The Fight to Love Myself: A Reflection On Racial And Gender Identity
This was originally written as a blog post, then rewritten when I realized it fit an assignment I had for school. Then the assignment turned out to be better organized and now this version is the assignment turned back into a blog post. Life is just easier when you can kill two birds with one stone.
It’s okay that you’re not so simple.
Everyone has a story. Sometimes those stories are hard to see when we are just shuffling through life, in our individual spaces, taking no account of what’s happening around us. Sometimes we’re unwilling, and perhaps unable, to stop and ask someone what their story is. So we make snap judgments and summaries that can fit into 140 characters or less because it’s easier than entering into the complexity of someone else’s life. We try to simplify our understandings of people through simple phrases and weighted stereotypes.
If I had to put myself in “simple boxes”, some would be obvious to start from a visual reflection: tall, black, young and female. Based on the simple questions people usually ask, some other boxes come up that aren’t so obvious: Haitian, Christian, immigrant, college student, 24 years old, single, musician, and not quite 6’, more like 5’11”. Within these simple descriptions is a basic outline of an individual. There are inferences that can be made about what I will be like based on what I look like and what my ethnic background might be. Before I can get a chance to speak, sometimes those visual boxes will say multitudes on my behalf. Without my permission, they engage in visual conversations with others about who I am and what I will be like.
Every day I wake up, I have to fight to love myself, I am trained in the fine art of “identity self-defense”. If I am waking up from my bed at home, where I rise into the role of a Haitian-American woman, I am greeted to a world where I am balancing old-world values of family and marriage against the world where my career and education could keep me from having a family for a long time.
When I see when I look at my sisters, I see reflections of my childhood. I was eight years old when my mother had my first sister. Up until then it was me and the boys. My three brothers and I grew up playing games, having fun and doing what kids do. One of my favorite things to do was play soccer. I wanted to play on an actual team one day and being as active as I was, if I had stayed that way, it might’ve happened. When my first sister was born, I would watch the boys play outside as I would help take care of her inside the house. I was always promised I would be able to go back out once I took care of the work that had to be done inside. However, another sister was born, then another, and another. There were less and less instances where that promise was fulfilled.
I was told that the world wasn’t a safe place for little girls to go off and play. When I did go out and play, I wasn’t allowed to go beyond the backyard. My brothers explored the limits of our backyard and grew exhausted with it and soon ventured further out. For some reason, God had made me a girl and according to my culture, that meant my place was indoors, but the whole world was theirs. I was in eighth grade when I decided to try out for the soccer team. After three days of showing up for try-outs, running alongside students I remembered playing soccer with during recess in elementary school, I didn’t make the team. I couldn’t keep up. Many of the other kids were much more flexible and skilled than I was, and at the time, I hadn’t realized how drastically out of shape I had been. After years of adjusting to life indoors, my body, much like my parents had told me how far I was allowed to go.
When the outside world was cut away from me, I sought refuge in the inner one. In the safety of my mind, there were no limits on where I could go. Sometimes I would sit and daydream in this imagined world where I could live this life as another person. I had also discovered the public library. I would visit the library frequently, borrowing about ten books at a time. Everything I was curious about, I explored in books. I learned early on how to escape through writing and I still carry a notebook around with me everywhere. The development of this inner world happened as a response to the feeling of rejection from the outside world.
Though my parents are proud of where I am and even tell my sisters they should read more, I remember the days when they chastised me heavily for spending too much time in my room doing that very thing. It was a tug of war between trying to maintain my inner world and living in theirs, where I was their obedient, oldest daughter. I grew up putting them in simple boxes, they were parents, more specifically, Haitian parents. They raised me and my siblings to dodge the unknown, all in an effort to keep us safe. As immigrants, they were suspicious of anything they haven’t heard of directly from their friends. When someone’s parents experienced something negative with their child, it was probably safe to protect us from whatever caused it. They knew the four careers that would be successful and safe. I was told I could be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, or a nurse (nurse was always the first, most practical option).
