Last semester, myself along with 3 other beautiful & talented women created a website dedicated to sharing the experiences of black women, starting with our own stories. I’d like to share a part of my story from the site with you.
What problems can an intersectional feminist face in a generation of millennials who seem to be so open-minded and “woke”? The answer is a lot of them. When you live within the intersections of societal categories, it is very difficult to find voice your individual needs, without either denying parts of who you are or wearing yourself thin, trying to keep up with everybody. Harder yet is finding representation when each layer of your identity is laid according to your life experiences and doesn’t necessarily match the composition of others.
Drawing from personal experiences, I will lay out the issues that a lot of women of color face due to their distinct makeups, while attempt to challenge ideas that many of us have internalized as normal. Here goes!
Handing Out Race Cards: I Am, Therefore, What Are You?
One of the biggest problems I have when filling out paperwork is deciding what to circle/check/write when I come across a form that asks about my ethnicity and “multi-ethnic” or “other” is not an option. How do I explain that I’m black, but “not the black you’re thinking!”? … Only to realize how problematic that statement is in
itself. I can take this a step back. My parents! My mother is black — a beautiful, voluptuous West Indian woman with a lot of heart — while my father is Indian, West Indian— “no, not Native… No, not technically from India, but…” And so the dreaded conversation has begun.
Now don’t get me wrong… I love talking about my family and my cultural backgrounds. However when put in a position to choose either one or the other, I, like many other women that fall between the gaps of categorizations, find myself being forced to neglect one or multiple parts of my racial and ethnic identity to spare others the confusion.
Such issues do not only come about when dealing with the outdated systems of identification used by the government and businesses or organizations. Growing up, I had no forms to fill out as those were taken care of by my parents (what they selected, I may never know) but I can attest to struggling with the question – What am I? Sadly, I have to admit that I spent many years confused and sometimes lying to myself.
From birth ’til about age 17, I have lived surrounded by my father’s side of the family. My extended family – grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins – are Guyanese of Indian descent and all have long, straight hair and typical “Indian” features. Naturally, I compared my own features with that of theirs and came to conclusions about myself. For years, I wished for longer, straighter hair. It was easier. It was prettier. It was normal. At family dinners and outings, usually on a Sunday when everyone came together to catch up at least once a month, I could feel the stares and hear the whispers about the obvious elephant – my siblings and I – in the room. While huddling together in the basement of my aunt’s house with my cousins, we took on questions about our differences. Being the older sister, by nature I was overprotective and answered all hair related questions, such as, “How do you tame it?” with forced laughs and quickly changed the topic. As if I wasn’t already aware that something about us was wrong. It also goes to mention that in my immediate family, I am the only one with a fro. My hair is much kinkier than that of my siblings so I felt the majority of these questions were directed to me. The truth is, I was more ashamed than offended by their questions. These were questions I asked myself.
“How come your(my) hair isn’t as straight as your(my) sisters?”
“Did you(I) take more of your(my) mom’s genes? Why me?”
“Will your(my) hair grow longer or does it just stay the same length forever?” (I clearly was not aware of the term, “shrinkage” at this time!)
These questions all implied that something was wrong because I was surrounded by the things others saw as right. In the Fall of 2005, it was this mentality that prompted me to ask my mother to flat iron my hair at least once every other week, resulting in major heat damage. For my high school prom in 2011, it was this mentality that prompted me to chemically straighten my hair, a decision I deeply regret now.
Reflecting, I cannot blame my family for their curiosity. After all, you cannot expect someone so used to one particular thing to magically adjust to something else they cannot relate to. However, with time that person can learn to understand and appreciate the differences of others. A key component of understanding intersectionality, in my opinion, is having empathy for others. Empathy implies an understanding of another’s feelings, but also implies that the differences of others may cause them to experience life in a different way than yourself, and for minorities this is usually at a disadvantage. Ignoring one’s intersectionality is purposefully choosing to not empathize. It is saying, “I will not deal with your difference because I cannot understand it, therefore, it does not exist to me.” Bottom line is, everyone is different. It may have taken me years to realize that my identity did not need to fit into one space and could be spread out in as many places as it fit.
I am a black woman of African and Indian descent. I am West Indian, both Grenadian and Guyanese. I am an international student without an obvious accent. I am an intersectional feminist.
Read the full story here.