I never took the time to reflect on my experience as a black woman…until very recently. In a perfect world, I should not have to even think about my life experiences through the lens of my skin tone. But we do not live in a perfect world and trust me, being black made for quite some perplexing experiences at times. Throughout the years, I brushed many of these experiences off and just put them in the category of life happenings. Maybe because it was easier to not confront the elephant in the room.
I am a fairly non-confrontational person and I used to be afraid to speak up and stand up for myself, especially when it came to race-related issues. I remember glossing over comments about how often I would change my hairstyle or colleagues giving their unsolicited opinions about what hairstyle they preferred on me.
“It’s not a big deal, there’s no malice in these comments, it’s because they don’t know any better”, were the words I often told myself. Although I still believe these words to be true most of the time, it’s the reasoning behind them that I question today.
I remember brushing off, and even sometimes laughing along when some of my friends would make that unfunny joke about how the only part of me they could see in the dark was the white of my eyes or my teeth when I smiled. I did not laugh because I found the joke funny, no I laughed because I did not want to be the odd one out in the group. Probably worse, I may not have found the joke funny, but I was still unable at the time to see and call it for what it was.
I used to believe that the best way for me to thrive in this space we operate within, was to conform to what was deemed proper even if it meant stifling my true self. I grew up in a multicultural area, and differences were part of my daily life. I learned to live around people from all over the planet and respect and acknowledge our differences as something to benefit from. Although we were different we were all operating within the same sphere where we were often seen as the odd one out and that brought us together.
University took me to more predominantly white spaces and that’s when the struggle became more obvious for me. I went to University in a more affluent suburb and was one of two black people in my class. No one ever told me to act a certain way, but I guess the sheep mentality, or more formally the herd instinct took over. So I spent a good couple of years pretending to like things I really couldn’t care less about in reality and be someone who was not really me. Just to be part of the group.
But as the saying goes: “a leopard can’t change its spots” and after a while, all this pretending started eating at me. I couldn’t stay in touch with friends I made during that time because the person they got to know was only on a pale impression of the real me. I was so affected by those two years that after Uni, I made the unconscious decision to mostly surround myself with non-white female friends. I needed women who could understand and relate to my struggles and worries without me having to go into details about the in’s and out’s of being a non-white female in our western societies. Most importantly I needed women I could be 100% myself with, so I promised myself to never tone myself down anymore.
Weirdly though, I didn’t have the same type of position when it came to male friends or love interests. I used to believe that I didn’t need from them, the same kind of acceptance and understanding I was expecting from my female friends. That was until one fateful conversation when one of my really good guy friends told me that he didn’t know how he would react if his daughter brought home a black man.
There I was, seated in front of this white man trying to rationalize in front of me, a black woman, what it would mean for him if his daughter chose a black man. I really wondered if he had ever truly seen me for who I am or if he just saw me as that non-threatening, conforming black woman who never spoke too loudly about race issues and therefore must share whatever skewed ideas he might have had about black people.
I couldn’t even blame him, as I realized we were both the products of our environment. Even at home, I was told to not stand out too much on certain issues. Show them that we can do as well if not better than them but still never call them out for their demeaning words and actions. We are operating within their space therefore, it’s on us to back down when the situation calls for it. That is one thing I will definitely not teach my children.
Even today with everything that is happening with anti-racist movements, many companies are trying more or less successfully to make a change but many people of colour are still asked to carry most of that weight. We have to be understanding and open-minded despite the weariness and extreme mental exhaustion. Yes, it is important for us to be part of the restructuring of this space we ALL operate within, but rather than us having to conform they should extend an honest and open invitation.
Come as you are and we will meet in the middle, rather than some half-hearted PR stints I so often hear of lately.
(Feature Image – Instagram: @eboneedavis)