YCA is an online magazine that exclusively features the work of young People of Color from around the world. In this issue, you'll find poetry, visual art, and essays coming out of NYC, LA, London, Accra & more! All pieces you'll find here are in some way related to race or racial identity, but tackle these themes in their own and very unique ways.
We chose the title not because we consider ourselves of a radical positioning, but rather because we often felt that when we expressed any type of racial critique we were written off and discredited as being young, colored & angry. So we are taking this title back, and re-staging it as an inclusive and safe space for our young peers of Color to express themselves freely and know they will be heard and respected. Our title is tongue-and-cheek: we knew that even if we called this publication Hello Friends! we would still be called young colored and angry - so even though this label may not accurately describe us, we are owning it + looking good while we do it.
In this issue, you will find: an artistic response to the bloody history of the Ussher Fort prison in Ghana, an exploration of the female Sikh identity, a primer for talking to white girls with a vague and condescending appreciation for your culture at college parties, "protest porn," and way, way more.
This magazine debuted on April 25, 2015. That same day, we also curated an exhibition showcase at Daryl Oh's Holyrad Studio in Brooklyn. The work from that exhibition maintained the premise and theme of this magazine, and will be up on this site in the coming days.
We have put our hearts and souls into creating YCA, and we truly hope you enjoy it.
ARS + Elliott
Ashley Rahimi Syed and Elliott Brown, Jr. are the co-editors and creators of this platform. Ashley is a graduating senior from the Film & Television program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, with an additional focus on Middle Eastern studies. Elliott is a junior in the Photography & Imaging program at NYU's Tisch, with an additional focus in Africana Studies. We both use visual media to dissect issues of our racial, cultural, sexual and gender-based identifications.
Find us at:
Jane the Savage is an up-and-coming lipstick line created by NYU film student, multimedia artist and entrepreneur Chanele Hemphill. We sat down with her for a brief interview to learn more about the line, her ambitions, and how it all happened.
What encouraged you to create the Jane the Savage lipstick line?
After going through a lipstick craze and being dissatisfied with my options at the drugstore or even with larger companies like Mac, I decided to look into indie brands for products that were made organically, in a wider variety of colors that suited my skin tone, and more affordable. Most of them were pretty cool, but I still wasn't satisfied. So I decided to start Jane the Savage.
Most mainstream lipsticks tend to have a lot of fillers and other junk that is terrible for you. I've carefully gone through each and every ingredient that goes into my lipsticks to ensure that nothing I add is unnecessary or unhealthy. Jane the Savage lipsticks are 100% vegan, and made with sweet almond oil, peppermint oil, lavender, coconut oil, and other ingredients that are easily identifiable. The lipsticks are paraben-free and are handmade in small batches to insure quality.
But the most important thing that distinguishes my line from the others is that it was made with People of Color in mind. Searching for makeup that suits me in the 50 Shades of Beige of most drug stores has definitely informed my decisions in terms of color palette, especially since I’m often my own test subject. Men and women of Color will definitely find that the palette I have created is compatible to a wider variety of skin tones, especially darker tones. But ultimately I think that what Jane the Savage offers is a brand that was built on a foundation of supporting and representing People of Color. Why beg a brand consider your existence when there is one that actively celebrates you?
Currently, I have six color options: Civil Disobedience (black), Fairy (periwinkle-blue), Scoundrel (dark green), Andro (white), Literally (plum with gold flecks), and Slay (rose gold).
Who is your ideal consumer? What type of person wears Jane the Savage lipsticks?
When I created Jane the Savage I wanted to create lipsticks that were for people like myself and who don’t fit into a single category. My personal aesthetic ranges from edgy and cool to classic sorority girl, and I have just as much love for my navy blazer as I do for my black leather snapback, which is something I hope to translate into the line. I also want Jane the Savage to be a lipstick line that is gender neutral, which in itself is something that is atypical of most beauty lines, but is a reflection of humanity. The type of person who wears Jane the Savage lipsticks is one who isn’t afraid to make a statement whether it’s a fashion statement or a political one, and who lives their life on their own terms.
Are these lipsticks currently available for purchase? Or are they exclusively for use by makeup artists?
As of now the Jane the Savage line will be released to the masses online on May 26th, but are currently available per request by email.
What is your long-term business plan for Jane the Savage? Where do you see this in five years?
If I had to pick a place for Jane the Savage to be in five years I would definitely say a full cosmetic line with not only makeup but also things like soaps (I’ve wanted to have a line of soaps since I was a child), candles, etc. that is being sold internationally. As of now I plan on keeping Jane the Savage a small indie brand that will be sold exclusively online or through pop-up shops, as I want to keep the products handmade artisan pieces.
What challenges have you encountered as a the founder of a small business?
The biggest challenge so far has been with all the moving parts involved in the launch. All the decisions I make in terms of design, marketing, branding, everything now will determine the future of the line and it’s identity. I don’t want to create something that isn’t me or that I don’t want to continue so the hardest part has been kind of thinking forward. As a Black woman, I definitely think that racial identity is one of the biggest challenges. I’m afraid of Jane the Savage being a brand that is forced to fit into a certain box because of the labels that tend to be put on Black women, especially in the beauty industry. I think one thing that does work in my favor is that Jane the Savage is made to be sort of an “outsider” brand, so many of the challenges that a brand looking to be sold in stores or a household name don’t really apply.
Chanele Hemphill is the founder of Jane the Savage lipsticks, and a freelance multimedia artist based in NYC and ATL.
Reach her at:
DYANI AND QUAZZY COMPOSED THIS ORIGINAL SONG ESPECIALLY FOR YOUNG, COLORED & ANGRY, AND PERFORMED IT AT OUR LIVE EVENT ON APRIL 25TH. HERE, YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE TRACK AGAIN AND READ THEIR ARTIST STATEMENT BELOW. XX ARS + ELLIOTT
Go Down Moses is inspired from the hope that a village has when they send their child off into the world. Dyani and Quazzy joined forces with one goal in mind: putting their collective cries into one message. Dyani's production includes the use of a custom-built Mbira, rooting the overall soundscape into a history of African spiritual tradition, Childhood, and Civil Rights Activism. Quazzy's background in Sound Design opened up the possibilities for a cinematic landscape by mixing in a chorus of different voices from all backgrounds to tie in the message of unity and community building.
Dyani Douze is a multimedia artist, raised in Miami, DC, and Paris and currently residing in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
Dyani recently returned from a study abroad program in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is currently finishing up her final year at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU. While at Gallatin, Dyani is continuing her research on the relationship between aural and visual media, studying sound design, film scoring, film editing and production.
She has served as an editorial apprentice on Spike Lee's documentary Bad 25, and has produced several personal projects, including a short documentary exploring architectural spaces in Paris. In her spare time, Dyani produces music and DJs at local venues.
Find more of her work on her Soundcloud.
Quazzy Faffle is as much of Nicholas Herd, as a Rose is just a sweet ass name. The Michigan Native spends his time instructing Yoga, Sound Designing Films, and writing Lyrics to music he and his inspirations make. Don't ask Quazzy to do anything the same way twice. No pregunta Quazzy para nada dos veces.
Find more of his work on his Soundcloud.
This piece was initially presented at the Wesleyan University on December 5, 2014. It is accompanied by the following poem, entitled Protest Porn.
Reach Djibril at: email@example.com
How do you begin to remember someone you have never met? Have you ever met someone you desperately try to remember even though you know you’ve not met before? It happens to me all the time and when I find myself in that condition, I’ve realized that the physical presence of the person interweaves with my imagination to form a sort of false memory. It is a place simultaneously occupied by real and fiction; absence and presence, physical and imaginary. This idea of false memory is my starting point in response to the legacies of post-colonial identity.
The Ussher fort (Crevecoeur) was built by the Dutch in 1649 in British Accra; and rebuilt in 1679 after the establishment of the second Dutch West India Company (WIC). It was destroyed by the British in the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. Later restored, abandoned, reoccupied and again destroyed by earthquake in 1862. The Dutch rebuilt it once more and finally transferred to the British in 1868, who immediately renamed it Ussher Fort and expanded it into a prison complex. It served as a functioning prison until 1992.
The work exhibited here deals with histories of two places in the Ussher Fort Prisons: the execution room and the mosque. The two places dealt with annihilation of a people’s physical existence and the later, restoration after earth. The former came together as mild imaginations of battered people; suggestive of grim dehumanized head forms. They were drawings from charcoal and water washes, sometimes a little watercolor as well. The graffiti on the prison walls which might be read as traces of personal narratives of inmates recorded in charcoal informed my material choice. One of such writings read “I am from Sudan and from Darfur”. It tells of displacement, migration and a search for a new identity although latching on to the old. This is of recent history only made possible through a systemically engineered past. The history told from inception of the colonialist is of horror and systemic exploitation that rubbed Mores of their dignity. Although the grim past might have missed me by a few years, its vestiges in religion, capitalism and shrouded imperialistic democracy still blatantly perpetuate even harsher methods. Of the past I could only capture the horrid faces imagined from the execution room — influenced by means of recording presence/absence on the walls of the prison.
The second aspect of the project is a site specific installation on the grounds that served as a mosque for inmates. The grounds are covered with construction nets (as I choose to call them), that have become ubiquitous in the Accra urban cityscape. On the net covering the entire worship grounds is an installation of distorted colored casts of partial human heads. Functionally these flexible rubber nets are used to ward off construction sites where work is in progress. However they metaphorically serve as mats on which worship takes place while the heads allude to imagined worshipers. The casts are incomplete because they represent mild memories of unknown people. Symbolically, the construction nets ward off the grounds (basis) of our post-colonial inherited belief systems – preparing it for reconstruction. Thus spectators are conditioned to engage the space above /outside the net whiles preparation for reconstruction is underway. ‘Outside’ is implied here if one imagines the ground as a wall and the audience engage from without.
But underneath all this, is there a slightest chance of remembering the unknown? Do we need to reconstruct religious belief systems woven into our post-colonial identity? Why is Ghana the most religious country in the world? By what measure is this status arrived at? Am I a part of this religious group?
This is part of an ongoing exhibition titled Voyage of [RE]DISCOVERY, at the Ussher Fort Prisons situated in Ga Mashie, Accra; in collaboration with
Adjo Apodey Kisser
Chief Moomen! Dzyadzorm
Robert Obeng Nkrumah! Serubiri Moses
5 MARCH - 26 APRIL 2015
To learn more about the Ussher Fort, please click here.
Kelvin Haizel is based out of Accra, Ghana. His work employs varied visual forms as a way to deal with nostalgia and fantasies that are resultants of collective postcolonial identity.
