In a previous post, I discussed the need for a “paradigm shift” surrounding the old standards of power and prestige that come from the graduation regalia. I was surprised by the number of responses that I received from natural haired women of color from around the world exclaiming how they, too, were disappointed by the expectation to wear a graduation cap which a. they couldn’t get to fit on their head b. didn’t necessarily believe in. Friends who had never questioned the graduation regalia even vowed to pledged their support by not wearing the cap on graduation day.
I was looking forward to this moment of change… until I received an email from my universities graduation coordinators exclaiming all students were expected to wear the full graduation regalia if they wanted their names to be called at the podium (underlined and in bold, mind you).
For a brief moment, I felt that this was a personal attack on the the political and highly personal statement that I was about to make (I now doubt this is true). Rather than waiting around and even risking not being called on graduation day, I decided to write a kind email to the coordinators explaining to them all the reasons why I wouldn’t be wearing a cap on graduation - I wanted to be honest and sincere about my intentions.
To my surprise, the graduation coordinators agreed to let me go sans-cap and encouraged me to share the message with anyone else who felt that the cap would restrict their cultural, political, social beliefs.
So here it is: I encourage all those in a similar position of not being able to or wanting to wear the graduation regalia, to reach out to their institutions and let them know why. Every student deserves to walk across the stage in a way that honors who they are and celebrates the growing diversity of academia.
Just in case you are having trouble with that email to your graduation coordinators, here is a sample below. Feel free to use it and spread it around!
I hope that you are doing well. Thank you so much for all of the work that you have and continue to put into the graduation planning. I am writing this letter as I wanted to discuss the graduation regalia. I understand that it is a requirement of the school to wear the full regalia, however, as an African American woman with natural hair, it will be a challenge for me to wear the cap. I know this is something that few people think about, and I have debated whether or not to mention it myself. However, after speaking with members of my community, I realized that this was not just an individual desire, but a cultural and personal issue that affects many people. For me, my hair is such a huge part of my identity, not for the physical, but for what it stands for - for the decision to be able to honor myself and what I was given without fitting into a mold. And while the obvious suggestion would be to ask me to straighten my hair just for the moment, it would mean that I would not be walking across the stage honoring who I am and the promises that I have made to myself and to my community. I respect that other people want to hold onto this tradition of the cap and gown however I believe that I, as well as others, also reserve the space to honor our cultural and individual traditions and norms on this momentous day. I believe that this is the basis of UNIVERSITY NAME HERE- an appreciation and understanding of our different backgrounds, beliefs, bodies, etc. For this reason, I ask that the cap (AND GOWN IF YOU CHOOSE) be made optional for students. I sincerely appreciate your understanding, and hope that we can all work together to make this possible.
In exactly three weeks, students from the UN University For Peace will be walking across the stage to accept our M.A. Diplomas. We will all wear our universities signature white-and-blue caps and gowns as a symbol of our achievements. This will be a moment of sheer excitement for our successes and the future that we have worked hard to create for ourselves.
I have taken part in this tradition since the age of homemade-caps in Kindergarden. And each year, I have asked myself, “What am I going to do with my hair?” In Kindergarden, I walked across the stage with a mishap bees nest on my head (one of many attempts in my childhood made by my biracial mother to style my natural hair). In Middle School and High School, I found the solution of braids - although I admit it was a tight squeeze into those small caps. And then in College, I walked across the stage with permed hair pulled back into a simple bun.
This year is a bit different as I have moved away from chemical straightening and synthetic extensions, and have learned to adore the beauty of my natural afro. And so, as I looked over the graduation attire requirements given to us this week, I paused at the word: CAP. The dreaded thought came back, “How am I going to wear this cap now??”
For many people, this may seem absolutely ridiculous - I should just be grateful that I am graduating. I admit, I was thinking the same thing as I started coming up with alternatives to my natural hair for the big day - not taking my cap off until I go home so no one has to see my flattened hair, and even blowing out my hair to fit the tradition. Searching for ideas, I spent a few hours away from work Googling, “Caps with Afro Style,” “Afro Hair Cap and Gowns” and “Caps Natural Hair” so many times to find ideas and yet it seemed that virtually no had ever posted about it, at least online.
Though I was frustrated, it wasn’t until my (white) partner said that this tradition was “unfair to people of color with natural hair” that I really begin to think about it. Where does this tradition come from? Why would an institution with a multitude of races and ethnicities ask people to wear this? And why didn’t anyone at these academic institutions ever think about how it would affect us?
A little research revealed that the Cap and Gown or ‘Academic Dress’ originated from the early 19th Century Europe. As the tradition moved into the United States, committees were organized to develop the standard of academic dress. It goes without saying that people of color were neither included in this conversation, nor were they (heavily) represented within academia at the time. Essentially, the construction of the cap and gown (including shape, height and structure) never included the bodies of people like me.
