated her brown skinned grandkids differently as opposed to the ones who had a more fair skin tone. [I also encountered] black women who disliked me for dating “their men.”
Growing up, I felt like Latinas and African American girls were always divided—even after Big Pun and Fat Joe had us screaming “Boricua, morena.” But I’ve always yelled out both with full pride!
My abuela’s apparent disdain for the darker side of the family and blatant favoritism for the lighter probably did the most damage to my self esteem growing up. She made me feel like black was ugly, being black was a joke, from calling my cousin from the “lighter side” whose father was African a “monkey” to reminding us “no dañe la raza” [don’t ruin our race] because we came out like her, attracted to the chocolate skin and she felt like 5 kids later she had made a mistake by marrying my grandfather.
As an adult, I understand that her failed relationship with my grandfather, who was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico—he looked like he was straight from the motherland—was what drove my abuela’s hate. It was that hate that fueled my pride. I realized what got to her, what got under her skin, and I flaunted my blackness even more. It was on my grandmother’s death bed when she asked me and my [black] boyfriend when we planned on having babies. I knew that was her way of apologizing and I accepted it.
What did being black and Latina mean to me back then? Not being black enough and “wanting to be down” in the eyes of black women. It meant feeling like a disgrace in the eyes of a light skinned Latina. What does it mean to me now? Strength, Goddess, Magic, the best of both worlds. Power that no one can take away, not through shame nor ignorance.
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[Feature Image: A light skin individual with long dark brown curly hair pulled up in a colorful head-wrap sits amongst a crowd wearing a blouse and black blazer. They are looking out into the sky. Source:festival_latinidades]
The fact that my father never came to mass with the rest us didn’t bother me as a child. It registered in the same capacity as the fact that he worked night shifts or that Spanish was spoken in my house as often as English—distinctions between my home life and that of my peers, but nothing worth an existential crisis.
I was seven or eight when I stood in our garage and asked if he believed in God. He pretended not to really hear me and only after I pressed did he give me a flat-noted, dull “No.” Again, I registered the statement with about as much incredulity as when he explained to me that he’d never learned to swim.
My mother was a fairly liberal Catholic, the kind who voted Democrat without compunction and thought the whole “no meat on Fridays” deal was petty semantics. Still, my sister and I were baptized, confessed, communioned, and confirmed. We had nightly prayers, went to church, and I was told with regularity to ask God to enlighten my father.
Most atheists who grow up in a particular faith say that they can’t precisely recall what moment or experience led them to their doubts. I knew that some time around age 13, my love of Black Sabbath and masturbation began getting in the way of my faithfulness (I would actually remove my crucifix necklace and take down the Virgin Mary portrait hanging on my bedroom wall before “abusing myself” as one priest called it).
I started questioning the missionary angle of Christianity, thinking of the arrogance it takes for one faith to assume superiority and preach damnation theology to another. I took that same logic to its attitudes towards homosexuality, traditional gender roles, and nonbelievers like my father. I was horrified in school to learn the Church’s history, be it the pedophiliac abuses and de facto support of World War II fascism associated with Catholicism, or even just the influence of the Emperor Constantine on the proliferation of Christianity in the West. I got critical, belligerent, disillusioned. Some of this was tied to the general malaise that characterized most of my pubescence, but not all.
Finally when I was 17, I sat in the passenger seat of my then-girlfriend’s Sebring, the Florida summer air pressing heat into the tight space, and I told her that I had lost my faith. She herself was struggling with Jewish roots at the time, but found my news devastating. I however, had never felt more free. A friend would ask years later what brought me to that decision after four years of struggle. She wondered if it had been my father, or perhaps some phase. I told her simply that it was education and growing up. As a child, I had wanted to be a believer more than I ever actually had been—to please my mother, to fit in with my friends, to categorize myself through history and ritual. But none of it was me.