Reach him at:
Under cilantro rain I run
Up the loma with thorns in my feet
And amoebas in my stomach
Pulling water from the ground
I wash my face with the cows
Watching me like gods
Twisting about in the river bed
I dream of being dirt here
If only to fertilize these mango trees
I was raised on stew of hen
With twins tucked inside her belly
I sucked out two yellow suns
And grew them in my own womb
I am an archer with pupils of emerald
And seeds of guava for tears
At night lemurs sit upon my shoulders
Reminisce on our old gold mountain ranges
Camila Arévalo is a senior in the Gallatin School for Individualized Study at NYU. Her interests in and vision of culture, society and history are rooted in her own experiences as a Colombian American. She uses the detail and candor poetry, writing, documentary film and photography to bring light to issues and people that are often overlooked.
Reach her at:
Reading the passage, I trip on syllables,
The Spanish language sticks to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter, Letters get caught in my teeth:
"Ningún jorobado ve su joroba"
"She can't even speak Spanish."
"I never said I was fluent"
Miranda calls me a "phony and a gringa,"
Which is the very worst way to be alone,
Like the door to your home being shut in your face.
And I wondered then if I really was Latina...
My father's broken English and my mother's broken Spanish The store clerk that eyes me and asks if I "need any help"
And the man grabbing a handful of me, who "likes them exotic" My working classmiceandcockroachesexistence
The teachers implying that english is my "segunda idioma" The fourteen years of catholic school
And all the empanadas ingested,
Did it ever really happen?
Was my Latina card revoked? Did I lose it somewhere? Could I have left it behind?
All the times I didn't clean the house,
Perhaps my heritage was eroded by the rust and dust and mold.
Maybe I burnt it in that pot when I overcooked the rice.
Could I regain my lengua, if i sprinkled adobo in my mouth, or if I drank the juice of one million mangos? No, all the adobo and mangos in the world couldn't save me from my gringahood,
If I don't dance salsa and never developed a taste for pernil,
Because one time Stephanie said that if I didn't like pernil I wasn't really dominican so...
But since her name is Stephanie, is she really who she says she is?
Can she be "Latina"?
The Nuyorican, DominicanYork,
Me, a native of Brooklyn,
The HyperAmericanized Puerto Rican,
The HyperPigmented American,
Me, who can't talk in her "native tongue,"
Who wears her skin brown and her hair en rizos,
La girl who can't even speak Spanglish correctly. Me.
Could I be "Latina" too?
Daniella De Jesús is an actor, poet, playwright and native of Bushwick. Recent playwriting credits include "ASSORTED CRACKERS: A Reverse Minstrel Show" at NYU and "The Thief Cometh" (a one-woman show about the gentrification of Bushwick) at the 2014 United Solo Festival. Her poetry has been published in Chiflad@ Magazine and Vagabond City. Interests include: disco and pizza.
She can be reached at:
Quick asits given
‘Membah them slaves?
How they was livin’?
Handled po’ ly
Fo’ too many years
Laybuh all day
Naeght shed tears
Theys owners was rich
Them kept po’
Them was tired
fought to get mo’
Rights like whites
Alls they wanted
Thems lower class
Laughed at and taunted
In the wave of tryin’
Fo’ them right to be free
Them was beaten and dyin’
Eff, Arrrah, eee, eee
What them wanted to be
Them rich white mens
A’int give a damn fo’ them slaves
Worked them to death
Gave them no graves
Later them slaves
YES! Them FREE?
White man still say
“Nigger, you belongs to me.”
Z. Ingram is an aspiring Human Rights attorney, and NYU Steinhardt Alum. Z grew up in the South and works often include experiences had as a young Colored and (sometimes) angry person in the works created.
ਭੰਡਹੁ ਹੀ ਭੰਡ ਊਪਜੈ ਭੰਡੈ ਬਾਝੁ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥
bha(n)ddahu hee bha(n)dd oopajai bha(n)ddai baajh n koe ||
From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.
Sikhism is the 5th largest world religion, having originated in the North Indian state of Punjab in 1409. The faith’s main tenets are equality of all, selfless service, purity of character, and remembering God. Many of these teachings came from the 10 Sikh teachers, or Gurus, who organized the faith and were the original messengers of the faith. Now, these teachings are contained in the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib.
A Sikh’s goal in life is to reconnect with the Creator by remembering the Creator’s qualities and attempting to embody them. This also involves remaining separate from worldly attachments like greed, ego, lust, and anger. Through the Sikh spiritual teachings and daily practices—outlined in the Sikh Rehat Maryada, or code of conduct—a Sikh hopes to spend their life in this world aspiring for a pure character, mind, and spirit.
In order to solidify the commitment to the faith and these beliefs, the 10th Sikh Guru created the Sikh identity and initiation ceremony. The initiation ceremony, or amrit sanchar, is meant to occur whenever a Sikh feels ready to commit to all aspects of the faith. This generally includes daily prayers, the identity, and aspiring towards reconnecting with God. Once a Sikh participates in the amrit sanchar, they are considered amritdhari, or someone who has taken amrit (become pure through the initiation ceremony).
An amritdhari Sikh is required to wear the Sikh articles of faith at all times, and this is the essence of the Sikh identity. There are five articles of faith, or kakkars, and they are meant to serve as a constant and physical reminder of a Sikh’s beliefs and values.
The Articles of Faith
Kes: Uncut hair. Sikhs believe that hair, our body, nature, and everything natural is a gift from God. As a sign of accepting and respecting this gift, hair is left uncut and unchanged.
Kanga: Wooden comb. It is meant to be kept on a Sikh at all times in order to maintain the kes and keep it healthy.
Kara: Iron bracelet. A Sikh will wear at least one of these on either arm (although it tends to be their dominant-hand side) as a reminder to do good deeds and of the one-ness of the Creator.
Kachera: Undershorts. These are worn under the pants as underwear and are meant to remind a Sikh of the concepts of modesty, self-respect, and dignity.
Kirpan: Small sword. Representing social justice, equity, and defending the defenseless, the kirpan is a reminder to Sikhs of their difficult history and the need to stand up for what is right. The word kirpan breaks down to two words, kirpa- and -an, meaning mercy and bestow respectively. Thus, the kirpan is meant to be used only when necessary, and only to defend, not attack. The kirpan is worn either beneath or on top of one’s clothing, held by a strap called a gaathraa. The gaathraa goes across the body and the kirpan rests on a Sikh’s left hip.
In looking at how Sikh Americans are presented and represented, we found that the Sikh identity, primarily the 5 kakkars, were often portrayed and seen as primarily male. Although there are many women who wear the 5 kakkars, including the dastaar, it has often been presented as a figure of masculinity and male identity. As indicated with the inclusion of the line from Sikh scripture above, gender equality is significant in the faith, so the notion of an identity just for males is one that comes from cultural and political biases. In order to challenge these social constructions, we decided to put our skills together and create a representation of the female experience with kakkars and with Sikhi as a whole.
Harleen decided to use poetry to reflect upon her own experiences wearing the dastaar and the 5 kakkars, creating one poem for each article of faith. These poems are not necessarily a description of the physicality of each article of faith, but, rather, the notions and ideas one represents and believes in carrying them.
Rasna, then, chose to document the visual embodiments of these ideas through the kakkars, taking (5) photographs of the (5) kakkars. These photographs not only show the physicality of the kakkars, but also show them in a daily environment, allowing them to become part of the contemporary understanding of the Sikh female experience.
The combination of these photographs and poems is meant to depict the Sikh female identity, but also create a place for reflection, education, and understanding.
Thank you for reading, and we hope you enjoy our piece!
Harleen & Rasna
Long, black waves
Flow down and down and down.
Waves part with the teeth of a comb,
but come together again
Like the diasporic sensation of my own
I watch the black and brown
Fall to the ground
Like leaves fall from their
Branches, from their
Roots, calling it quits before the
Winter and the world freeze over
Feeling the strength within each hair
The collective strength of my hair
Rolling it together, folding it inwards
Making it stronger and more resistant
To the questions we will face
The challenges we will overcome
My hair wrapped up
In layers of fabric
Each a representative for the sacrifices made
The mirror shows a friend
and a stranger
Someone unknown to you
Perhaps one you should fear
The dastaar I see as fabric of my identity
You have been taught to fear as a turban of resistance
A symbol of terror
A sign of pain
My keski has made you fear me
Knock me down and keep me down
Denying my Lineage
And yet, I still rise
Dark, rigid, strong
against the cool,
Of my table.
Representing a time
When I stood
When I fought
When I remained
Unbending to your
Orders of what it means to be
How you wanted me to clean my head of
All things outside your tradition
Outside of your past
Outside of what is
Each strand parts
Like each flowing of a river
Parting at a fork
Choosing the path of destiny
Each and every time
Brush. Clean. Repeat.
The bristles move through the darkness
Cleaning the dirt
And the dead away
Leaving the light
Dark, rigid, strong
Against the cool,
"Lift the pen before the sword"
But how many words will it take
For you to understand,
My body is not meant for your destruction
For the hate-filled stares
That strike like
punches to the gut
For the shouts of
That fly like bullets
Whizzing through the air
Piercing the skin with precision and power
For the blood on the streets of
Filled with screams
Bullet holes in walls
Eyes gone blank
Prayers go up in smoke
As you kneel in front of the door
Tears dampening the ground
Waiting for him to come home
So tell me
How many more stares must I endure
How many more shouts must I hear
How many more murders must I watch
How many more words must I write
Before I can lift the sword
A single, solitary fist
Stood up against the sky
"I need five heads, who will give their life?"
Sarbloh: pure iron, unyielding and true
Representing the purity I try to create
Circularly representing the sacrifice
I must make of my own mind
Impart your wisdom onto mine
Let me become pure
I reach my fingers towards the sky
Hoping to find some glimpse
Of what might be waiting for me
Of what there is of you
But iron, cold against my wrist
Reminding me to look inside
Forge my work out of fire
It is all Divine
My core identity pulled in separate directions
My Kaur identity always asking me questions
Wanting to please those around me
Wanting to please You inside of me
I reach forward, I'm pulled back
Tell me, how do I give myself to You?
Fingers reach upwards
Golden brown against a pure blue sky
Pure iron glinting with sunlight
(One leg in)
Breathe in, breathe out
The hairs stand up on my leg
Like little soldiers
Ready to protect me
Against my own war
Waged against self-esteem
The rustles of fabric like
Covering secrets of
Self-denial and regret
Wrinkles of past and present
History made and history begun
Lullabies of martyrdom
Ready to strike, at midnight
Defending our freedom
(Two legs in)
Determine the center
Of my being
Modesty of my existence
Thighs like tree trunks,
Waxing and waning
Like the groans of trees
Against the wind
Holding stronger to
Roots in the ground
Seeds planted by forgotten names and faces
Outer strength of women, of queens
Inner weakness of trampled souls
And muffled screams
For my own humanity
The fabric caresses my skin
Cool against its warmth
The heat of my veins
Flowing with the
Blood of my
Harleen Kaur is a first generation Sikh American, passionate about using her words—written and spoken—to reflect upon her identity, investigate her past, and create positive change for the future.
