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”.
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?
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.
As feminists, our goal is not only to assist in the liberation of women in our own countries but also to understand and provide support in the obtaining equalities formen and women around the world. Over time, I have found that many Western feminism (and feminists) lack a clear understanding of the limitations and needs of (self-identified) women and men internationally, leading to our own ignorance and suffering of communities in need.
My education at the University for Peace in Costa Rica has and continues to shed light on the voices that have remained invisible in societies in Myanmar, Mexico, Kenya, DRC (Congo), Zambia, Canada, Pakistan, and so forth. My colleagues have shared with me their horrors with sexual assault, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), Drug Trafficking and its impact on women. They have demonstrated their undying strength and leadership both on campus and in their countries, working to give a voice to all those who have been silenced.
Recently, one of my colleagues shared with me a marriage contract/conditions that a young man has requested of his soon-to-be wife. It has left us all incredible frustrated, disturbed, saddened and enraged; While brainstorming has begun on ways to take serious action against this atrocity, I fully heartedly believe that the first step is sharing the realities women face in Kenya with my feminist community so that they may hopefully spread and take root in the minds of activists around the world.
It must be noted, that all of the women in my colleagues family have opposed this “contract,” but the men have eagerly supported in.
All his meals must be cooked by her (the wife). He will not eat any meal cooked by the maid
Only she (the wife) shall handle his clothes including washing, ironing, folding etc
She (the wife) shall be at his (the husbands) service at all times; the maid shall only attend to the children
She (the wife) shall ensure his dinner is served by 6pm every day without fail and she will not serve the same dish twice in a week
She (the wife) shall submit to his sexual needs with no excuses save for when she is menstruating
She (the wife) will bear their children via c-section (to prevent her virgina from stretching)
She (the wife) is required to regain her pre-pregnancy weight within 3 months of having a baby
She (the wife) shall always look sexy, well dressed, hair well coiffured and nails and toes manicured and pedicured at all time.
Any monies she (the wife) earns will be hers to keep and spend as she pleases, he will provide financially towards all other expenses under the agreement that she shall not question his finances, expenses or expenditures
She (the wife) shall not watch soap operas or Niger movies (during his presence) they can be watched when he is not at home
In the event of divorce, she (the wife) shall leave only with what she came into the marriage with or what she (the wife) acquires thru her own earnings.
She (the wife’s) relatives shall visit by appointment only and visits shall not exceed 3 days stay
She (the wife) shall not travel away from the home for more than 2 days unless in the event of a death of a close family or relative to which travel shall not exceed 3 days
She (the wife) will be part of any women’s church groups or chamas that require her presence on weekends or evenings
She (the wife) shall not ask, request, require him to attend church functions that require him to contribute money
She (the wife) shall not discuss their marriage with her female friends, church mates, work mates or female relatives.
She (the wife) is forbidden from having any male friends.
She (the wife) shall not ask his whereabouts because he is out doing mens business
She (the wife) must disclose her whereabouts at all times and always be reachable by phone
He (the husband) reserves the right to add, amend, exclude this agreement without prior notice to her (the wife)