For years after, I called myself a lapsed Catholic. I had read it somewhere and enjoyed the term: it was soft, and I fooled myself saying that it represented where I had come from. For some this may be true, but for me, I was just afraid of the term “atheist.” Atheists were cruel, bitter people, angry at everything. “Atheist” would break my mother’s heart. My father, who considered a label for nonbelief to be stupid, never used it.
Still, I was finally happy in a way I never was with religion. I felt free to embrace my sexuality, my political and ethical instincts, my intellectual desires. I listened to Death Metal, watched all the pornography my poor computer could handle, and got cozy with the idea that nothing came after death. I developed new problems though. I was more arrogant than ever, going out of my way to be as harsh and cruel towards Christianity as possible—I was weirdly alright with other faiths, mostly because their lack of cultural supremacy where I lived made me view them more as allies against a common foe. This would change, however, when I started in with the New Atheists.
For those unfamiliar, New Atheism is the term given to the movement around the rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others like them. With books like god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (yes, the lower-case g is deliberate), The God Delusion, and The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, these thinkers have become poster boys for aggressive antitheism (again, actual term used). They write of religion being the source of most, if not all, societal ills, of it as a great evil that must be eradicated if the human race is to survive, never mind thrive.
For every good idea coming from the New Atheists (I agree, for instance, that Mother Theresa deserves criticism for advocating against condom use in AIDS-plagued nations), there’s a horrible criticism to be levied against them—cultural elitism, willful ignorance of intersectional issues, and famously, the most violent Islamophobia I’ve ever read in contemporary rhetoric.
For a time, these were the guys I was taking cues from. I looked people in the eye, people I loved, and told them their worldviews were “based on a book of bronze-age fairy tales.” I told people in mourning and grief about how I felt their loved ones were now given to nothingness, and did it with gusto. I even briefly flirted with supporting the war in the Middle East and abandoning my Marxism for something more willing to blame religion (for those who know me, this is gasp-worthy). I had finally embraced my atheism, but I wasn’t happy anymore. I was just angry at nothing and hateful at everyone.
For a lot of atheist converts, this is a natural stage. Many of us bore the brunt of the worst our individual religious experiences had to offer, and embracing a world without them felt like shaking off shackles. We wanted to spread our good news to everyone around us and tear down the oppressive forces, which no longer had a hold over our bodies and minds. We believed this so passionately, and our only context for how to do so was to give in to those passions with the same aggression we ascribed to the worst of our former religions.
I mentioned earlier having a distaste for missionary practices, but at this point, I was blind to how my condescension matched it—I thought the Arab world was covered with desert people incapable of freeing their minds from a centuries-old fascistic thought system. I thought Christians and other believers in afterlives and divine intervention were cowards, too fearful of their own insignificance to imagine that yes, we are in fact apes obsessed with patterns on a speck of rock hurtling through the cosmos—that in the largest of schemes, we don’t matter. And I tried to convince them of it, wholly ignorant of my arrogance.
I knew how to be an atheist, but I didn’t yet know how to be a better person than I was when I was religious.
Then I stumbled across the writing of Chris Stedman. Only two years older than me, Stedman is a blogger, interfaith and LGBTQ activist, and atheist. I tore through his memoir, Faithiest: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, where he discussed converting to Evangelism at age 11 in the wake of his parents’ divorce, struggling with his homosexuality, his own troubled loss of faith, and finally his interfaith work. Stedman was the first strong non-theist voice I had heard criticizing New Atheism. His kindness and humility made me ashamed of myself.
Interestingly, for all the rhetoric and reading I’d been doing, I didn’t reveal myself to my mother until the day she walked into my bedroom, found a copy of Stedman’s book on my desk, and asked me the question flat-out. I was 24-years-old and despite seven years since that night in my ex-girlfriend’s car, had still accompanied her to church every week. I joked back then that she would go to her grave never knowing I had left the church.
I didn’t lie to her when she asked. She, in turn, didn’t let me see her cry. But she told me she still loved me.
