A few years ago, an important person in my life asked me, “Why is it always so intense and emotional with you?” Obviously, the very fact that I have been holding onto this question seems to prove his point, but I’ve recently felt the urge to address it publicly.
This question is both multi-layered and problematic: For one, it came from someone I care deeply about so, it’s personal and has forced me to dig deep into my actions. But beyond that, it’s a question that women, especially black women and feminists, are asked all the time.
The narrative of the strong black woman stems from slavery and segregation. It is the notion that women of color have made it despite the odds and thus, should no longer be a source of concern. As Prof. Beauboeuf-Lafontant says in Behind The Mask of The Strong Black Woman, “It was part of the justification for treating a group of people like they weren’t human, so you could exploit them without second thought.”
Certainly not all women of color are “angry” or “intense” but if we are, it’s because we either have to be, want to be or need to be. And how could one not be angry in the face of racism, sexism, and classism in our society? How could anyone remain perky and upbeat if they are grasping for justice and love in a world of inequalities?
I wasn’t born intense, nor do I think anyone is. It wasn’t until I went off to a predominately white college, and felt the pressures of injustice around me, that I became so at various points. But I didn’t shy away from my concerns or anger - I voiced them. I organized to create social change, I became an activist and sought out likeminded individuals. And though I appeared to be angry to the outside world, I was also consumed with sadness, confusion and anxiety. Feminist activism, and putting on a tough face, were my ways of moving through the muck and finding a path forward.
So to the person (and future close friends and family members) who ask me, “Why Are You So Intense and Emotional All The Time?” I say this: I am “intense and emotional” with the people I trust most with my heart. You are my place to show fear at the end of the day, and to let go of the calm yet stern face that so many activists must put on each morning to fight for social change.
I hope the next person who thinks about asking a woman, a woman of color and/or an activist this, will take a moment to realize that even the the strongest person can find themselves in moments of weakness. Even the person who is independent, and yes, sometimes angry, needs a safe place to be “emotional”.
This is a story of what not to do if you are about to graduate from college, and enter the workforce.
I have been meaning to write this post for many years now… the story of how my first job “screwed me over” in the process of being financially stable in my early twenties.
I graduated Middlebury College in 2008 with an outstanding education, a great CV full of experience, and mind full of determination. Unfortunately, this was also the time when few people had job openings - and even fewer had money - so no matter how great I was (or thought I was), the opportunities were slim.
While the majority of my college friends had rightly decided to play it safe and enter the for-profit world (or, if they were lucky, travel around the world), I was determined to do something that would a. pay of my enormous college loans and b. be a part of something that would transform the world in a deeply magical way (Can you tell that I was a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed graduate who thought you could do both?).
Well, after about 2 months of applying to jobs, I finally got a response, followed by an interview and job offer. I was ecstatic. I was working in a field that I loved - the arts - and with a community that I admired - Brooklyn. I was so happy to have a job that I didn’t even think to ask how much I was getting paid until after I got hired (Colossal mistake). The result: I earned about $23,000/year (before taxes) for a job that seemed to always add new tasks but no more money.
I loved that job and I loved the people but the reality was that I couldn’t afford my own apartment, pay off my loans, or have savings. Though I felt a bit slighted when I learned friends where making quite a bit more in other nonprofits, it didn’t seem that bad then. I was happy, appreciated by my co-workers and doing work that I loved.
I eventually left because it didn’t fulfill all of my desires, but the reality of that minuscule salary did hit me later on. When I did move out of my home, it was difficult to find a job that paid me what I was worth because of the low salary history I had.
I have since done consulting work in the fields of new media and gender, and more recently, have begun a career as a doula - both of which support me and allow me to live a good life - but I wanted to share my story so that no woman entering the work force makes the same mistakes I did.
My partner and I were wandered over to the Wolfgang Puck take-out stand at the Chicago Airport to ease my stomach rumbles after a 4-hour flight from NYC. While I patiently awaited my highly over-priced but much needed margherita pizza, I got lost staring at a black man working in the restaurant, perhaps in his early 60s with grey curly hair. He had a dignified and calm aura around him as he rhythmically pushed pizza in and out of a brick oven. And then it hit me: how can one say slavery isn’t over when all of the people working behind the counter, serving the wealthy and predominately white travelers, are people of color? And how can we say there is greater equality today when people of color are more often those who fill the positions of attendants and servers in the United States? Seems like we have just added a bit more money and a few more jobs to a system of slavery that is still very much in place.