Rasna Neelam is studying both art and science, and am interested in interdisciplinary studies and intersections. She loves storytelling - whether it be photography, writing, filmmaking, and more.
Setting the Scene
I have been a Fat Black Girl for most of my life.
And I have been figuring out how I feel about being a Fat Black Girl just as long.
At the time of this writing, I weigh between 270 and 275 lbs. My body is heavy, full of gravity and unwanted density. My body holds me down, literally. And sometimes, the only thing I want to do is escape this body—just float out of it, and never come back. Leave it folded over on itself, a heap of skin and viscera, adipose and blood.
If you’d have told me ten years ago that I’d still look like this, I would have laughed in your face. And then I probably would’ve killed myself.
At 15, I thought that being a Fat Black Girl was probably the worst thing you could ever be.
At 25, a part of me still thinks this is true.
But my fatness and I have developed a kind of interdependency. My body has learned to turn my trauma, and the stories I tell about it—these myths I’ve created to incubate the suffering—into something that is equal parts protection and prison. My fatness both terrorizes and takes care of me.
Maybe if I could unlearn these stories, I could remake my body.
Maybe if I could remake my body, I could learn to love myself.
Act I: Fat Black Girl Begins
I was in the first or second grade when I realized that I was “big.” My classmates and I were marveling over our freshly minted “Ident-A-Kid" cards, which were these laminated I.D. cards meant to help keep us from getting snatched. One kid leaned over, noticed my weight and said (loudly), “Hey, you’re bigger than the rest of us!”
He said it without judgment or malice; it was a fact. My weight number was higher than anyone else’s in the class. No one really said anything beyond that, but that was the day I became the “fat girl.”
It wasn’t until later in elementary school when I started to feel like my fat body was something I should hide. It was an odd confluence of things that happened: I switched from attending a predominantly Black and Latino school in the hood to a predominantly white one in the suburbs; I became the first one in my class to hit puberty; and my parents ended their marriage.
By the time I was 10 years old, I had already developed the body of a young woman: wide hips, breasts, and thick thighs. But no one saw that, especially the other kids. They just saw jiggling parts… and they teased me for it. And so, I learned to see my body the same way they did, and this made me hate it.
As I learned to hate my body, I also learned how to use food as a coping mechanism. Counter-intuitive? Hell yeah. Strangely comforting? Fucking right.
The thing about my fatness is that it is both the most comforting and the absolute loneliest of places. It is a house of contradictions, and I often wish I didn’t have to live here.
Act II: Fat Black Girl in Love
What I don’t tell anyone, is that I learned to hate my body at the same time my parents learned to hate each other. As love left our home, love left my body. And I’ve been trying to court it back ever since.
But it never works.
Instead, I offer myself to boys and men who don’t deserve me. First there is Kyle, then Derek, then Atu. I trick myself into thinking that their love will be the redemption, even when I know it can’t be.
Instead, I have written my body into a constant state of lonely, made my body deprived of and desperate for intimacy.
Instead, I punish it for its fatness. And maybe in this way, I take back control of all this gravity.
Act III: Fat Black Girl Rewrites the Story
I have been seeing a therapist-of-sorts for three and a half years. Eleven days ago, she told me that I need to rewrite these stories I tell about my body. She told me I need to stop the suffering.
I have been trying to think about what a new story would like. I have been trying to think about what my body is, stripped of its fat. Just me and my bones. Me and my truth.
The story in which I am
Fat and Black and Girl and Enough. The story in which I invite love into my home and let it feast, and let it grow bigger than all my pain and suffering. The story in which there is no Kyle or Derek or Atu, but just the ones who come after, the ones who I have yet to meet.
The story in which I am 15 again, and my fatness is the way in which I unapologetically take up space in the world.
The story in which I begin a child, with no memory of how I would teach my body to hold onto stories that I did not write.
The story in which I begin with the pen, hoarding the page, and no one else gets to narrate at all.
Michelle Denise Jackson is a Black girl who tells stories. When she's not writing and storytelling, she likes to produce independent media projects and make people laugh. She believes personal narratives have the power to change the world.
Reach her at:
So here you are: hopelessly strolling through some party that you knew was going to be disappointing, but decided to attend anyway. Drunk people are chatting, basic girls are dancing, and frat boys are fratting. And there you are, all alone, red cup in hand.
No man is an island, unless that island is an ethnic undergraduate at a college party.
But then, she walks up to you. She’s friendly – really friendly. She asks you a lot of questions. She wants to learn more about you. At this point you might even be thinking: Hey, she’s kind of cute. This is going really well!
Oh, you naive little ethnic loner. How wrong you are. Because at that exact moment:
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, I came here from Boston, but I actually went to most of high school in Richmond and—“
“No, like, where are you from?”
She has revealed herself. She is the White Girl With A Vague and Condescending Appreciation for Your Culture At Parties. She detected your melanin from across the room, and now she’s honed in on you like a Hellfire missile on a Yemeni village, you poor fucking thing.
But you have nowhere to go. You can’t find your friends, so it’s either keep standing around or let this girl Heart-of-Darkness the shit out of you for the next 15 minutes. Luckily, other ethnic fellows have been in this position before, and so here’s what you need to know:
1. Nothing you say, do, or want matters.
It should be stated that if you identify as a straight male and the White Girl With A Vague and Condescending Appreciation for Your Culture is a straight female, it may be one of the strangest heteronormative encounters in one’s lifetime. Like a browner version of Can’t Hardly Wait.
And So, what do you hope is the result of this interaction? Do you want to be friends with her? Something more? Or do you just need someone to talk to for the next 15 minutes as your friend clumsily tries to hit on his lab partner from his Intro to Psych class? If you’re considering either one of the first two, that is too fucking bad. Because unless you look like Zayn Malik, you are shit out of luck. This girl has no kind of deep interpersonal interest in you. To her you are nothing but an rare and exotic Silly Putty for her to toy with for the next few minutes.
2. Tell her she wants to hear.
If that one white kid in your race theory class, or literally every political science major in the American university system weren’t enough evidence, white people LOVE being told that they’re right about minority issues. So when the White Girl With A Vague & Condescending Appreciation For Your Culture says “Yeah, I’ve been to the slums in Mumbai, and they’re totally ____________,” or declares how much she just loves Indian food but ever since she got back from her humanitarian aid trip to India can’t find good Indian food ANYWHERE—even when you thought that one restaurant she mentioned was actually pretty good—just nod along. As a friend once told me, the White Man’s Burden may just be that they talk too damn much. Tell her what she wants to hear, and you’ll get through this convo quick enough to hit the late night special at that Indian restaurant she hates so much.
3. Play up the ethnic drama.
Whenever people like the WGAVCAFYCAP see about People of Color, they like to think about struggle. A key to maneuvering this conversation is by making your comfortable upbringing in suburban Atlanta sound like an episode of Homeland meets Boyhood. Look, it doesn’t matter that your parents met when they were graduate students at Rutgers. In this moment, as far she’s concerned, your mother gave birth to you as her and your father were sprinting across a Kashmiri minefield to catch the last driftwood raft sailing to America And as a brown/yellow/black/etc. boy growing up in white America, everything was really hard. Like, super difficult, until you came to college and met open-minded girls like her.
4. Your favorite sport is soccer.
It doesn’t matter that all the other kids on your high school soccer team called you Helen Keller because you were so wholly uncoordinated, and that the only reason you made the JV team was so that you wouldn’t be the only upperclassman still playing on the fresh-soph squad. As far as conversation goes, soccer is your favorite sport. Call it fútbol (with accent) for even greater effect. Cricket can be a close second. If you have no fucking clue what cricket is, or just think it’s boring and nonsensical, say that your dad wouldn’t let you buy a cricket bat because it reminded him too much of the civil war in his home country and she will be too moved by emotion to ask any follow-ups. Crisis diverted.
5. Trinkets!! :D
Do you have any fun, vaguely ethnic trinkets to show off to the White Girl With A Vague & Condescending Appreciation For Your Culture? Now’s your chance!! If there’s another thing condescending white people like, it’s tangible evidence that their patronizing viewpoint is the truth, and that all People of Color are interesting little curios instead of actual people. This is a great time to say that the wooden necklace you wear that your ex-girlfriend bought you from PacSun is actually a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation, and that your grandfather was barely able to toss it your dad before su abuelo was kidnapped in the Chilean military coup of 1973.
6. Remember the truth.
Despite what some white girl with a bindi says on Tumblr, Third World culture wasn’t developed to be shared. No matter how many Dubai nightclubs she’s partied at; no matter how many “community service” trips she’s made to Africa; no matter how much she loved The Kite Runner—the White Girl With A Vague & Condescending Appreciation For Your Culture will never know what it’s like to spend a day in your beautiful, colored skin. So make your peace with her ignorance, and go off into the night to better things, you dark star.
Did you like this piece? Check out our other guides, like: “How To Talk To White Boys Who Fetishize Your Culture At Parties: A Primer,” and “How To Find Non-Heteronormative Primers: A Primer.”
Sachin M. is a a first generation American of Indian heritage currently living in the West. When not attempting to make some humor out of the shitshow that is American race relations, Sachin enjoys punk rock, soccer, and iced coffee.
I wish I could tell my skin that it is made of fire. That it covers blood and bone and muscle no different in makeup from Jennifer Lawrence or Michelle Obama or Emma Watson.
I wish I could tell my skin that it exists as a covering for what is pulsing within my body, that it has been designed to keep me safe, and that anyone who cares more about wrapping paper than what it contains inside is a fool.
And I am learning that even the people who love me can be foolish.
I am trying to come to peace with something I never used to cry over.
I am trying to tell my skin, I am trying to tell myself, I am trying to tell my mother and my family and whoever I want to love me that I am more than my color.
But I am my color, too.
My skin is not a shade an Indian mother can be proud of, my skin is the color of cinnamon and peeled-back tree bark, and my skin never used to make me ashamed.
I am dark. My father is darker, could probably pass for Black if his features were not so unmistakably Indian. My mother, on the other hand, is fair. I never had a problem with being dark when I was younger — my father’s sister is darker than he is. I thought her skin glowed, it was so black. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I used to sit out in the sun so my skin would grow to be like hers. And I laughed at that Indian standard of beauty, sure I would never care about the shade of my skin.
But then I turned fifteen, and I sat in a room while my great-uncle demanded to know why my two-year-old niece, whose skin is far, far fairer than mine, was “so terribly dark.” He thundered this at my uncle in a tone both angry and disapproving, and I shrunk back into a corner and tried to disappear and learned for the first time that being brown could make me feel small.