I’ve been happy with my lack of faith ever since. Everyone in my life who matters to me knows. The extended family for which it remains an issue doesn’t bother me. The theists I surround myself with are caring and nonjudgmental. I can debate and criticize without dehumanizing (again, to those who know me, this is important). I can look at the world around me and contemplate it through the beautiful and ecstatic lens which science and humility and appreciation for humanity offer me. I have compassion and more importantly, respect.
The entire experience, holding the spectrum I have of religious thought, has taught me more than anything the value of that compassion and respect. It was compassion that helped drive me away from the church—a devotion to ideas and people that I felt was impossible for me to reconcile with belief. It was respect for others that taught me how to use nonbelief as a tool rather than a weapon.
Regardless of faith, it is the compassionate and respectful that I consider the very best of humanity. I stepped through a lot of horror, pain, and hate to get to that lesson, but at this point I hold it more tightly than I ever did Scripture.
My ancestry manifests in me as the aftermath of an ongoing battle. My body is the convergence of bloodlines that span continents, my heritage is layered and not cleanly, textured with palimpsest and patina. I am dual, simultaneous. I encompass the oppressor and oppressed, the privileged and the disenfranchised.
I am mixed.
Specifically, I am mixed POC and white.
This identity is a fraught one. Neither identity takes away from the other, but they inform each other, and one overshadows the other in certain crucial situations that are entirely dependent on who is looking at me, divesting me of agency. Race matters, colorblindness is white privilege — and oppressive coming from white Westerners — and the combination of white/nonwhite creates…what? When? How can we navigate an identity in flux, that is sometimes simply crucially nonblack, sometimes experiences objectification masked as a boon, sometimes crucially nonwhite.
Disparate, dichotomous, dialectical in many important ways, my identities clash and coexist in every inch of my DNA, every bit of me woven with both.
A pile of small puzzle pieces. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/velkr0/6573677629
I am Filipinx.
I am racialized as nonwhite in many settings. My family is Philippine, I was raised with my Philippine mother, raised with Tambo morality and faith. I was raised notably the daughter of a Philippine immigrant, my mother learning this country almost simultaneously as I grew into it. I routinely experience anti-Asian racism, exoticization, fetishization, and the suffering that comes from the stereotype of the “model minority.”
I am white.
I am racialized as white in many settings. My family is European and white Jewish (there are nonwhite Jewish experiences, but my ancestry does not intersect with it). I was raised with a father with ties to the Holocaust, Jewish ghettoes and diaspora, raised with Depression-era Jewish morality and culture. I was raised notably the daughter of a Jewish immigrant family, my father born here but family fresh from the homeland, confronting alienation and violent anti-Semitic discrimination. I routinely experience white-passing privilege in certain situations.
I am neither. I don’t speak Tagalog fluently. I don’t understand it all.
I don’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish.
My mother’s side of the family is Catholic, often militantly so, and I respect their right to practice but not the values they expect me to keep because of it – especially those which invalidate my queer identity. My father’s side of the family is much smaller, whereas my mother is the youngest of seven, so my Philippine side tallies in the hundreds – so though I am often white-passing in America, I was raised more prevalently with the Philippine side of my heritage. Also, I am white and Jewish, but our ancestry does not begin in this country, does not overlap with the white bloodshed that earned privilege in this landscape. My mother’s culture, being the “more foreign” in this country, took much more work to maintain (and mattered much more to her as she worked to navigate this country) so it factored in much more prevalently in my childhood than my white and Jewish culture ever manifested through my liberal father – but his is still flattened to “white” and considered, far more, the norm.
I look like an outsider when I stand next to either side of my family. I am also the product of a cultural cliché: my white Jewish father is much older than my Filipina mother, and that dynamic is often a dangerous white supremacist power struggle. This wasn’t the case in my case (mostly), but it matters that I was born of this ostensible dynamic. I also look like neither of my parents.
To be mixed white and POC is to feel, in many ways, homeless. I have no true tether. I do not share many mindsets or experiences with white people, I am often not recognized as kin by Filipinx (and as a queer person, I face alienation from all sides). I confront both racism and estrangement. My experiences are unlike either of my parents, unlike anyone from either side of my family.
