I have been thinking about this column for a long time–thinking and thinking and overthinking what I needed to say and how to say it. Because the topic is too vast with too many multi-layered facets, and it nicks too many unhealable wounds. Even now, after weeks of meditation there is a part of me that doesn’t want to write this.
In the end, I realized that there was really only one person that I needed to speak to. So this column is for me, and the people like me: people who are different, who do not fit easily into the worlds they were born into. This is for the children who believed the ever-present messages that their race, or gender, or sexuality, or class, or neurological/physical diversity, or weight, or appearance . . . made them inferior, and for the adults they grew into. It is fitting that this column appears only a few days after my 33rd birthday, a belated gift to myself. I can already feel the beginning of a smile softly forming on my face.
“Can’t you just be white?”
It was only recently that the question was asked to me directly, but it is one that I have been internally asking myself since the moment I learned that part of my genetic makeup was inferior to the other. I say “learned” because all socialization is learned behavior and cultural biases, both those that are conscious and those that are unconscious, are ingrained into the members of a society from birth.
You would think that there would be a vivid memory of the day I accepted the poisonous belief of inferiority. You would think that a belief that would negatively direct so many facets of my life, for so many years, could be recalled with vivid clarity. But I can’t. I can't recall the exact day that I came to believe that my “black genes” made me inferior, any more than I can recall the moment I accepted the belief that my class or gender made me inferior.
I don’t even know that there was an exact moment. I think inferiority is learned in millions of small moments, tiny instances that tunnel into your being, spreading their toxins as they root. I learned inferiority listening to the comments and mean-spirited “jokes” made by the adults around me. I learned inferiority on the playground being teased for my curly, frizzy hair and hand-me down clothes. I learned inferiority by the lack of positive representation of people that looked like me on television and movies, in the classroom lessons we learned or in the community around me. I learned inferiority for my race in the same way that all systemic oppression is learned, silently and most often unrealized by the people perpetrating it.
Systems of oppression work in the shadows, unseen, unfelt and easily unnoticed by those that are not caught within them. Without intentional alertness, unconscious biases can thrive unnoticed because they are formed outside of conscious awareness.
In the same way that I learned inferiority, I learned to mask myself, without even fully realizing that I was doing so. To box myself up, hiding away the parts that were deemed less acceptable by the culture of my country. Desperately trying to repress the characteristics that made me different, that excluded me from being worthy of belonging. Internalizing deeply rooted cultural biases, learning abhorrence for myself and mistrust of those around me.
But if inferiority is learned it can be unlearned as well.
When God speaks to me, he generally does so with some level of persistence, quietly at first and then getting louder and louder until there is no choice but to heed his call.
I have been casually thinking about reverting back to my natural hair for a long time, mainly for superficial reasons–it will grow faster and 15 years of hot ironing my hair was causing damage and breakage. The more the thought buzzed around my head the more it manifested in my life. My curly haired friends began talking to me about curl training, and I would always make up an excuse as to why I didn’t want to wear my hair curly. Usually centered on how it’s length and the high round cheekbones I inherited from a long maternal-line of Germanic ancestors combined to give me the appearance of a milk-maid.
While the excuses were dipped in truth, I always left those conversations with the thought that, “they didn’t understand what they were asking of me. Wearing hair naturally is not the same for them as it is for me.” With those thoughts, the first light of awareness beamed through the darkness, shining light onto years of self-suppression.
God is patient and persistent. The thing about awareness is that once you see something, you can’t unsee it. Suddenly everywhere I looked I saw little dark skinned children and I couldn’t look at them without remembering myself as a child. I watched them from afar, observing them as they interacted in the world and remembering my own interactions in the world looking for people who looked like me and finding none. I watched my own, white skinned children and nephews and niece, watching me in the world, observing me for cues as to how they should someday walk within it.
The more I watched, the louder God became. I started to question what I was teaching my beautiful, brazenly bold niece about how to walk as a woman in the world while I was hiding and conforming myself to it. What I was teaching the colored children in my community about their own worth and identity by masking myself?
Patient does not mean quiet, and God became louder still. I started noticing the ways that hiding myself kept me from showing up, and how the deeply rooted belief of my own inferiority caused me to self-sabotage–how because I unconsciously didn’t believe that I deserved a seat at the table, that I was there under the ruse of being something that I am not, I wasn’t really showing up.
Louder still, I began to see that not being myself was damaging to my faith. That consenting to the cultural belief of inferiority was a rejection of who God made me to be, of his will and his plans for me, and ultimately of his love. You can not receive love fully while rejecting yourself, whether you are aware you are doing so or not.
Then one day I woke up, and the thought of pulling my hot iron through my hair, straightening my curls and erasing the biggest tell of lineage–of my otherness–suddenly sickened me more than my lifelong fear of not belonging.
I wish I could write that I had some great moment of clarity, where I stood up to my oppressive belief system and overtook it but the truth is the decision to dismantle the belief of inferiority happened in the same way the belief began, quietly in small instances and tiny moments of awareness.
“Can’t you just be white?”
“No,” because I have already spent too many years trying to be something that I am not and deeply wounding my own psyche in the process. I have spent a lifetime trying to to belong in the world I was born into, but the truth is that I am not any more white than I am black and while I can walk openly in both worlds I cannot fully belong to either. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, “I belong no place–I belong every place–no place at all.” I belong to myself. I can no longer walk in the world as anyone but myself because it doesn’t serve anyone for me not to do so. For any of us not to do so.
I know that it is hard to let down the shields of protection that our culture and experiences have required us to erect. Being different in a way that is generationally not accepted, and in most instances not tolerated, is dangerous. It is physically dangerous, it is financially dangerous and cultural exclusion is spiritually wounding.
There is a cost to walking in the world as ourselves, but all change must come at a cost, and if we want to fight against systems of oppression we have to do so as ourselves. Real change happens in the trenches, in the small everyday moments and interactions with the people around us.
Those of us who walk within worlds–who are loved within them–have to stop trying to fit neatly into them. We have to stop trying to belong, and we have to show up as ourselves. We have to speak up as ourselves, and we have to share our stories with the people around us. We have to talk about things we would rather keep hidden and unseen. We have to. We have to because real change, systemic change can not happen in the dark.
From an interview with Bill Moyers in 1973.
Maya Angelou: You only are free when you realize you belong no place–you belong every place–no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great…
Bill Moyers: Do you belong anywhere?
Maya Angelou: I haven’t yet.
Bill Moyers: Do you belong to anyone?
Maya Angelou: More and more . . . I belong to myself. I’m very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I like Maya very much.