I learned very early on that if I wanted to try anything new, I would probably be the first one in the family to do it. With that came a whole set of fears that I am beginning to understand as I get older. When I had conversations with my parents about my dreams, they were weighed down by realities that were too complicated for me to understand when I was young. When I got into music and wanted to play the guitar, my parents bought me a guitar for Christmas, but wouldn’t allow me to take lessons. The place I wanted to take lessons was near the library, a distance I was already used to walking. However, in an effort to shield me from the unknown, they dismissed the idea, saying they weren’t sure what would happen to me while I was there. The guitar was again something I picked up to help me pass time indoors.
As a musician, I’ve sustained a sort of novelty factor, which was always annoying when I was growing up. A couple of months ago, I googled “black female guitarists”, and stumbled upon the facts that cemented that reality: I was a rarity. The list of black guitarists was much longer, even the list of female guitarists. But at the intersection of “black and female”, I was able to find 10. When I was a kid, I never reflected on being the only one of my kind in a room of musicians. I didn’t think it was isolating when I was told I was “very good” after playing a four chord song.
I continually face this isolation when I walk into the music shop where I couldn’t take lessons and I would be ignored almost all the time. When I asked for help, it was always assumed that it was my first time walking into a music shop. To this day, I never go to a music shop without first researching and knowing full well what I want. Sometimes I find myself correcting the people who are trying to help me. Music shops are a place where I go, knowing I will not see many women. When and if I do, they are accompanied by other men or are trying to buy gifts for their significant other. I am not surprised by the prejudices I encounter when I walk in and usually I expect to be asked if I need help when I am about to pick up an instrument. Sometimes it’s discouraging to know that once I walk in, my competence has already been assessed because I don’t look like their typical customer: white and male.
These days, I wake up from my bed on campus. Sometimes, the fight to love my self is easier here. In some ways, it’s not a struggle being in a place as diverse as my school. However, as a religion major, I am currently the only black female religion major (that I am aware of). In most of my classes, I am either one of two black students, of one of two or three female students. The intersections of these minorities within my major never really come to mind. I don’t feel any less equipped to learn, study and make the grade. I expect to graduate with a good GPA and go to seminary. However, I expect that going further up in education I might see fewer women and even fewer black women.
I’ve entered rooms during department gatherings where my presence doesn’t quite feel unwelcomed, but rather, tokenized. I am aware that I am the only one speaking from my perspective. While God gave me a voice which I intend to use, it sometimes feels weak in these contexts. But all the time I’ve spent indoors, cultivating my inner world, writing and playing music, I’ve increased the volume of that voice. I am fighting to love the idea that God wants me to be a leader, even if that means I have to be one in places where leaders who look like me aren’t seen as normal.
Today, I get to look at my sisters do amazing things. My parents and I have had long discussions about the past and I am growing in my ability to understand their perspectives. Since branching out, it’s become much more evident how much my upbringing was based on trial and error, in unknown territory and unknown circumstances. In order for me to grow up and see my own responsibility for where I am in life, I had to free them from the simple boxes I’d put them in. For all I know, if I was in their shoes, I would make the same choices. Especially since those choices made me who I am today.
Now I see my sisters involved in sports, basketball, track, and cross-country (unfortunately the love for soccer was unique to me). It has proven to me that we’ve all learned from the past and the future is so much brighter. There are fewer unknowns, especially when I have stories to share about where I’ve been, stories to make their journeys outside the simple boxes a little easier. I let them know that for them to get what they want from this world, they have to fight for it. I let them know the odds that are stacked against them, as first generation black, Haitian-American girls. But I also let them know that when they finally get to where they need to be, based on the adversities they will face, they will be the strongest ones there.
For anyone who identifies as a minority in any space, they will understand the fight to love yourself. To wake up and assert your humanity, first to yourself and then to those who will try to put you in simple boxes, those who are too tied up to listen to your story. As a black female, I’ve fought to occupy the space of “musician”, “academic” and one day, “pastor."
Growing up, there were many times I couldn’t fight all the simple boxes I was trapped in. But the more I grow in my awareness of what those boxes are, I’ve had to fight to escape their entrapment. Now, I’ve recognized that my identity is far too complex to take up residence in a simple box, whether it’s constructed by society, my parents and their culture, or even myself. For me, the fight to love myself means giving my potential the permission to play outside.