Black and white photograph of a face looking downward. Hair is in front of the eyes. Nose and lips are visible. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/23448204414/in/photostream/
To be mixed white and POC is to feel like the site of a battlefield sometimes. I look in the mirror and see a body more privileged in this country than that of perhaps any of my maternal relatives, more disenfranchised than perhaps any of my paternal. While many in the Philippines and diasporic Philippine communities fetishize white skin, My Philippine family often idealizes when I work to look “more Filipinx,” so I remind them, understandably, less of the enemy. I am often racialized as POC. Often my experiences echo with those of my immigrant mother, my Pacific Island ancestry. I have the capacity to feel at home within the islands – and yet the language still sits like a visitor on my tongue, the commonalities of the culture reject my sexuality and so much of how I choose to experience my life, my love, how I choose to express my gender. I want to belong — I want to belong. But I just can’t, it doesn’t fit. I am the inbetween.
In certain situations, I pass as white.
Because my white side comes from my father, I have a white passing last name. Often, white people will think there’s “something foreign” about me, but then they see it as a benefit against my passably white features. This is racism, colorism, and exoticization. Darker skin and “nonwhite” features would render me less attractive by white supremacist standards; in situations where my features “pass,” I am shielded from confronting outright racism and am afforded greater safety. The same features that other me in my actual homeland “reward” me among my oppressors.
Exoticization: a manifestation of white supremacy in which another culture is portrayed as foreign but domesticable, bizarre but seductive, seductive in its bizarreness, making the viewer/consumer more “interesting” or “worldly” for consuming “it”…but rendering the subject an object. Mixed white and nonblack, I face a specific exoticization. I’ve been complimented for having enough “other” in me for white men to want to fuck, enough paleness to still be found “respectable,” and I’ve been told to appreciate it.
In certain situations, I pass as white, and in many situations I am racialized as lightskinned Asian or Latinx if not white. This means I experience white passing privilege and lightskinned privilege. Being white/Jewish/Filipinx/Pacific Islander/Asian means I can claim the POC identity – but I am crucially nonblack. Those of us who are mixed with white and who are notably nonblack must recognize that it is a privilege to not confront antiblackness, and that not all POC experiences can ever be blanketed together.
However, it is still important to recognize that when we “pass,” despite the privileges we experience, we are confronting white supremacy and colorism. We as mixed white/POC individuals already often face alienation from our POC heritage. We already experience existing in the inbetween, the nonbelonging.
My history is made up of multitudes.
My history is dialectical: white power, white privilege, establishment/native, Islander, immigrant. I am the liminal space inbetween. This is loneliness, this is pain, this is possibility, this is kinetic energy. I situationally “pass” as white – I am thus living proof of white supremacy.
When I am racialized as white, I experience privileges I don’t recognize when I am racialized as who I actually am. I am forced to reject, ignore, or be complicit in the rejection of a critical part of my self in order to maybe be treated as a human, and that is a clear example of how colorism, racism, and white supremacy manifest.
Both sides of my family have told me it’s a gift, that I must recognize the profitability of whiteness. I do recognize it – that I benefit from a system that is fundamentally, disgustingly flawed. Also, we shouldn’t have to reject the hard-won parts of ourselves, the parts from which we already experience distance – but it is a privilege that we can. This privilege helps highlight the extent to which we must combat racism, colorism, and antiblackness.
We mixed white/POC who pass as white have a responsibility to elevate the voices of those darker skinned, those who do not experience our privileges. We who know firsthand the importance and humanity of POC cultures, who still experience the trauma of racism and white supremacy – we are listened to more than our peers and our forebears, and this is a curse for all, but we must work to help break it.
We must use our voices to draw attention to the inhumanity of white supremacy – because we both suffer and benefit from it.
We mixed white/POC who pass as white are valid. We are unique, each of us. If you share this experience, embrace your identity, however best suits you. We contain multitudes. We are multifaceted, and the fears, desires, and hatred of the world reflects upon us. We are tangled, layered creatures. Your white passing privilege is unmistakable, and you must recognize what you don’t have to confront. Your POC identity is valid, and your connection to your heritage is authentic, and important.
