Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kenyetta, Brianna and me.

I’ve been on the feminist bandwagon for a few weeks now and let me just say – or type, rather – that I am so glad I finally found something that I can truly sink my teeth into. This world where race, sex, gender, class and so many other things collide is quickly becoming my happy unhappy place. I think about it constantly – how to make people understand, how to make it better, how to teach it. Never been happier that I left biology for bigger, brighter and better endeavors.

Margaret Bowland, Portrait of Kenyetta and Brianna (2008)
Margaret Bowland: Portrait of Kenyetta and Brianna

I saw this on the internet today. It brought that itch to the back of my eye that foreshadows tears. But they didn’t come. One, because I’m at work. Two, because – dammit – I will not shed another tear over this.

I’ve focused a lot on identity and intersectionality over the last year in my coursework – examining the layers of black identity and how they are embraced, quelled and/or misunderstood. This image brought back all of my own personal struggles with those very things. How can I be “more” black? How can I be more…authentic? How can I be less me and more who you want me to be? How can I not be the “little white girl” in my family and the “black chick” amongst my friends? How can I be a strong, self-reliant and self-sufficient woman without being the “black woman that doesn’t need anybody?”

I was probably halfway through college before I stopped trying to be everyone else’s conception of me.  Before I stopped trying to figure out how I could be a little bit of this definition and a little bit of that – an all-you-can-eat buffet of identities.  But, dammit, those little girls in that picture. That *woman.* They bring it all back. They are me. I can’t take my eyes off of them, off of the me that I see in them. And that itch is back again.
That woman is who those little girls will become. We don’t grow out of or away from our identity crises. We either overcome them or let them overcome us. My heart breaks over this image, this “whiteface” and the shame (and shaming) that it represents. The idea that being a different color or a different shade of brown will make that shame – and the sense of pain and ugliness that it breeds – go away.  Who among us hasn’t though that life would be easier if we were rich, white men? That’s the shame I speak of. And the more I think about that shame, the more I think about bell hooks’ analysis of black women being at the bottom of the totem pole. She believed that we were the most marginalized of them all, having no community of people to other in order to make ourselves feel superior. I expand this concept to women of color in general. In my mind, because we have no “other” of our own to hate, we turn it on ourselves and on each other – denigrating other women (of color) when we really should be reaching out to them and embracing them in solidarity. We point fingers and make crass jokes about each other’s hair when we should really be saying, “hey, I may not like it – but I love that you love it.” We order ourselves along some arbitrary system – too black, not black enough – when each and every one of us is enough. We fall victim to new school twists on old school light-skinned/ dark-skinned stereotypes and classifications.   

And my heart breaks every single damned time.
It breaks every time I think about how many of my own experiences have been marred by these very things because I didn’t look the part or didn’t fit the role. How can we rally against a society that promotes a finite definition of beauty, damning those that do not fit, when we are doing the same thing to each other? How can we continue to engage in this double standard where it is unacceptable for society to tell women who they should be and look like, but acceptable for individual woman to place those same constraints on others?

I want all women to wake up and understand that I don’t have to tell you that you are beautiful. *You* have to tell you that you are beautiful. You don’t need to go outside of yourself to find beauty – it’s already there.
I want those little girls, that woman…I want to tell them that. I want them to understand that.
My natural/permed hair, skin, thick/thin/in-between thighs, my eyes, my feet, my toes, my big/small/in-between butt, my small/large/in-between breasts, are beautiful regardless of what black, white, [insert ethnicity here] men or women say. Period.

And there’s that itch again. 


  1. WOW. Well said. Many of us unwittingly make comments that reinforce the secret self-hate that we Keyattas, Briannas, and Kristens feel. For that, I apologize.

  2. I don't know if it's so much self-hate as it is glorification of the "norm." If what we see everyday as being successful, powerful, able, etc is inextricably linked to white fe(male) skin in our media, we begin to think that's what we need in order to escape the the negativity of being a person of color. So, I don't think it's self-hate as much as it is wanting to be accepted, successful, etc, without having to do 2 or 3 times the work, without having to fight every step of the way. If we want to be seen as beautiful then we where certain clothes, not because other clothes are inherently "ugly" but because those clothes aren't the ones that are considered "in."

    I hope that doesn't only make sense in my head.