But how is it that we have never considered changing this system of celebration to suit people from all over the world? How can an academic institution that encourages diversity within their system, not understand just how stressful a moment of celebration can become for us? Even in an international institution, it appears as though no one’s paradigms (or realities) have allowed them to see this issue for those of us who have learned to appreciate our natural hair and bodies.
I may end up walking down the aisle feeling completely out of place, but I will certainly not revert to an old standard of beauty and tradition that doesn’t include my physical, but also very political, identity as an African American woman. We simply cannot accept an age-old tradition that does not include all members of its communities. I hope that other natural-haired women and men (and our supporters) graduating this year will join me in shifting the paradigms by rejecting a tradition that never included us by rocking our natural hair sans cap.
Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.
"You can’t build peace by leaving half the people out." Resolution 1325. Source: http://www.upliftmagazine.com
Fighting for justice can be a lonely experience.
I have found myself to be very much conflicted by my decision to attend a peace university. When I applied to this institution, I was naive and believed that everyone would believe in the same peace that I fought for - the only peace that I thought existed - equality and justice. What I have learned is that the notion of peace is different for everyone, and it does not always mean peace for the entire world or fighting for what you fully believe is right.
Students at peace institutions around the world at taught that peace means compromise. While this is certainly an important lesson to learn for daily situations, compromise isn’t enough when there are power imbalances… and we live in a society that is full of that.
Here, I find myself walking the halls, smiling gently at people studying peace who do not believe that I can be a lesbian, let alone create a family with someone of the same sex. I sit next to students who have harassed my friends and colleagues and I go into meeting with counselors who believe that being a gender major means being a “man hater” and activists who seek justice are “troublemakers.”
Perhaps the most difficult reality to swallow are the women and men who know that things must change, but who sit quietly because they don’t have the time, or the desire or the knowledge of how to create change.
I admit that I am incredibly selfish; Speaking out and shaking things up for the sake of equality is a life that I chose and not everyone has to or will be on board. It is a lonely experience, and I know that it will certainly not make you a lot of friends (I imagine it is a lot easier to say nothing… and sometimes I wish I didn’t see inequalities). And yet, despite this knowledge - or perhaps with it - I feel an overwhelming amount of despair.
I am used to being classified into a box with the titles of manhater, sinful, radical, hippy and the like slapped onto my forehead, but when I applied to this institution, I honestly thought that I would be bored. I thought that everyone would agree with everyone and that my thoughts would not be nearly as radical as everyone else’s.
I was wrong. Even at peace institutions there exists sexism, homophobia, violence, harassment, and racism. Apparently, our job as activists and feminists is not even close to being done yet.
On the positive side, there are many other activists out there who are supporting you even when you can’t see it. Check out this post: On the lonely job of progressive activism. http://bit.ly/xbV1Va
I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.- Audre Lorde
I applied to the University For Peace with the belief that I would be entering into an institution that had none the major issues affecting elite liberal arts universities in the United States. I believed that I would find no signs of discrimination, harassment, or violence; rather, I envisioned a community of yogis, nature lovers and progressive thinkers. I thought of a commune.
After writing my recommendation letter to UPEACE, my former college professor, Laurie Essig, wrote to me saying that she was curious to see how this school and the concepts of peace would mesh with my beliefs. I knew she had formulated some thoughts about it, but I had no idea what they were. I mean, “How could studying Peace not relate to my work as a feminist activist?” I thought.
I kept asking myself what she meant and now, after six courses and seven months of being within this community, I understand what Laurie was thinking. The road to peace is complex… it cannot always be peaceful, is often based in patriarchy and is certainly not filled with “hippies.”
Peace is understood as the absence of war and the presence of tranquility. But peace can also be dangerously embodied as compromise and remaining silent out of fear of creating a conflict.
Around the world, UN Peacekeepers are sent out on missions to give peace to war-torn countries, and yet they themselves are often the perpetrators of violence (most commonly on women and children). They remain silent on the violence their UN colleagues place on others and often lack the gender lens to understand the specific needs of the men, women and children within those areas. They put an end to the visible signs of war, but don’t cease violence from existing within the crevices of a community.
This is the peace that I am learning about and see happening before my eyes - the silence against harassment and discrimination by an administration and a fear that exists amongst students for speaking out.
I want to still believe in Peace - I know that I would have left months ago if I did not - but not this way.
The peace that I know includes mediation, and an understanding of the world through the eyes of others. Peace is about addressing issues (always using a gender lens) rather than allowing them to exist deep within us. Peace should not be something that we seek to bring only to others, but that we try to create within ourselves.