We are not things.
We are not toys, experiments, or curiosities.
We are the sharp, clear truth of humanity.
We are simultaneity.
Use it to break down more walls. Use it to confront hypocrisy, to defy hatred. You are made up of disparate parts that, if you live with consciousness, may often be at war within you. You can work to create harmony between them.
We can, at once, recognize and confront our privileges, and celebrate our heritage.
[Feature Image by Flavio: Photo of a person with long brown curly hair. They are sitting outside with sunglasses on and are gazing into the distance. They are wearing a black and white polka dot sleeveless top.]
As a child, Brandy Rayana Norwood – simply known as “Brandy” to most people – was my favorite entertainer. I saw bits of myself in her, and in her headstrong, smart, but sometimes overzealous TV character counterpart, Moesha Mitchell. Brandy was everything a young girl is raised to want to be—beautiful, an actress, a singer, and a model. She was even the Cinderella, for crying out loud, with the late, great Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. But perhaps most importantly to me, Brandy had power, fame, talent, and beauty as a brown-skinned woman with box braids in her hair—braids that looked remarkably similar to my own.
My infatuation with Brandy, and her 1998 album release Never Say Never, spanned several years. One evening in 1999, when I was nine years old, my mom let me stay up late to watch MTV’s latest installment of their Behind the Music style TV show, Bio-Rhythm. Here, Brandy told her life story, and provided a rare glimpse into her background, childhood photos, and rise to fame. I’ll always remember, during this interview, that Brandy recounted a moment with a high school counselor: “I remember…my counselor at school wouldn’t send me out on an audition. She says, ‘You’re not going, because you’re not drop dead gorgeous.’ And I said, ‘But what about my talent? What about what I have inside of my heart?’ She said, ‘That’s not gonna work in Hollywood.’”
Re-watching this episode of Bio-Rhythm on YouTube reminds me of the disappointment and confusion that I felt at nine. Brandy, of course, ultimately triumphed over her counselor’s disparaging words (though I would argue that brown-skinned women like her in entertainment are still often marginalized). But watching Brandy’s interview as a child ushered in a host of questions for me at the time: “Brandy wasn’t ‘drop dead gorgeous’? Why not? Was it her hair, her skin? And what did her ‘gorgeousness’ have to do with her talent, her ability to make it as an entertainer in ‘Hollywood’?” Like so many aspects of young Black girls’ socialization, the interview taught me early that 1) looks, bodies, and appearance mean a lot regarding our perceptions of women, and 2) these dynamics play out in specific ways for Black women.
I was raised in a middle class, relatively racially diverse college town called Newark, Delaware—home of the University of Delaware. When I was a child and into my teenage years, I used to dance. Most of my training was in ballet, and I danced for almost ten years. For much of this time, I was one of few Black ballet dancers, which meant often feeling “different” – socially, culturally, financially, and of course physically – from my white counterparts. Like many dancers, the practice made me hyper-aware of my body and my appearance. Dance studios are typically all designed the same way: They are long, rectangular rooms with wooden floors, and the back of the room has a barre—a long wooden bar fixed to the wall that allows support and balance during warm up exercises. Here, all of the dancers line up in a row, and when they look across the room opposite of them, there is a mirror. The mirror is at the front of the room, and it takes up the entire wall. Everyone, usually in some sort of line, is always looking at themselves, and each other. Everyone is always seeing; everyone is always looking. At themselves, at others in the class, at the ways bodies are moving.