I was twenty and listening as my great-aunt told my mother that I was looking a bit nicer now that I at last looked fairer (living through two Michigan winters will do that to you). Most painful of all, I had to listen to my mother tell me she agreed with my aunt, that she thought fairer was prettier as well. This from a woman who married a man so dark his complexion isn’t just shades darker than hers, it’s at the bottom of an entirely different paint swatch. What did that say about what she thought of my father? What did that say about what she thought about me?
I know they say beauty is only skin deep. But we want even that thin layer of skin to be wholly accepted by the people we love, regardless of its color.
When I tell white Americans that Indians prefer fair skin, they inevitably ask me, in a tone half disapproving and half slyly pleased, “Oh, so like … they want to be my skin color?” I used to think it was my duty to sweetly answer these condescending questions. I do not think so anymore.
I do not want to be your skin color. I want to be my own. And I want to be comfortable in it, the same way I was when I was a child and didn’t notice that no one I read about in books or saw on television looked like me.
I want my mother and the mothers of other Indian girls I know, smart, educated women who love and want the best for their daughters, to stop caring about the color of our skin.
Let us play outside if we want to.
Let us get darker, let us develop.
We are more than the shade of brown we are labelled by.
Let us understand that we are made of fire.
This piece was initially published in Michigan in Color, the Michigan Daily's opinion section designated as a space for and by students of Color at the University of Michigan. To find out more about MiC, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Teresa Mathew is an Indian-American writer and photographer who loves light, lightning and the vibracy of love.
When Peter Griffin got in a feud with Mr. Washee Washee, the owner of Super Cowboy USA Hot Dog Rocket Ship American Cleaners Number One in an episode of Family Guy, I couldn’t help but sigh. Once again, the stereotypical accent was there. Once again, the absurd names were there. Once again, the hostile foreigner typecast was there.
Watching this made me reflect on a dialogue session last semester about the poor media representation of minority groups. From this session, I became frustrated about how I do not see myself on TV, in movies, in magazines, or in most media forms.
I first want to say that I acknowledge the harmful and dangerous media portrayal of other minority groups, and I do not mean to deduct any attention or significance from their perspective. My goal is not to claim who has it worse, or that other representations are no longer relevant. This isn’t to discount the skewed media representation of Asian-American women and other women of color, or how heteronormative our media representation can be. This is my frustration, identifying as a Chinese American man, with the media industry.
We exist — I exist, but not in the typecasted manner found on TV or in movies. I am not a token socially awkward nerd. I am not the austere owner of a Chinese restaurant, nail salon, or dry cleaners. I’m not a wise kung-fu master who will teach you how to channel your inner xi. I’m not a fetishized exotic flamboyant Asian. That’s not who I am. I am more than that; we are more than that.
I’m tired of being the quiet side character. I want to see that I can be the lead character, and not just a neighbor or side story. I want to see that I can model the latest fall fashions alongside my white peers. I want to see a show that isn’t solely centered around my ethnic identity. I want to see a show that doesn’t cast a Korean person as a Chinese character, or pretend to speak Japanese when it’s really Vietnamese. I want to see a show that doesn’t cast the Chinese character as the know-it-all brainiac who makes others feel incompetent.
And I’m tired of being desexualized and emasculated by the media. I want to be more than narrow lines for eyes and a bucktooth for a smile. I want people to see my sexy features unskewed; my taste in fashion, the curves of my lips, the crescent of my eyes, and my killer smile. I want to see that I’m capable of developing a relationship without mockery that my partner could do better. I want to see that I’m desirable, and not in a fetishized way. I want to see that my beauty is not limited to the only other Asian character on the cast.
I do want to acknowledge that there are some better Asian-American representations in the media. For example, ABC is airing a new series called “Fresh Off The Boat” based on Eddie Huang’s experiences of being an ethnic minority in a predominantly white setting.
But let’s not stop there. I refuse to passively accept the harmful ways I’m portrayed. I refuse to idly let these racist media typecasts represent me; to propagate a false image of the Chinese-American identity. This destructive narrative needs to change.
No more typecasting. No more exotification. No more desexualization. I have a voice. I am plural. I am a stunning, sexy Chinese-American man finding my way in a white patriarchal society who is significant enough to have my own narrative and can take the spotlight.
Let’s see that on TV.
This piece was initially published in Michigan in Color, the Michigan Daily's opinion section designated as a space for and by students of Color at the University of Michigan. To find out more about MiC, email email@example.com
I am Kevin Chung: a Chinese-American man reclaiming my narrative and embracing my plurality.
Don’t ring, text.
I hovered my hand above the doorbell, poised to ring it. As my fingers stretched, approaching the button, I remembered the pact we’d made. I quickly adjusted my motion, sliding my hand into my pocket to pull out my Blackberry. A few seconds later my phone vibrated in response, affirmation that my friend was coming to get me. She slowly creaked open the front door of her house and ushered me inside. We crept upstairs, anxious to begin our sleepover. When we finally entered the privacy of her room, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and grinned at the heist we had just pulled.
Get out before her dad wakes up.
The next morning, sunlight spilling through the windows reminded me of our agreement. I crept downstairs and out the front door, dialing my mom’s phone number. Embarrassed about the real reason for my early departure, I would tell her half-truths about why I had to be picked up at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings. “I just wake up so much earlier than my friends and I don’t want to sit around and be bored.” In reality, this arrangement was the result of a humiliating conversation. “My dad is racist,” she apologized. “He just doesn’t want me hanging out with you.”
When faced with racist comments, don’t show your hurt or anger. People won’t take you seriously.
Though I would like to say that I grew up with a strong sense of self and pride in my people, I was taught the difference between white and wrong at a very young age. I learned not to get in the water at pool parties, so I could keep my stiff hair hidden under the heat of my flat iron. I learned to research and memorize the lyrics of John Mayer and The Red Hot Chili Peppers so I could appear knowledgeable about the “acceptable” music preferences. I learned that “for a black girl” was a necessary qualifier for compliments that passed my way. Pretty for a black girl. Smart for a black girl. Articulate for a black girl. Little by little, I was socialized to believe in a shameful “truth,” that Black is an inherently negative descriptor. An ugliness I would need to overcome to be respected, valued, worthy.
So I started to compensate. I began to distill the things that I wanted to do into the things I was allowed to do, given my Blackness and how I thought others would perceive me. As I had more experiences with racism my filter became more refined, and I added new constraints to my growing list.
When faced with a difficult class in college, never, ever drop it. Especially when you are the only Black person in the class. You don’t want to give credence to the belief that you were accepted solely because of your race and you can’t handle the challenge.
When applying for a job, remove any race-related organization from your resume that a white person could read as radical or self-serving. Black Volunteer Network may stay, but the Women of Color Collective must go.
When cat-called or harassed on the street; just say nothing and keep your head down. You don’t want to be seen as the scary, angry Black woman.
When going out with your Black friends don’t walk together in a large group. Make sure there are several feet between every pair of people so others don’t feel threatened.
When an officer of the law asks to see your license, “accidentally” hand them your school ID first, so they know you are getting an education and will treat you better.
When shopping, always carry the items you are considering purchasing far away from your body, so salespeople won’t think you might steal them and have you arrested, or worse.
My whole life I have been indoctrinated into playing by the rules. I truly believed that as long as we all mastered living within the arbitrary boundaries of what a Black person “could” be, we would be protected because of it. But that just isn’t true. These white lies just try to hide the fact that under white lies one thing: fear for white lives. But instead of challenging this pervasive, irrational reaction, we systematically assuage it at the expense of my people. I saw this in President Obama’s speech after the Ferguson verdict, when he said “the law feels as if it’s been applied in a discriminatory fashion, but I don’t think that’s the norm.” I saw it in the words of the St. Louis County Executive, as he pleaded for people to “think with their heads and not their emotions.” Both men trying to restore a narrative in which the predictable, state-supported murder of Blacks isn’t a big deal. I see it right here, in this article, knowing that the way in which I have chosen to write will make me eligible for compassion and understanding from white readers that I wouldn’t have been privy to otherwise.
Whenever talking about how you’ve been impacted by with racism, only share the most overt, irrefutable examples so you will be seen as logical instead of over-sensitive. Explain racial oppression through an unemotional lens so white people will take notice and care.
You may think I’m a hypocrite, but within that tension is the only place my Black experience is allowed to exist. Wanting to show that there many different ways to be Black, but knowing society will only reward and accept me for one of them. Trying to live in America like the rules don’t apply, but also trying to just live. Waiting outside in the darkness for her message that will finally tell me I am welcome to come in.
This piece was initially published in Michigan in Color, the Michigan Daily's opinion section designated as a space for and by students of Color at the University of Michigan. To find out more about MiC, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ryan is a graduate student studying engineering at the University of Michigan. She is really passionate about finding intersections between the science and the social justice worlds. She loves writing, smoothies, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and consensual sex.
Reach her at:
@Shm00day on Instagram
I’m tired of trying to make you feel better.
I always thought it was my job to bow down to the white man, explain my “culture” to you, help you to understand who I am, where I come from, why I speak the way I do. For once, it’s time for you to let me be me, sit back and listen, and understand my struggle.
I’m tired of you being angry, of you “hating white people.” Wake up son, you are one. Just because you “know about social justice” or you go to the protests, doesn’t mean that you will ever understand. Your skin will always be white. Mine will always be brown.
I’m tired of trying to make you feel better, trying to tell you that it’s ok for your voice to be heard. Tired of seeing white people continuing to take up space, even in places that are supposed to be safe for people of color. Tired of hearing a white man say the exact same thing as me, but being respected one hundred times more. Your voice dictates the dominant narrative. Your voice is the media. Your voice is the education system, health system, and legal system. I will never be that voice.
For once, let our voices be heard. Let us have our space.
I’m tired of trying to explain the difference between allyhood and speaking up in support of an issue. I’m tired of validating your desire to be an ally when I’m hurting and unsure about whether I should be on this campus at all. Great, you want to support me? Try to understand how hard it is to walk around every day knowing that I am the only person that looks like me. The only. Freaking. One.
How do you explain a childhood of dreams, wishing I were white, wishing that I grew up in a different family, that I wanted to be just like everyone else. Worrying every time I go to the airport that I may miss my flight, knowing that I will be pulled aside for secondary screening at least, factoring in an extra hour for the TSA to harass me, embarrass me, pull away every single wall I’ve spent years building. Until there’s nothing left. Until I’m just a girl and her tears, vulnerable and alone.
I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I’m lonely. And I just want you to listen.
I want us to all get along. I want you to support me. Don’t run out hurt when someone tells you it isn’t your time to speak. Understand that that’s what I’ve been told my whole life. I’m always the one listening. Listening to the media about how any man with a turban and beard is a threat to our country. Oh wait, it’s not my country though. My blood runs red and warm, my voice thick with a Midwestern accent, my feet covered with the dirt of our land. But it’s not ours. It’s yours. It’s always yours.