I flew home to New York City to bring in 2012 and indulge in the chaos of the city after an extended (3-year) absence. On one of my last days in the city, I had the unexpected but immense pleasure to catch up with an old friend, Leemore, from High School. We hadn’t seen each other in years but without hesitation, we managed to talk about all of our experiences starting from the day we had last seen each other.
Somewhere in the conversation, I told my dear friend that I had brought in the New Year sober, and in an Hasidic Jewish community… eventually my statement turned into an engaging conversation about the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, and Leemore’s modern Jewish family.
As this is a space that deeply relies on the belief that the personal is political, I asked Leemore if she would share her thoughts* with us. She said yes. Take a look!
COEXISTENCE & COMPROMISE: Thin lines between Hasidic Jews and the modern world
by Leemore Malka
In August of 2010, I found myself in a restaurant called Gottlieb’s in the Satmar Hasidic Jewish section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I am neither kosher nor religious, but my uncle Yoav and his daughter Tirza are and they were visiting us from Jerusalem. Tirza, my mother, my sister and I were the only women at Gottlieb’s… And aside from Tirza, we were certainly not dressed accordingly.
We’d ended up at Gottlieb’s Restaurant by accident after the kosher restaurant we’d researched in a secular neighborhood turned out to be closed. My sister and I were decked out in our best summer dresses, our long brown hair spilling down our backs, and our mother was wearing shorts and a tank top. The men cast their eyes towards us, not with any kind of ill will, but they were certainly piqued by our presence. A young redheaded man came to take our order and we couldn’t help but notice he was shaking and stuttering. When he left our table, our uncle Yoav smiled at us and said: “He isn’t used to seeing girls who look like you.”
I was deeply marked by this moment and it echoes back to me in the wake of two current disputes: The fight between the Satmar Hasidics and young cyclists (particularly women) of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg; and the Haredis (a larger classification of Orthodox Judaism of which Hasidism is a subset) confronting the secular community (again, particularly its women), of Bet Shemesh, Israel, near Jerusalem.
The conflict happening in Williamsburg first came to my attention when I read Michael Idov’s excellent and memorable article in New York Magazine, and my father first told me about the one happening in Israel very recently. I instantly drew a parallel between the two and the more I contemplated them, the more I realized that the crux of these situations is a complicated tangle of coexistence and compromise.
In New York, the Satmar Hasidics are dismayed and disturbed by young female cyclists bicycling through their streets in summer clothes, baring their legs, arms and chests, as most of us want to do at that time of year. In Israel, the (or at least a number of) Haredis expect the secular women that have long inhabited Bet Shemesh to follow the rule they uphold in their own communities: Men and women must stay segregated.
The uproar continues on both sides in Israel after Tanya Rosenblit, a secular Israeli woman, refused to move to the back of a city bus last month when a male Haredi passenger instructed her to do so. In Idov’s article, Isaac Abraham, a Satmar spokesman, says of the cyclists: “How long have you lived in the community that you now want to make the rules and totally ignore my opinion, when I’ve lived here for 50 years?” The women of Bet Shemesh must be thinking the exact same thing.
The Satmar Hasidics may have closely recreated the shtetls of their old country on a couple of streets in Williamsburg, but they can’t ignore the existence of the rest of the neighborhood and its inhabitants’ right to move freely. But they live their lives by the rules of the Bible, and the Bible tells them they are forbidden to even glance at an “improperly dressed” member of the opposite sex.
I believe we have to respect each other’s beliefs, but what happens when the belief is not ours, and it is being enforced upon us?
Unfortunately, Idov’s article does not include any perspectives of sympathy towards the Satmars from the young cyclists… In fact, they are portrayed as disrespectful and even mocking of the Satmar way of life. Their insularity, insouciance and egotism frustrate me; it certainly won’t help matters and does nothing to bring the two groups any closer together. But the central issue at hand is that women are riding their bicycles, they are in movement, passing by for only a brief moment… And the Satmars can’t handle it. Averting their eyes is not enough. They are trying desperately to deny the undeniable: That women exist, and that she is inseparable, inextricable, one in the same, as her body, her sexuality, her skin, her breasts, her legs and thighs and hair. Is this such a sinful fact? How can one ignore the truths and traits that have marked us since the beginning of human life on earth?
The situation in Bet Shemesh is much simpler to me, particularly after I read an article from Ma’ariv, a leading Israeli paper, in which Haredi leader Mordechai Blau justifies and condones the incident: “Every Haredi woman simply enjoys to sit in the back in the company of women where she can speak about women oriented topics, and not to sit in the company of men, and not to open her mouth there. She is comfortable in the back. Women have certain topics of conversation: the kitchen, the household, and child rearing. This is natural”. (translated to English here)
OK. WHOA. “This is natural?” That’s all women talk about? GET A CLUE! It’s 2012. Hell, I don’t think that’s EVER all that women talked about! You can run your community by the Bible’s every word (or your interpretation of it?) but you can’t go out into the rest of the world and expect them to follow rules that are discriminatory. What’s “natural” here is incredibly skewed.