Everyone also always thinks they are “fat,” and “fat” is never a good thing as a dancer, particularly a ballet dancer. To some extent, of course, this is not unique to dance. Studies show that many girls—children—think that they are “too” fat, and that this fat is a negative thing that they should change. Indeed, white feminists critics have written extensively about the nature of patriarchy, self/objectification, beauty culture, and sizeism. However, Black women add more nuance to this by writing about the ways race, gender, class, and sexuality intersect to shape their unique experiences with these phenomena. In other words, the hyperawareness of bodies that comes with dance was made unique to me as a Black woman. I, of course, dealt with many of the same struggles that white dancers did – but I experienced others, too: My hair never laid down in a “neat” bun or ponytail, and my skin tone never matched the “nude” tights that everyone else got from the dance shop. And when the dance teacher barks to “stand up straight and tuck your butt under your hips!” it doesn’t quite look the same when your butt is bigger than everyone else’s, and you actually have hips. You’re different—your body, your hair, your skin, your experiences.
In these not-so-comfortable moments of a ‘90s childhood, I was fortunate enough to have Black female friends, as well as media representations, that on some level reflected my experiences. Mya, Janet Jackson, Destiny’s Child, TLC, Kelis, and of course Brandy were brown women who were vibrant, told interesting stories, and projected confidence and control within their bodies. “I’m bossy! I’m the first girl to scream on the track,” Kelis reminded each one of us on her hit single, as her golden brown skin shimmered in the sunlit accompanying music video. Then, like now, I loved getting lost in music, television, books, and movies. My favorite book of my childhood was a novel called Another Way to Dance by Martha Southgate. Though I didn’t have the language for it then, I now know that I loved the book because it represented me in so many ways. The protagonist is a Black middle class preteen named Vicki Harris who is also a ballet dancer. Her hair and her body don’t fit into dance, but she has a Black female best friend who also dances and who also relates to these embodied experiences. Vicki deals with particular issues that involve her class, her gender, her age, and her race.
Eventually, after giving up dance, this infatuation with books and film led me to enroll in the University of Delaware as an English major in Fall 2009. Like many students of color at predominantly white institutions, I was constantly aware of my embodied experiences as a Black woman. Unsurprisingly, my friends and I experienced many of the kinds of interpersonal, “micro-aggressive” issues that college students of color like those at Mizzou are still organizing against today. My Black female friends and I knew to always look out for each other in spaces like bars and parties, where the men’s consumption of alcohol often emboldened them– threatening to undermine our safety or even just our good mood. Eventually, during undergrad, I became secretary of the Black spoken word club S.P.I.T., and Executive Editor of Pamoja magazine—a publication founded in the ‘70s by the Black Student Union that my friends and I revived. These spaces reminded me of the power of words, self-representation, and storytelling.
Like ballet, majoring in English literature felt like entering a world dominated by whiteness, where people of color occupied rare tokenized space along the margins. Like with dance, I became incredibly close with the other Black students in the mostly white space. Eventually, I exhausted all two of the annually offered African American literature classes my college offered. After taking and loving a couple of Black Studies courses, I felt again the power of being represented. I ended up completing undergraduate research and double majoring in English and Black American Studies. While English exposed me to the stories and films that I loved so much, Black Studies gave me a critical lens to understand these narratives within the context of larger society—a lens that took into account power dynamics, colonialism, and intersections of identity.
Courses in each of the majors, as well as conversations with professors, exposed me to the kinds of texts that gave language to many of the experiences I felt throughout my life. These authors, many of whom were feminists, were grappling with some of the same issues I never really realized that I was thinking through. For example, why were some of my female peers in middle school and high school given labels like “slut” and “ho,” but the males were never, ever given the same? In fact, why did it seem that these names were the worst, most discrediting thing you could call a woman? On this note, how was I to contend with the fact that the music that I loved most, hip-hop, was constantly denigrating Black women with these words? Why did it seem like the world was constantly denigrating Black women? Black people? Why were our skin, our hair, and our bodies constantly wrong or in need of “fixing”? Why were the experiences of Black queer women often made invisible, and Black masculinity so tenuous?
These Black feminists didn’t have all the answers to all of these questions, but they were grappling with many of them. They understood and valued the specificity of being a Black woman, and the ways that intersecting aspects of our identity help define and shape our subjectivity. They understood the importance of advocating for Black women’s bodily autonomy, when at every turn our bodies are being denigrated, attacked, and erased. I don’t think that Black feminism is an infallible framework for understanding all experiences, or even all of my experiences. But I do think that it has provided me language and a framework for how I see and experience some critical aspects of the world. I think above all, it’s about riding for Black women. And sometimes we need that.