I just want to belong. But I can’t when I look like this. Looking in the mirror every morning, seeing a stranger. Walking to class. Feeling the stares, the glares, the questions, the assumptions. Knowing that you don’t understand me. Knowing you don’t want to understand me. Coming home. Feeling alone. Again.
I want to speak out, but when I do, you hurt. When I don’t, I hurt. Always being shoved into a pretty little box to be your little minority friend, diversifying our group, making you more culturally aware when I talk about how my family struggled through the Sikh genocide or how I hurt every day knowing that a white man walked into my gurdwara and shot six of us. Just like that. Like they didn’t even matter. Like I don’t even matter.
One brown girl in a sea of thousands, wondering, waiting, wanting to be understood. Help me to be understood. Listen to me, love me, want me, care for me. Let me show you who I am. I just want to belong.
I just want you to listen.
Harleen Kaur is a a first generation Sikh American, passionate about using her words—written and spoken—to reflect upon her identity, investigate her past, and create positive change for the future.
I am a Black woman who identifies as a woman of color, a solidarity term defined by a group of Black American women as a commitment to work in collaboration with other women who have been racially oppressed and minoritized. By definition, identifying as a woman of color is not a biological right but a political choice to build solidarity through a network of support, critical awareness, compassion, empathy, courage and above all, the highest frequency of love.
Women of color are women from various racial backgrounds who seek refuge, safety and empowering liberation from the social injustice of our white patriarchal world. We come from a broad range of racialized identities and the destructive insistence and pervasiveness of racism and sexism construct and inform our lives in various ways. Therefore, the term “women of color” is not so much about political camaraderie around our similarities but much more about seeing, hearing and challenging our varying positions in the current hierarchical racial order. The various -isms that we face are not what form us, it is our audacity and agency to create and facilitate an active dialogue and practice that subvert oppressive institutions, such as, but not limited to, racism and sexism.
In my experience, the conversation on racial injustice amongst women of color most often takes the shape of discussing our sociopolitical positions and experiences in terms of our proximity — or lack thereof — to whiteness. The dialogue often lends itself to the ways we all have been oppressed by an unrelenting racist patriarchal society that overwhelmingly places social, economic and overall institutional power in the hands of white men. The framing of this discussion is important but it often leads to what I call a false sense of sisterhood. It says, “I see you and I hear you,” but in reality this framing has repeatedly rendered me mute and invisible.
An integral function in the current white supremacist model of race and racism that often goes unchecked is the diabolical, global persistence of anti-Blackness. Discussing white dominance in terms of capitalism, normativity, privilege and other forms of institutionalized racial oppression is largely incomplete without including all the ways that these systems are inherently anti-Black. But anti-Blackness is not a social justice term used in our so-called safe spaces. Instead, it is the term that drops with a heavy thud that reverberates throughout a silent room.
We tend to be comfortable with placing whiteness at the center of our conversation on race because whiteness is structured as the norm — everything else is “other.” As non-white women, we can all identify with this otherization and marginalization but we have yet to gain the understanding that whiteness itself is predicated on anti-Blackness. The silent resistance to engage ourselves in reflection and dialogue around anti-Blackness the ways we are ready and willing to check white privilege is a fear. This fear functions as a block from a necessary critical awareness of the ways anti-Blackness is the soil that the white racial order sits on. The conversation on race is complex but it is a complete disservice to not unpack the ways that racial oppression is not only pro-white but also anti-Black. Recognizing anti-Blackness does not negate the ways that racism exists as a detriment to other communities of color. On the contrary, raising our consciousness to identify and check anti-Blackness has the potential to reveal the ways we are all connected without making our struggles fungible.
The late Black lesbian feminist scholar Audre Lorde famously stated that there is no hierarchy of oppressions. We must be careful in using this quote to justify an unwillingness to understand the hierarchy in which racism functions. Within the context of the essay, Audre Lorde was directly referring to there being no hierarchy in the oppressions she experiences. She could not — as none of us can — choose at different times which identity to be and which to defend. She was Black, woman, lesbian and socialist simultaneously and therefore experienced racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism all at once.
Oppression is not dualistic.
To view it as such would be reductive, diminishing and dismissive to ourselves and others. Audre Lorde’s famous quote is often misused. To be clear, her quote does not negate the fact that Blackness is a premise that our white racial order positions itself against.
To consider Blackness as a potential center of the conversation on race and racism disrupts the ways we are conditioned to think about racism as “the white man’s” and “the white feminist’s” problem. Positioning anti-Blackness as an equally important gauge as pro-whiteness initiates a shift toward inner and outer transformation necessary for true solidarity to be manifested. Solidarity can not truly exist until non-white people see the ways they are complicit with and benefit from silencing Black voices, narrowing Black narratives and ultimately denying Black realities. As non-white people, we are used to gauging ourselves in terms of our proximity to whiteness but my proximity to whiteness is nonexistent.
My Blackness is diametrically opposed to it.
As a Black woman, I am the forbidden fruit in the garden. The rules of white patriarchal supremacy say do not consume or digest who I am to better understand who you are, only consume and digest who I am to gauge what and who you are not. You are not the simultaneous embodiment of the darkest, the ugliest, the dumbest, the laziest and the most inferior existence. Anti-Blackness functions divisively, instilling in all people that those who descend from the most melaninated people on Earth are to be feared, exploited, commodified, hyper-sexualized, abused, objectified and denied.
Anti-Blackness is multifaceted and pervasive. I do not intend to cover every base in this space. Therefore, this article is to be used and seen as a very basic start in gaining perspective and understanding. In many, if not all, of our communities, we have been inundated with the messages that white skin is ideal. It is associated with ideal beauty, social power, financial control and world dominance — largely gained through the evils of imperialism and colonialism. The closer you are to this white ideal, the better. I have sat in rooms where everyone can agree that this colorism says that white is right, pure and beautiful. This line of thinking, however, also says that black is wrong, dirty, ugly, that blackness should be denied, disallowed and bleached. Where there is crime, Black males are most likely to be convicted at the highest rates and for the longest amount of time. Where there is low socioeconomic status, Black people are disproportionately present under the poverty line. Where there is chronic disease, in most cases, Black people are four to ten times more likely to develop it and die from it. Where there are hate crimes and police brutality, Black bodies are most likely to bear the brunt of it. Where there is access to quality education, career opportunity, health care, proper nutrition and protection of the law, Black Americans on a whole are systematically, structurally and institutionally barred from it.
It is no secret that the United States’ current economic structure is built on anti-Blackness. From the slave trade onward, the United States government and corporations guarantee monetary gain for the exploitation of Black workers, Black culture and Black urban communities. To echo the Black Arrow Organization’s blog, “Generations of non-white immigrants (e.g. Jewish, Italian, Irish) have assimilated into whiteness by mobilizing anti-blackness.” There is a formidable fear that Latin@s and Middle Eastern immigrants will also choose to assimilate into whiteness, unless, as BAO states, “they make a radical commitment to a militant de-colonization struggle.” Assimilation toward whiteness is born out of the idea that power is only possible by adhering to white supremacist rules, ideologies and systems. Decolonization means a number of things that I am in no position to define for groups that I do not belong to but in terms of building solidarity with Black people, a large part of decolonization requires unlearning and deprogramming from the frequency of anti-Blackness.
Upon analyzing my relationship with non-Black women of color and the solidarity building I have recently committed myself to, I struggled to call it sisterhood because while I have grown to love the non-Black women of color, a very large part of me has felt uncomfortable. This discomfort stems from stories about my Black body, narrative and reality being feared, denied and disallowed by my Korean, Mexican, Arab, Vietnamese and passing Chaldean counterparts. I continue to struggle across all fronts for my humanity to be realized. Our relationship cannot thrive without deep introspection and analysis on how we participate in each other’s oppression.
Our solidarity cannot be built on the ground of anti-racism without using the waters of our internal truths to mold its foundation. If you are to call yourself my sister, look at me. This is not limited to non-white women. I am challenging anyone who claims to love a Black woman and hold justice near to them, to look at us.
Every marginalized person has experienced the dissonance of having to play by the rules of a system that is designed to limit her simple existence. Cutting one’s natural hair to look more “civilized” during the job interview. Wearing uncomfortable heels because it is what is expected of “professional” women. Speaking the King’s English whenever white folks are anywhere in the vicinity so as to gain their trust and foster their comfort.
Many times, these are simple acts of survival. If you don’t get that job, you’ll go broke. If you detract from the professional appearance of your company, you’ll get fired. If you don’t gain the trust of white folks, they may view you as a threat -- and threats to white folks, even 17 year old threats with bags of skittles and ice tea, do not live very long.
Necessarily, as a Person of Color, there is a certain amount one must compromise to live within a white supremacist society. But when does compromising go too far? How do we live within a system and play by its rules without endorsing it as legitimate? What are the limits of subversion and what are the costs? And are the costs worth it?
Without asking these intimidating questions of ourselves, the irony is that in our need to simply live another day, we may unwittingly support the ongoing dehumanization of our communities caused by White supremacy.
On October 7, 2014, feminist scholar bell hooks and transgender activist and actress Laverne Cox had a conversation as part of hooks’ residency at The New School. They discussed a variety of issues regarding feminism, Blackness and queerness. During a part of their discussion about women not only submitting but willingly participating within the patriarchal gaze, hooks critiqued Cox’ physical presentation by stating that “one of the issues I think that many people have with trans* women is the sense of a traditional femininity… that many feminists feel like we’re trying to get away from.” Cox responded by saying, “I’ve constructed myself in a way that I don’t want to disappear. I think so often there is an erasure of certain bodies and identities and I have never been interested in being invisible.”
To Cox, presenting herself in a “traditionally feminine way” (which Cox describes as wearing “high heels,” “makeup” or a “blonde wig”) assists her in finding visibility — not only as a public figure, but as a living being — because not meeting the social expectations of womanhood can lead to refusal to acknowledge the identities and lives of trans women.
This moment exemplified profoundly the contrast between surviving under and holding up an oppressive system — a fine line that all marginalized people must constantly fight to keep from stumbling across.
As a cisgender Black man, I don’t know the struggle of being a transgender Black woman, but I do know the constant terror of the threat of disappearing or becoming invisible. This is a physical threat, as the countless unarmed Black men and women killed by the police in just the last year proves, but it is also the emotional threat of simply feeling invisible, unwanted and unloved.
The emotional survival of People of Color is equally as important as their physical survival, as much of the compromising we do under oppressive systems isn’t just to be alive, but to feel it also.
