From Overwhelmed to Empowered

But the horror of that moment stays with me, the realization that being smart and working hard might never be enough. I wasn’t sure how I could survive a world that would constantly question my abilities, give me more obstacles than my peers, and then downplay my achievements when I somehow managed to deliver. I was overwhelmed by the thought of having to be a black girl for the rest of my life. –Khadijah White

When I was about 9 years old, I auditioned to be the lead in the school’s holiday play. I was determined to get the role and practiced all the lines fervently. I gave it my all when the auditions came about and many of my classmates told me what a great job I had done. But I didn’t get the lead role. In fact, I didn’t get any visible role. The lead went to a new girl with bouncy blonde hair and blue eyes. When I asked the music instructor if she did not think I did a good job, she said, “It’s not that…it just wouldn’t have looked right.”

At age 9 I had encountered enough moments of overt and passive racism to know that what she had meant was that I as the lone black girl in a sea of white faces would have been ‘alarming’ as the lead in a Christmas play. And years later I can add to that by reflecting on the fact that for her, she couldn’t comprehend of me existing in such a space.

Even before I possessed the words to describe what was happening to me in my world and in my mind, I still deeply felt it. And I often wondered if it would be that way for the rest of my life.

My only solace was in the centre of my universe–my home, where Mama Younge did not raise any self-hating children. There, within those four walls, I could at least have my humanity affirmed, as my mother’s greatest fears each day as she sent us off to school was not about our failure–no, she always knew we would excel academically–it was that people would attempt to cut us down, to make us feel like we were less and did not belong.

As I grew older I felt the intersection of my race and gender more. The boldness that allows some to declare they would date you if you were white, or the constant bombardment of images that excluded you from standards of beauty. The feeling that I must cover up lest I draw attention to my body, the lessons of body shaming embedded, evoking images of Toni Morrison’s sugar-brown Mobile girls who dare not laugh or wear anything too tight for fear of sexualization.

Somebody, anybody, sing a black girl’s song

I refuse to choose sides for those who require it. I feel the weight and lifting of my race and gender like the ebb and flow of the ocean tides. And drinking from that ocean quenched my feelings of being overwhelmed for the rest of my life.

And now at 26 I find myself at Cambridge, yet another institution with much to offer but with that  centuries of elite white patriarchy–a space not created for those like me: a working class, black female. But I have learned over the years to make homes out of nothing, and friends out of foes.

I have a very close friend at Cambridge who actually started out as someone I was in constant battle with. On the night we forged a friendship that I can be sure will weather all elements, he asked me why it was that we had encountered such a deep rift between us. I told him I could remember distinct moments in class and in conversation when I would offer my thoughts on a topic and I could feel him mentally shut me off, sometimes physically rolling his eyes and turning away, as if to say that I had nothing of value to add.

He had dismissed me.

And I felt that it had opened the door for others to treat me that way in class, whether they realized it or not, and I could feel myself drowning in a thick smog of the need to be validated, to have my voice counted. I had to actually reassert myself into the classroom, and not back down in moments when I knew I had something of value to add, and I refused to let others diminism my experiences or silence my voice.

And therein lies the contradiction, the catch-22. The hyper-examination that comes with exceling and the hyper-examination that comes with my mere existence, coupled with the need to dismiss me as an anomoly–the exception.

The ability of cops to dismiss your statements and brand you the offender, while at the same time desperately stating how you attend a prestigious institution. KNOW ME. RECOGNIZE ME. 

I am hyper-visible and hyper-invisible all at once. I have a deep fear of drawing too much attention to myself, and a deep fear of being ‘dismissed’ and ignored.

I am the face of people’s fears, whether I am on the street or in a classroom.

Even amongst those I count(ed) as friends, there have been stinging moments of subtle to not so subtle reminders that you are not one of us, you do not belong. 

Some people cannot recognize how exhausting it is to reside in spaces that were not meant for people like you. The constant need to validate that existence. And how even more hurtful it is to have people make you feel that institutional shut out on a personal level. The constant reminder of difference.

There’s been a movement of famous blacks–many entertainers—calling themselves part of the New Black who believe that race and racism do not matter all that much anymore. I often wonder what happens not quite when these individuals meet with society at large, but rather when they encounter themselves. I’m okay with being Black. I’m more than okay with it. I love it because it is me and it has empowered me. Sizo nqoba ngoba thina siya zazi. Ibala lami elimnyama ndiya zidla ngalo. (We wil win because we know who we are. The color of my skin that is dark, I am proud of it.)

After years of feeling overwhelmed and the fears of being silenced, I have found power in discomfort, as I discussed in an interview with a friend of mine in Miami. Claudia said, “In college, I was in intense classes and forward thinking conversations, and I realized I was different than other people. I never knew the discomfort when you realize that you are the only person in a room that isn’t white or only person who is female and speaking and sharing ideas. In that kind of discomfort you gain power because you realize that you have important things to say. And because I have things to say because of my experiences, I have an authority to speak on issues, and should be speaking on them. With my voice I should be allowing those without a voice to have a place to speak as well.”

I am grateful, in a way, of learning the lessons of discomfort at a young age. I am the walking litany for survival, and for those who cannot indulge in the passing dream of choice and those who were imprinted with fear from birth, I have found that as Audre Lorde stated, it has been better to speak as one who was not meant to be here–not meant to survive. I can cower in a corner, wielding my personal success as the end all of success. Or I can push the boundaries of discomfort, not just throwing the ladder down, but climbing back down to help others to climb up it. Platforms, diversity, and gender equality, these things do not just happen out of nowhere. We have to actively and consciously make them happen.

That’s why I write. Not just chronicles of my life, but works of fiction as well. I started writing at a young age to create spaces for myself where I and people who looked like me could also exist. After all, one of the first steps is imagination; the ability to do what my music teacher so along ago was incapable of doing: widening the narrative. And when I find myself in spaces where the walls threaten to close around me– spaces that dare to silence me–I think about the words of Assata Shakur:

And, if I know anything at all,

it’s that a wall is just a wall

and nothing more at all.

It can be broken down. 

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