Today, Black Studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and theoretical frameworks such as Black/ feminism, are constantly under attack both rhetorically (i.e. within discursive arenas) and institutionally (i.e. lack of resources on campuses). We’re in a historical moment when the phrase “identity politics” is met with disdain from both the right and the left, college campuses serve as ideologicalbattlegrounds, and Black feminist concepts such as “intersectionality” are mocked and misused. However, individual stories like my own can do work to remind us the impact of anti-oppression frameworks to think through and reveal our own our experiences. Theory is imperfect and incomplete. But it can provide space for critique, for revealing truth(s), and for possibilities of imagining what is and what could be.
[Featured Image: A person with long curly hair and bright roses in their hair. They are wearing a purple velvet jacket with pink flowers on it. They are smiling. Source: pexels.com]
Confession time: Even though I shout disability pride and loving your body from the rooftops to anyone who cares to listen, I still have a certain amount of hatred for my legs.
I have cerebral palsy, which means my legs have a particular golf-club-like quality to them. Long, rigid legs end in an ankle that doesn’t really move and a foot that resembles a plank of wood. My toes overlap with one another. Circulation issues mean that my feet are constantly cold and occasionally turn shades of red or purple. The uneven muscle development that is commonly seen in people with CP causes my thighs to look huge and my calves to be practically nonexistent. On top of all this, I have two scars per leg due to surgery, and I often fall over or bang into things, which means my legs are liberally sprinkled in bruises all the time. When I walk, my knees don’t straighten or bend all the way. I look, in short, a bit like Frankenstein’s monster.
Usually, I’m just okay with my legs. After all, they’re there and they’re a part of me, no matter what they look like. But sometimes, the hatred sneaks up on me. Especially in public spaces, I’m overly conscious of the way my legs move or don’t move, how my feet slip off the footplates of my wheelchair, how my legs refuse to bend neatly and stay in one place. Depending on the shoe and my level of spasticity that day, I may inadvertently emulate Cinderella and lose a shoe or two along the way. My dental hygienist has told me I bear the privilege of being the only one she’s ever treated who has had a shoe fall off during treatment. (I ended up having to ask her to fetch it for me.)
Ironically, the shame hits hardest when I’m getting a pedicure, something designed to make my feet look prettier. The ladies at the nail salon are often taken aback when confronted with my…unique feet. As soon as they try and touch my foot, the spasms will kick in and my foot will shoot out of their grasp, causing uncomfortable giggles all around. I find myself continually apologizing for my feet.
And I’m not even talking about the rest of my body, from head to toe, which looks differently and acts differently than the societal standard of what it “should” be. My body causes people to stare and not in a complimentary way.
In an age where cosmetic surgery and other treatments are a matter of course for making our bodies more “beautiful,” a body like mine is an affront to the sensibilities. Even after all this time working for disability rights and disability pride, there’s still a skeptical voice that pipes up in the back of mind when people call me “beautiful.” Really? it says. What about me is beautiful? Surely you’re joking. Surely you’ve got the wrong girl. I’m not beautiful. At best, I view my body as just sort of average, nothing overly special. I’m nice-looking enough, I guess, I think. Not everyone can be beautiful. Just accept your lot in life and move on.
But when I was in my teens, something happened that made me re-think everything I thought I knew about the relationship between my body and beauty. I joined a dance program called Dancing Dreams, specifically for girls with disabilities. (The program has expanded now and even includes a couple of boys!) At the time, I thought dancing was in the realm of gymnastics and ice skating for me – just something that I couldn’t do. And even if I could, I certainly couldn’t do it well, I thought. But nevertheless, when I saw an article about Dancing Dreams in the paper, I impulsively emailed the founder, Joann Ferrara, and asked if there was any way she could create a class for preteen and teen girls. Her response was along the lines of “Find some more girls who want to do it, and we’ll do it.” I pulled in some of my camp friends, roped my best friend into going with me, and from there the “older class” bloomed.