When you’re sensitive to the ways in which the white supremacy is perpetuated, it is easy to overlook the need to feel human in favor of the need to delegitimizing the system by refusing to participating in it. However, both of these are real needs and finding a balance is a delicate task, How do we know that by “taming” Black hair to gain acceptance in the workplace we aren’t endorsing the idea that “taming” Black hair is necessary to gain acceptance? How do we know that urging our children to be extra respectful of all police out of fear that they may be hurt by a cop isn’t an endorsement of the idea that our children should respect officers who do not reciprocate respect? How do we really know that meeting the standards of white respectability in our public life doesn’t translate into an approval of respectability politics?
Too often we overlook the importance of this give-and-take, and sacrifice mental or physical safety for the sake of fighting the system, or vice-versa.
In 2012, Sid Credle, the dean of the business school at Hampton University (an HBCU), banned cornrows and dreadlocks in the classroom. Credle claimed his main concern was that these hairstyles, which are generally associated with Black hair, would prevent his students from being regarded as professional, telling ABC News, "all we're trying to do is make sure our students get into the job." Many were outraged at what was perceived as forcing students to shed some of their Black identity to meet white standards.
It is true that that which is associated with Blackness is often not accepted by those in the white professional world. We have seen evidence of this in how names, skin tone, and even how one chooses to denote their race affects hiring practices.
But without giving an analysis of how sacrificing Blackness is ultimately and unnecessarily destructive even if it sometimes leads to an immediate advantage, Credle essentially gave an endorsement of a system that demands such a sacrifice. Even MLK was murdered in his three-piece suit while preaching non-violence.
Furthermore, it can’t be assumed that everyone wants or needs to work in the white professional world, and it certainly can’t be assumed that all of these students would find happiness in an environment that strips them of this choice. Indeed, it isn’t a stretch of the imagination to assume that many of these students decided to attend a historically Black university in order to build a safe spaces where they can find some semblance of security in their Blackness, taking advantage of the very purpose HBCUs were established.
Compromise is never enough, and although a necessary reality at the moment, it does not always have to be. In working towards the destruction of White supremacy, compromise should have the result, or at least the goal, of gaining more power to change the system, whether through job security, gaining more clout, or simply providing the insurance of physical and mental safety.
Once that power is gained, it is then up to us, as deans, bosses, leaders, or merely people who are given the opportunity to live another day, not to hold others to the same standards that caused us to compromise so much of ourselves unnecessarily.
It is up to the woman who achieved promotions by meticulously avoiding any action that could cause her to be seen as an “angry Black woman” to allow the employees she now manages to show a full range of human emotions.
It is up to the Black man who was able to survive an interaction with the police by knowing how to avoid furtive movements not to blame a child for being shot when asked for an ID and then mistakenly reaching into his pocket.
And it is up to the student who submitted to white standards of physical presentation and became the dean of a school to demonstrate that how Black one’s hair is has no legitimate link to their intelligence or capabilities.
Sometimes, the discomfort of compromising even a small part of oneself after already having compromised over 400 years of slavery, lynchings, and legalized racism is much worse than the discomfort of refusing to do so at all. Taking the time to analyze which things can’t be compromised without a loss of identity is necessary for determining where to draw the line with an oppressive system. These sacrifices will be different for everyone, and mandating that we all tread the same line is impractical.
It’s easy to forget while fighting for justice that as People of Color, we too deserve to be able to live and feel alive at the same time.
It is equally as easy to overlook the fact that no Person of Color can be completely alive under a white supremacist system.
In the long run, there is no solution except the destruction of the system, and we can’t afford to lose sight of that—but sometimes we just have to live another day in order to do so.
Hari Ziyad is a graduate of Tisch's Film and Television program at NYU and is a writer, content creator, and blogger with a passion for gender/queer/race issues. His work has appeared on BlackGirlDangerous.org and DoingMoor.com, and he runs the blog RaceBaitR.com. He also works at a talent management company in New York City.
He can be reached at:
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“We understand these black killings as contemporary lynchings. What has been the point of lynching historically? Not to kill individuals but to let everybody know: ‘This can happen to you. You get out of place and this is what can happen to you!”
-- bell hooks
In recent months, social unrest and racial disparity have become national trending topics. In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, of Rekia Boyd in Chicago, of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, of Eric Garner on Staten Island, of Walter Scott in New Jersey, and of countless others, communities have called into question the faith they have in law enforcement or the criminal justice system.
It all comes full circle with the murder of Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the hands of a 73-year-old volunteer patrolman, Robert Bates, who allegedly reached for his taser but “accidentally” grabbed his gun instead. When Harris yells for aid, one of the officer’s detaining him boldly asserts, “fuck your breath”.
It is safe to say that these American tragedies and responses have taken a toll on my own mental state. I’ve spent days on my college campus gruelingly debating my right to live in a world that won’t let me breathe or expand beyond my own expectations.
I have spent three consecutive days, following the Eric Garner non-indictment decision, shut-in, deciding to take the time off to recollect my thoughts. I told my (kind and understanding) professors that I needed to take a “#BlackMentalHealthDay”—a term I coined as justification for my absences.
This has altogether been physically and mentally taxing. Being a student of Communications, I have been taught the ways that the mainstream media can project a false narrative. Being a student of Africana Studies, I have been taught the histories of systematic oppression of Black men and women in America. Each non-indictment, each media crucifixion, each “contemporary lynching” was a slap in the face to these educations, and to a mind that has been taught to grasp the history and psychology of it all. Watching and partaking in this fight for freedom has taken time away from my studies, has affected my mood and my sleeping patterns, and consequentially, my grades. And I know I’m not the only one suffering.
“It’s hard to sleep at night. It's hard to get out of bed. I find myself spending more time at home because my energy and aura is completely off and I don't want to put that energy on others,” says Jasmine Cordew, a Communications student at Brooklyn College, as she reflects on her reactions to Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer. Jasmine recalls her experiences in the classroom and other spaces she occupies: “I had to have discussions about race, identity, the police, the lack of justice [and so on] on a daily basis. I am constantly fighting and emotionally uncomfortable. I feel trapped.”
“It’s important to acknowledge the fact that the purpose of our existence in the America’s was never to thrive here,” adds Dr. Afiya Mangum, licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Howard University. Dr. Mangum sees time in cycles. “This has been repeated before. The use of Facebook, Twitter and social media to get the word out about these ‘contemporary lynchings’ is no different than the way Ida B. Wells would hand out anti-lynching pamphlets in town squares.” Wells handed out these pamphlets because some Black Americans in the 1930s needed a reminder of their circumstance. Mangum says, “If you don’t understand what racism is, everything else will confuse you.” Simply put, if you don’t see racism, nothing will make sense or you will try to rationalize the condition with what is considered most comfortable. “We are all affected by this, some just cannot articulate it and others adjust to their restriction,” says Dr. Mangum.
But why is a “reminder” necessary? Why do some Black Americans hesitate from “seeing” racism, when it has caused us so much pain in our racial histories? Why do we choose not to hold racism accountable for these ongoing crimes?
Understanding why some Black Americans choose to not take part in the discourse is more complex and difficult to dissemble, primarily based on the fact that this is not a singular experience. In Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS), DeGruy describes a set of behaviors, beliefs and actions associated with or, related to multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans that may be inclusive of but not limited to undiagnosed and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in those enslaved in the Americas and abroad. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a theory which speculates that centuries of slavery, followed by systemic and structural racism and oppression, have resulted in survival strategies that have evolved into multigenerational behaviors. Some of these attitudes contribute to what DeGruy describes as “antipathy or aversion for the following: The members of one’s own identified cultural/ethnic group, the mores and customs associated with one’s own identified cultural/ethnic heritage, the physical characteristics of one’s own identified cultural/ethnic group.” This aversion may cause some to shy away from recognizing the bloody expressions of racism against their fellow Black Americans. Often times in conversation, segments of the Black community will retort to comments pandering to respectability politics or black-on-black crime to deflect from recognizing this continued injustice. These disheartening responses only lend to ignorance and by default, acceptance of police brutality and legal injustices as facets of everyday life. Often times, when feelings are repressed, they project themselves elsewhere.
Another reason for this hesitation may be found in the psychology of abusive relationships. Often times in abusive relationships, the victim chooses not to speak up against his or her offender. According to Dr. Michael J. Formica, the abuser is driven by primitive ideas of fear while the victim is left emotionally handicapped. The majority of American psychotherapists believe that this may be caused by conflicting emotions towards the abuser, social and cultural pressures to remain silent, and a reliance on the abuser. To Dr. Formica, abuse is about “a dynamic of extremes, domination and submission. It is about giving and withholding, also in the extreme.” Abuse is a relationship that is made up of two parts, fueled by an abuser’s pathological need for control and the victim’s willingness to accept the inconsistency of the abuser in exchange for their desire of being loved. To me, this reads not unlike the relationship between white oppressor and Black oppressed in this country. In this context, “love” is acceptance and a space within the dominant culture, and the inconsistency in the abuser shows itself in their perpetual limitations and murders of the abused.
Victims of abuse often become familiar with their circumstance and normalize its behaviors. Love is Respect, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing abusive relationships, writes that people stay in abusive relationships because they may not “know what a healthy relationship looks like, perhaps from growing up in an environment where abuse was common, [and] they may not recognize that their relationship is unhealthy.” It is important to note Black Americans have started their uplift in the midst of a society that was not meant for them to thrive. They have never been in a “healthy” relationship, and at times, this may prevents some from understanding what that is and how it differs from the injustice still experienced.
Historical adversity, including the race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans today according to Mental Health America. MHA believes that while negative stereotypes and feelings of rejection have decreased, they still persist.
“Adult blacks are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. Adult blacks living below poverty are two to three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty.
Adult blacks are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites. And while blacks are less likely than whites to die from suicide as teenagers, black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.2 percent v. 6.3 percent)”
But despite these statistics, addressing mental health and seeking treatment is not considered priority in the Black community. Studies conducted in 1996 conclude that 63% of Black Americans see mental illness as a personal weakness, contributing to convictions leaving those who may be subject to traumas untreated. More recently, Black spaces in social media and television programming like FOX’s Empire have posed questions and opened discourses surrounding the taboo, but this still isn’t enough.
Healing is a process and cannot be done through internalization and individualism. “You don’t heal in isolation,” says Dr. Afiya Mangum. Dr. Mangum is working in conjunction with The Association of Black Psychologists on Emotional Emancipation Circles (EECs), self-help groups where Black people can work through ideas of inferiority. This program is available at a number of schools across the country, including Howard University and Medgar Evers College.
While within our communities, we understand and realize the hostilities that arise when confronting racists or racist apologists, we acutely understand the necessity for the conversations to be had. “I am angered. I am upset,” McKenzie says, “But we have to discuss it. It's the only way to hash out our sorrows and frustrations and find feasible solutions for our issues.”
Formica, Michael J., M.S, M.A, Ed. M. "Understanding the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships." Psychology Today. Michael J Formica MS, MA, EdM, 14 July 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
Leary, Joy DeGruy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Milwaukie, OR: Uptone, 2005. Print.