I’ve had this post saved in my drafts for over 5 months now. I was fearful of posting it out of the high possibility that I could offend many of the people that inspire me to be a better activist. Though some of these sentiments have shifted, I realize now how important this personal statement is to my development as a feminist since my journey abroad. And so, I hope that when you read this you understand I am critiquing a system rather than individuals or white, middle class feminist women.
A professor of mine once said that the United Nations is a community of white, male non-retires thus making it difficult for others to enter the system and create change. I have come to believe the same holds true for the feminist community in NYC, except they are a group of predominantly white, middle class women.
When I left for Costa Rica last year, I simultaneously disengaged myself from the feminist community in the United States. My experiences in NYC and LA had made me resent the world of feminism. I saw many powerful feminists have their voices hidden by mainstream feminist outlets because they chose not to focus on commonly discussed topics such as reproductive justice, or sexualities. And though I witnessed many well-known leaders within the feminist community who were supportive, they didn’t want to share their power in order for the younger generations, women of color, working classes etc so that they may be recognized. I was tired of feeling let down, and sometimes ridiculed, by those whom I looked up to. Of course, there were exceptions and some strong friendships have been made.
While I believe passionately about the many causes and fights within the movement, I can’t help but get the sense that this is a community in the United States that heavily focused on recognition. Though there is an immense amount of support, it’s often followed by sentiments of, “I know better and, I can do this event, job, petition, etc better.” The companionship that I’ve found has often been about self gain - who can I mentor, how can I get my name through the door, who is the best person to network with for this project.
But I don’t think this “problem” has to do with individual people, rather it is the effect of the system in which feminism and feminists exist within. The United States, especially NYC, is a competitive place and it takes a long time to get your foot in the door. Of course, once you have gained access and recognition the thought of someone else taking your place is daunting and so people hold on tightly, almost perpetuating the system that they experienced as activist and writers in their twenties. Hello! Why is it that the same women have been running the largest and most well-known feminist organizations (i.e. Ms.) for such a long period of time without passing the torch to others?
As much as we say there is an increasing focus on intersectionality within feminist circles in the United States, we need to put more emphasis on our communities and ask ourselves how we move forward in a way that encourages mutual learning and respect between all ages, classes, genders, races, etc within feminism. How do we empower younger generations, women of color, working classes, etc to do the feminist work that they love as a career path without continuing a cycle that perpetuates competition over teamwork and growth?
Take a look at Amelia Earhart’s prenuptial agreement. She was very forward thinking for her time and I am very impressed that she knew exactly what she wanted.
My partner and I are thinking about using the last few lines (minus a few changes) for our marriage ceremony starting with “Please let us not interfere with the other’s work, or play…” and ending with “I must exact a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.” What do you think?
Ain’t I A Woman Conference, Galapagos Art Space, NYC Photo by Mimiko Watanabe + Christian Silva
I have been blessed to have a supportive group of family and friends who have respected my political beliefs and activism over the years. Sure, I have been challenged, my political stances have been questioned, and I have changed my mind regarding opinions I have had in the past-but never have I been told that I was a racist man-hating feminist… until now.
Part of my activism includes sharing pieces of myself so that others may understand the causes that I-and many others-fight for. So, for the person (or perhaps people) out there who believe that I am a radical, racist, man-hating feminist, here is my truth.
Feminism didn’t take me in like some sort of freakish cult and spit me out into a feminazi, bra-burning, hairy-legged lesbian. It hasn’t taught me to believe that I should hate men, or white people, or the very wealthy. Feminism, as a great friend and colleague says, has been hearing my pain, struggles and experiences in another person’s voice and realizing there is nothing wrong with me.
The feminist movement provided me with the words to talk about the brutal murder of my close friend by her ex-boyfriend. It allowed me to understand that getting roofied by a mentor at Lehman’s Brothers was not my fault rather it was the consequence of a larger system that excuses violence committed on women’s bodies. It was feminist activists in college who told me it was okay to love men and women, and antiracist activists who allowed me to appreciate the color of my skin and natural hair despite the hatred I experience because of it.
Like most people, the process of finding this level of self-appreciation and strength has not been easy, and the feminist community hasn’t always been perfect. Yet, contrary to some people’s beliefs, feminism allowed me to respect all people, to fight for peace, to act out of love instead of anger, and to extend a hand, smile or provide a stage for someone else to speak their own truth and reclaim their power.
There may always be those who hold hatred towards another group simply because of the color of their skin, their gender and/or sex, their wealth or poverty, but that simply isn’t me. I understand that each person has different realities. Through my activism, I not only try to respect and honor the different needs of individuals, I also try to find ways in which we can all work together to create transformative change.