Joann is a physical therapist with a background in dance, so she knows exactly how bodies like mine move. She choreographs all the dances using simple movements and ballet techniques that we can all do. Each spring, Dancing Dreams has a recital where we get to show off what we’ve been working on to all our family and friends. My first recital was in 2008 and, when I watched the video later, I was amazed. My awkward, gangly, spazzy self had been transformed into someone….graceful! My newfound sense of beauty grew even more when Dancing Dreams brought photographer Hiroko Shono on the scene to photograph our classes. Hiroko seemed to capture the beauty of our different bodies effortlessly and, to this day, her pictures of me are some of my favorites.
This is one of the best photos Hiroko took of me.
[A black and white picture of me at age sixteen wearing a leotard, lying on a wood floor with my hands under my head. I’m smiling and the many “awareness bracelets” I have on my wrist are visible. The photo is angled and the wheel of a power wheelchair is just visible in the top left corner.]
Every week in dance class, I moved my body in ways that I never thought possible. Unfortunately, that time had to end. In 2010, I was graduating high school and going away to college. I was the first dancer ever to “graduate” Dancing Dreams and leave the program. Joann had the idea to have me do a solo in that year’s recital, and I was positively ecstatic. From the get-go, I had several strong ideas about my solo:
I wanted to choreograph it myself. Over the years, Joann had taught me a lot about what my body could do, and I wanted to put those skills to the test.
I wanted to use my body to my advantage. Unlike many of the girls in the program, I was able to (with some difficulty) get up and down from the floor and move comparatively quickly across the stage. I wanted to work with what my body could do to create a dance that was uniquely choreographed just for me.
I wanted to use a song that had meaning for me. Music is extraordinarily important to me, and I wanted to use a song that I loved and that reflected the momentous meaning of the occasion – my last recital and a sign that I was moving onto bigger things.
Eventually, I settled on “Time of My Life” by David Cook as my solo song. With some help from my mom, I choreographed my dance and practiced it tirelessly in my living room. Joann had a simple, pretty costume created for me and before I knew it, it was recital day. I was terrified, but I relaxed into the dance and let the movements take over, and then, quite suddenly, it was done. I had danced, on stage, by myself, in front of hundreds of people – something that would have never occurred to me in my wildest dreams. My best friend came up to me afterwards and said “Cara, I’m completely serious – you looked so graceful!” She got her solo the next year, and I think she looked even more graceful than I did. My solo is available to watch on YouTube and, every time I watch it, I’m reminded of how much fun I had doing something I never thought I could do. (If the video doesn’t start at the right spot, my solo begins around 1:50. Disregard the title. That was a mix-up – though I won’t deny that I like attention every now and then!)
I still don’t typically think of my body as beautiful. But thanks to Joann Ferrara and Dancing Dreams, I realized that it could be. Those lessons are ones that I keep close to my heart, five years after aging out of the program. Beauty can be found in the most unexpected places – including during a dance rehearsal for disabled girls in a little senior center rec room on Thursday afternoons.
In order to continue producing high quality content and expanding the message of radical, unapologetic self-love, we need to build a sustainable organization. To meet these efforts, we’re thrilled to share the launch of our #NoBodiesInvisible subscription service. This service will provide our community with access to additional content and rewards for your monthly investment in furthering our radical self-love work.
*If you enjoyed this piece, please consider supporting Dancing Dreams. Dancing Dreams is a non-profit organization. The program is growing exponentially and now includes two different locations. Joann choreographs all the dances and creates all the costumes to fit over a standard white leotard and tights. She is a powerhouse, and Dancing Dreams is always in need of money. Check it out at www.dancingdreams.org.
[Headline image: The image shows a drawing of two dancers, both in black and white, against a black background. The one on the left is visible from the front and has her left arm raised parallel with the floor and her right arm by her side. The figure on the left is visible from the side and has her left arm upraised and her right hand on her hip with her head tilted back.]