"African American Communities and Mental Health." Mental Health America. N.p., 2013. Web. 05 Jan. 2015.
Boardman, Jason D., and Kari B. Alexander. "Stress Trajectories, Health Behaviors, and the Mental Health of Black and White Young Adults."Social Science & Medicine 72.10 (2011): 1659-666. Web.
"Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?" Www.loveisrespect.org. N.p., 2012. Web. 04 Jan. 2015.
About Terron Davis:
‘Everyone has their own narrative. Their own characters. Their own storylines. You are the star of your own movie, but it’s important to remember that they are the star of theirs. There are scenes before you came in for your guest appearance. Remember that shit.’ — Me
I often find myself quoting my own ramblings. This one moment of clarity, however, is a statement that defines my inner narrative. My personal goal is a collected human understanding of one another. The truth is we are not all the same, we do not all fit one mold and it is important to respect those difference instead of "loving" and "respecting" others in spite of them. This is the truth I'm looking to tell in this space as well as all the others I occupy.
“I’m a hairy bitch. I’m a hairy, beautiful queen. And I love it.”
Skin Deep: Women of Colour and Their Body Hair
Body hair is everywhere and nowhere. In the Western World, it is a weed that is pulled from women’s bodies systematically and without question, rigorously policed by a chokehold of patriarchy, capitalism, racism: shame.
In my examination of mental health, art and activism, body hair is often characterized as an abnormality or aberration, for example as the medical condition ‘hirsutism’, as a pornographic fetish, as something threatening or something trivial, and always something to be removed, something to be removed, something to be removed in every sense of the word.
In my first relationship and close contact with a man, I would watch, as he would routinely wake up, rub his hand over his face, and leave the house to begin his day. I have always worn very little make-up myself, and tend to let the hair on my head do whatever it decides to that day, but still, the disparity between us in freedom of movement and freedom of mind was clear – and I began to see this disparity everywhere I looked, in advertising, in the lives of my friends, in the university sanctioned reading lists that were considered exempt from criticism.
It was around then that I stepped into the shower to perform my regular shaving ritual, and a small thought pushed its way to the front of mind: that this act is absurd, and that the double standard that it is couched within is even more absurd.
It wasn’t until two years later, when I left university and moved into a large shared house in London, that I was able to transition from someone who “experimented” with body hair (which often meant wearing cardigans in the sunshine) to someone who could begin to accept her body, find it beautiful even, and begin to make choices about it that felt like they were hers.
Danni Paffard was the enabler of this transition, and my experience watching her is the basis of much of my strength of feeling around the importance of the image. Danni lived in the room above me and was always running. She would run up and down all the stairs of the four-floor shop-turned-house and would leave the house at 6am every day without fail to run the streets of London. She’s an environmental campaigner and is known among friends for being hilarious, and having a piercing laugh that can work as a routing device at music festivals when everyone’s phones have died. Danni is loved by men. She wears lots of mascara and has an asymmetrical fringe. She doesn’t remove any of the hair on her body and makes no attempt to hide this fact regardless of where she is. Danni Paffard blew my mind. I remember sitting opposite her for the first time, watching her tie her hair up with both hands, desperately trying, like a child, to catch a glimpse of her armpits.
It wasn’t just seeing the hair so brazenly displayed that began rewiring my brain, it was the context, the fact it was so clearly situated among other stylistic choices: the make-up, the clothes, the fact that she laughed so often, danced so hard, felt desire and was desired, and yes, the fact that she was able to muster an unapologeticness which I felt could shatter the world.
I believe that much of her ability to live like this comes from an inherent confidence which is undoubtedly tied to social factors. That she is a white, middle class, able- bodied, heterosexual female cannot be overlooked, but neither can it discredit her role in my personal awakening. Besides, there are many, many women who share all her identity markers, and who do not challenge beauty norms in this way.
Iit was the fusion Danni Paffard represented (hairy social deviant meets outgoing stylish babe) that created a new level of understanding within me, and perhaps her being white and fulfilling so many other traditional beauty norms was part of that.
In a psychological review of work that has been done on ‘hirsuteness’ (“an excess of body hair in the male distribution” (Conn & Jacobs, 1997)), Keegan (2003), states:
A display of facial or body hair is only acceptable in women who in some way represent the ‘other’.
Two such categories of ‘other’ emerge: older women (i.e. past the need to be sexually attractive) and ‘foreigners’. To be happy about the presence of ‘superfluous’ hair is also the prerogative of women regarded socially as deviant, e.g. lesbians. One implication of this, which is not directly spoken, is that sexually attractive heterosexual women cannot display facial and body hair. (Keegan, 2003:14)
That body hair is palatable in situations where the women involved already lack value in society or have in some way ‘let themselves go’ speaks again to the importance of The Image, and particularly images which challenge those ideas by fusing unexpected images, for example, a woman’s hairy stomach with her manicured nails. These fusions are so powerful because they present the hair as an active choice rather than an involuntary byproduct of old age or illness or lesbianism. In short, images can remind women they have a choice, and what is feminism, if not the pursuit of the right to make empowered, agentic choices? As Lesnik- Oberstein writes:
Attendant on this issue is a challenge too to some (mostly popular) feminism to consider more carefully its formulations around ‘fun’ feminism and ‘victim’ feminism. The whole idea of make-up and clothing, or other ritual decorative practices, as constituting in any simple way ‘celebrations’ of ‘femininity’, serves to close down important questions around the coercive practices of social ridicule and social exclusion for those not willing or able to participate in this ‘celebration’, never mind the more general question of how women (or anyone) come to believe that they have freely ‘chosen’ to engage in certain practices. (Lesnik-Oberstein, 2006:6)
As I have grown in confidence and challenge myself to experiment with my body further, it has become a billboard; at clubs, on the subway, in classrooms, and I have come to think of it as an act of direct action, as well as one of deep self love. My body provokes many conversations with women, usually after a few drinks, and these have become the conversations I enjoy the most, as there is a real feeling that a psychological burden is being unloaded between the women participating, as personal stories that have often never been told before are being vocalized. These conversations are not always easy, however. Sometimes women feel judged or chastised by the sight of my body and the jarring reminder that there is another relationship we can have with our hair. I am met with a great deal of defensiveness that I try to dismantle, often by telling a few stories of my own, about my moustache and the other parts of my body where hair growth still disgusts me. Still, these conversations, by and large, become about choice, and by making something which is barely allowed to be seen so strikingly visible, that conversation has been achieved.
As I welcomed increasing discourse and activism around body hair, I couldn’t help but feel that something still wasn’t right. I began to realize that the experience is different for Women of Colour in a way I did not have the language to express, or was frightened to. But as feminism became more of a diverse space, and crucially, via social media, one that was easily accessible by diverse women, this very dilemma began to be played out.
‘Misogynoir,’ coined by activist Moya Bailey in 2013, became a go-to term on the blogosphere to describe the double bind felt by Women of Colour by virtue of our gender and race. And as I read more, it transformed my understanding of my instincts. It helped me realize why I felt uneasy as my white, middle-class feminist friends gleefully lambasted Beyoncé for the way she moves and for her contradictions, and why I felt uneasy about a feminist body positivity movement that did not seem to account for the unique experiences of black women.
Then in August of last year, writer Mikki Kendall called time on these double standards when she started the hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. It exploded, inviting Women of Colour globally a chance to grab the microphone. Using social media as a tool for unity, change and liberation, women tweeted vignettes of what it means to be a non-white woman and a feminist, and why that’s an important distinction to make.
My unease also came from the look in my mother’s eyes every time she saw my body hair. The look has been persistent over the years and communicates so much more than a feeling of disgust or judgment that I have come to expect. I could not help but feel that as a Pakistani woman who grew up in a racist 1970s Britain under constant threat of attack, there was a deeply racial and particularly social element to her discomfort with my choice, though that was never said.
This line of thought was reawakened while studying under photographer Deborah Willis. Around the same time I heard about gender professor Breanne Fahs’ course at Arizona State University entitled Race, Class, and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives. As part of this course she offered an extra credit for female students willing to grow their body hair and male students willing to remove it and document their experiences. This was widely discussed on social media and Dr Fahs analysed her students responses wherein she found body hair removal “an example of how women have internalized patriarchal ideals of femininity." The interesting bit of this however, was that while the majority of her female students found the challenge “difficult” and “disgusting”, there were marked differences between the experiences of the female students of Colour, and the others. As she reports:
Reactions to body hair carried raced and classed elements, as women of color and/ or working-class women reported more familial regulation about body hair and far more social penalties for growing out their hair than did white or middle/upper class women. Women of color often expressed that body hair exacerbated their ‘differentness’ from white or middle/upper-class women in the course. For example, Ana compared the quality of her body hair with her white classmates:
When I compared my hair to the hair of the other girls in class, there was an obvious difference. My hair grew in thick and coarse. The other Latina women in the class understand that the white girls had it easier because their hair was thinner. I felt like people would think I was a ‘dirty Mexican’ because of the hair, that I was doing something nasty, and people would connect my body hair to my being lesbian or Mexican.
Body hair for some women of color became a marker of racial status, which made it harder to assimilate into white middle-class educational settings. (Fahs, 2013:494)
Isn’t it amazingly fucked up that a body that is maintained in line with society’s narrow code of acceptability (a white code) is one that has “looked after itself”, that has not “let itself go”? This is discussed by Foucault (1986) who describes it as a process by which regulation of the body comes to be seen by us as self-care, rather than as a process which may reflect gender or economic power relations - or racial ones.
With regard to respectability and body hair, the most striking testimony can be found in Breanne Fahs’ classroom study:
I come from a family that didn’t have much money, and to let yourself go is going against everything I have been taught. I’m always careful about coming across as respectable and clean, just so I don’t confirm all of those stereotypes people have of me as dirty and low class.
These comments reflect the association of body hair with both a lack of femininity and a lack of respectability, as women of color implicitly faced judgements about how their bodies circulated in public spaces as indicators of their racial or class statuses. Women of color constructed their bodies as having more at stake in this supposed loss of respectability. (Fahs, 2013:494)
No-one, as far as I can see, has tried to measure the psychological impact of body hair practices for Women of Colour, but it has been attempted for white middle class women (surprise!) with a very direct correlation proved across the ages between ‘hirsuteness’ and ‘psychological morbidity’. In a 1938 study by Rabinowitz et al on hirsutism and anxiety, women with hirsutism had significantly higher levels of anxiety than the control group. In 1992, Barth et al measured psychological morbidity in pre-menopausal women with hirsutism. The results found that there was a measurable correlation between hirsutism and social dysfunction in women, which in turn led to overall psychological morbidity in hirsute women.