A day after beginning research for this article, I find out that Tanya Rosenblit, “the Rosa Parks of Israel” as she is being called, has received multiple death threats AND that Haredis are stoning “mixed” buses. (All this information comes from leading Israeli papers Ha’aretz & Yediot Ahronot and can be read in English at failedmessiah.typepad.com) The ignorance, denial and entitlement here is tuned to a fundamentalist pitch. How can the Haredis allow their religious beliefs to lead them so astray? Do they truly believe a secular way of life is completely invalid? And most interestingly, what do Haredi women make of all this?
I feel much less compassion for the Haredis than the Williamsburg Satmars, yet there remain several correlations between their two clashes. How much do we have to compromise in order to coexist, if anything? What do the Satmars and Haredis need to compromise in order to be at peace with reality outside their communities?
The first answer that comes to mind is their belief, but that won’t do, will it? For us women, are we going to take a different bike route in the summertime? Maybe, if women feel deep compassion for the Satmars perhaps. Is it our right to ride down Bedford Avenue in a short skirt? I believe it is. But are women going to sit at the back of the bus? You better not.
*All thoughts belong to the author. They have not been changed for this site.
I tend to not repost blogs simply because I fear it will remove the personal aspect of my writing, but this photo essay is certainly personal and powerful. I especially love the first photograph - For regular readers and friends, I am sure it is no surprise why. Enjoy!
Celebrity magazines are once again excited to profit off of the recent birth of yet another celebrity baby, Blue Ivy Carter, the daughter of Beyonce and Jay Z.
Unlike most tacky and mindless celebrity magazine articles that share the amount of money spent on new baby clothes, the focus this time is on the “special gift" the couple with everything has given to their new baby girl: lyrics or perhaps a poem on Jay Z’s abolishment of "the b-word" or Bitch.
Before I got in the game, made a change, and got rich, I didn’t think hard about using the word B—-. I rapped, I flipped it, I sold it, I lived it now with my daughter in this world I curse those that give it. I never realized while on the fast track that I’d give riddance to the word bitch, to leave her innocence in tact. No man will degrade her, or call her out her name the women won’t despise her and call her the same. I know it’s gonna miss me cuz we been together like Nike Airs and crisp tees when we all used to hang out front singing 99 problems but a lady ain’t one. Excuse me miss, can I be your mister cuz I can tell the difference from a little girl and a sister, She never grew up, her father left her alone I promise not to talk like we used to until Kingdom Come. I’m so focused on your future, The degradation has passed I wish you wealth, health, and insight forever young you may pass. Blue Ivy Carter, my angel.
I sincerely congratulate Jay Z for finally recognizing the negative connotations this profane word has towards women. Furthermore I support his (finally) desire to never call a woman a “Bitch” again and yet, I wonder how loving and subsequently marrying a woman didn’t stop him from using the term before.
Why is it that having a child suddenly teaches you how to treat a person with respect? Did he not have the deepest respect for the incredible women in his life prior to Blue’s birth?”
The sad reality is that most fans will only continue to view Jay Z as a tremendous activist and musician rather than understanding the serious implications his music has had on gender issues for women around the world.
Racism and stereotyping run rampant in societies around the world and while everyone holds some form of prejudice, most are afraid to voice them. Instead, we live in a society where prejudices remain hidden in our daily actions with those who appear outwardly different from ourselves. Rather than embracing our unique differences, people attempt to further essentialize marginalized communities. This is often done by the ever-famous statements, “I have black friends” or “My skin gets darker than yours when I am tanned” and “Usually I am lighter, but I have been out in the sun a lot these last few months.”
I am not a big proponent of jokes about any marginalized group and yet oddly enough, I was able to laugh at the recent viral sensation, “Shit White Girls Say… to Black Girls.” I cannot count the number of times that self-identified white friends and family members in my life have asked (or not) to play with my hair, mentioned that they loved black people but would never date a black guy, or told me that I looked like one of ten or so African American celebrity women that make it into mainstream media outlets (namely, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Lauren Hill - It must be the natural hair).
Franchesca Ramsey's satire of “Shit People Say” is a hilarious and somewhat honest glimpse into the experience of a large majority of women of color living in the United States. It is certainly a video that should be critiqued and analyzed not for the content but rather, for the relationships that friends of different races, ethnicities, cultural values, etc, form. Rather than trying to find ways for women to assimilate, perhaps we should focus more on the process of cherishing our differences.