More recently, Lipton et al, in their 2006, ‘Women living with facial hair: the psychological and behavioral burden’ found results that support many of the earlier studies carried out; namely that 1. Women with unwanted facial hair experience high levels of distress and that hair removal constituted an immense time and emotional burden for these women. In addition to the time burden, it appeared that many women had concerns about their appearance, felt ashamed, and lacked self- confidence. Thoughts about unwanted hair were constantly in the minds of most women, demonstrated by their frequent checking for hair, and 2. Although a large number of women perceived their facial hair to be severe, a finding more pronounced in mixed race and Asian women than white women, this perception was found to have little bearing on their psychological health.
It’s getting there but the research is lacking, or perhaps useless. What about women who are not considered medically ‘hirsute’? What about women who do not display signs of mental distress? What about black women? This is not a medical phenomenon, it is a social one.
There is clearly a mental onus around body hair rituals that exist outside of the realm of having a full blown mental breakdown which can be measured on some sort of psychological scale (though that obviously counts too). I can’t help but feel that for many women, particularly Women of Colour, the mental health effects are much more insidious, hidden among other pressures and concerns, hidden from ourselves, couched confusingly within a culture where these practices are considered ‘self-care’ and the experience of participating in them, indeed a therapeutic one.
I am interested in the small stuff. When there is open critique of beauty rituals, this often revolves around the cost of them, the time they take and the pain that must often be endured. This is a neat retelling of the experience. A few studies I have read indicate that body hair is something that is “always on their mind”. This quote, found in one study on psychology and hirsutism is particularly harrowing:
Behavioural measures to conceal hair in this sample included covering the lower part of the face with the hands, staying in shade, maintaining physical distance from others, moving quickly to avoid close observation, wearing concealing clothes and an avoidance of physical contact. (Zerssen et al, 1960)
The mental burden of hair removal does not stop when the hair is removed. It has to be planned and timed around social events, wage delivery and potential sexual encounters. For example, if Layla has a work event on Thursday and a date on Saturday and wants to wax her moustache for the work event, she may encounter a problem as the hair will not grow back fully before her date on Saturday so she may not be able to remove it again before then, but the stubble will be showing, which is unacceptable for a date. Headspace.
Researching the psychology of body hair, I have found a repeated testimony of women describing hair as “dirt”, themselves as “dirty” and the process of hair removal as one intricately tied to the idea of cleanliness. Douglas (1970) suggests that a contravention of order by any object which is “likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications” becomes, “dirt”. This is striking and makes me think immediately of sexual assult survivors self-reporting as feeling “dirty” (Coy, 2009). So let’s think about race. Worldwide, darker skin is considered undesirable and dirty, with many practices employed by women such as scrubbing and bleaching, in efforts to lighten the skin (Craig, 2002). Many racial slurs imply dirtiness. So what is actually going on when women of colour take their hair off? What does it feel like to live with a daily triple burden of brown skin, body hair and a history of sexual abuse, as so many many women do? This framing around the concept of dirt helps to understand why so many women may become so observant of hair removal practices, which are closely related to ideas of cleanliness and purity. This shit goes deep. These ideas were also found in the testimonies gathered by Fahs:
Ruby confronted her own sexism and racism about body hair: ‘I also thought, like most people, that women who did not keep up on their appearance through body hair removal were lazy, dirty, and kind of crazy. . . I never thought that it could be a choice.’ Sharon, who could not finish the assignment because she found it intolerable, described her fear of dirtiness as a raced dimension: ‘As a black woman, I know what it’s like to be looked down upon by white people. I don’t need to be made aware of that any more than I already am.’ Ana similarly commented on her body hair by noting its raced and classed dimensions:
I found myself wearing makeup more often, at first unconsciously. Before I’d stopped shaving, I hardly ever wore makeup. I started because I didn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t ‘take care of myself’ and I’m always aware of the fact that, as a Mexican, I have to go that extra mile. I’m not a college professor and I don’t live and work with other feminists like some of my girlfriends do. I’m a waitress, and my coworkers would think I was a freak. (Fahs, 2013:495)
Last year, Chinese women made headlines for “bombarding” Weibo, a social media site with images of body hair growth. Although framed as a competition, this was a highly politicized online campaign, including the statement:
Many people consider it personal hygiene or etiquette for girls to shave their body hair, be it leg hair or underarm hair. Guys, on the other hand, get away with sporting bushy armpits and a forest of hair on their legs, arms and even chests “because it’ s manly”.
In the UK, 23 year old Harnaam Kaur has made big headlines this year due to her decision to keep her facial hair and speak very publically about it. She has polycystic ovary syndrome and began growing hair on her face aged 16. After years of intense bullying, shaving, waxing, bleaching and a few suicide attempts, she decided, supported by her brother and close friends, to grow her beard out fully. For her there was a religious element too, that appears to give her strength in her decision. She began growing her beard shortly after being baptized as a Sikh and therefore not cutting the hair on her head anymore. In one interview she said, "It's the way that God made me, and I'm happy with it." She has since gone on to write articles, give many television interviews, and was the only woman included in a London exhibition by photographer Brock Elbank, that was in celebration of the beard. She also has her own YouTube channel on which she talks, directly to her audience, about her experiences. She has said:
I can laugh about it now but back then it affected me so badly that I began to self harm because it felt better than all the abuse I was getting. I’d talk to people with a hand over my face and I wore baggy, tomboy clothes to cover up the hair on my chest and arms... But I wanted to make my own decisions and live for myself – not anyone else... I’d had enough of hiding. I’d had enough of the bullying and the self-harming and the suicidal thoughts... I’m able to go out and shop in the women’s section without feeling I shouldn’t be there. I wear skirts, dresses and jewellery and I like to get my nails done like every other girl... If I had any message it would be to live the way you want – it’ s your journey and it’ s your life.
A further black women and body hair related search on YouTube returns a video posted by Brittany Virginia Green, a young, American Black woman, called, “Why I DON’T Remove My Armpit Hair (OR ANY OTHER HAIR ;)”. It has had nearly 5000 views and has a constantly renewing flurry of mostly positive comments underneath. The video is powerful, funny and very thought-provoking. She says:
No. I’m not doing it anymore. And I feel like there’s a different type of sexiness to it. Like, a natural, womanly, womanly, sexual, sensual, aura to it. I don’t know how to explain it, I just feel like this is me in the raw. I’m a woman. I’m not nine. I have hair on my vagina. Get over it. Also... hair is psychic, it’s a part of our nervous system. It’s psychic to be sensitive, to know what we want, to be aware, to be self-aware, to be able to pick up on unsaid ques... hair assists with that. When we cut it off, we’re cutting that off... So, with all that said, I’m keeping all my hair, boo. Every last bit of it. Coz ain’t nobody got time to be sitting in the bathroom... doing all these things. I’m keeping it. I love it. I’m a hairy bitch. I’m a hairy, beautiful queen. And I love it.
She also speaks to her black identity and its relevance in conversation about body hair:
Let me tell you this. I’m a black woman. My hairs are coarse, curly, and thick. I know a lot of Black women or mixed women or Latina women or Irish women, or Italian women can relate. We deal with razor bumps, dark marks, just all the complications that come with shaving your armpits, or waxing your bikini line, or doing all this stupid shit that we really don’t wanna do, but we do because it’s etiquette, it’ s an anomaly to see it on the street, or because our guys expect us to do it.
These intersections of race and body hair politics are empowering and promising and brilliant, bright and visual, but they are not common enough. I am collecting testimonies, using a call-out for self-identified Women of Colour to tell me “how your racial identity has influenced your relationship with your body hair, if at all”. Below are some responses I have received so far:
Jenny: Becoming-aware of body hair was definitely concomitant with becoming-aware of not being white (I remember one of my best friends referring to me affectionately as a ‘half-caste’!). The first time the two came together in my head was when a half-Polish girl in a group of other friends (and certainly an ‘other’ in the school due to her name, too) talked to me about getting rid of our moustaches, which I was very embarrassed about discussing. (She used bleaching cream; I tried, but it had the horrific consequence of bleaching my upper lip skin as well, which didn’t show on her). She said we both had dark hair because of our ‘heritage’; and afterwards I remember becoming-aware of the idea that Asian women have more body hair (which I just fact-checked and apparently ISN’T TRUE). The idea that I have more body hair, especially facial hair (that I need to get rid of, but that’ s another story) is in my mind linked to me being half-Indian/Pakistani. I had totally internalised this idea until you asked about it.
Nadia: I found that growing up asian girls were taught that straight hair is desirable. Even now hardly any asian girls and even black girls embrace their natural hair (luckily there are some websites like naturallycurly.com). Also having dark body hair was a problem with asian girls at school, they would get their eyebrows and moustaches threaded/waxed off well as the white girls got away with less waxing as they tended to have blonde body hair.
Shauntell: well for me personally, i didn't start becoming more free and comfortable with my body hair until i got in the #naturalhairmovement, which basically is a movement for black women that decide to go to our natural roots, fros, frizz, kinks and all and learning to love ourselves, and educating on ourselves about our history more. it's a lot deeper than hair, i can tell you that lol and throwing out relaxers etc.
i had done the big chop and have been natural for 2 going on 3 years now. doing just that alone was big defining moment for me and was really deep for me. around the same time i did that, i also started questioning other beauty standards i had once subscribed to and wanted to go against tho's as well. so i simply stopped shaving.
at first i was really uncomfortable and even disgusted with the sight of it, much like the hair atop my head, because i wasnt used to seeing it. but i realized that was a conditioned response. i started talking to a guy friend of mine and he really made me feel better about myself. i honestly have never felt sexier than i do currently, body hair untouched etc. i feel more like a woman that's in control of my own life and body and it's extremely liberating.
— — —
There is so much more to talk about; the Muslim women in East London that I have lived with for years, who cover their bodies completely in public, but talk to me in the waiting room of our local beauty salon, minutes before their full body wax; The cultures wherein the onus of beauty lies with men, or elsewhere; Men, and the rapidly growing pressure on them to conform physically to hair and beauty standards, for them too to be subsumed by this patriarchal capitalistic nightmare; There is the precious relationship between body hair and identity experienced by Trans People of Colour which is being written about beautifully by Sabah Choudrey. There is also class, which is so often lumped together with race as a way of side-stepping it, but is central to this conversation, and every conversation.
In conversations I have had about body hair I have been told I am a killjoy, that I should just be grateful I still have my clitoris, that I should shut up. In conversations I have had about race, I have been told that I have never experienced racism, that it is all in the past, that I am making people uncomfortable, that I should shut up.
It is in the past, and that’s why it is in every cell inside my body and every hair outside of it. My hair gives me voice that is louder than the haters, it is a radical re-scripting and a crucial daily reminder to me and the people around me, that the choices offered to us are not the only choices available. Before we can make a true choice, we have to remember we have one.
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