Blackish: Telling My Story

I am reclaiming my blackness. It’s been taken, twisted, and transformed into something I no longer recognized. It was deemed less than by the black kids, less than by the white kids, and left me navigating a space with an identity invalid.

My mom and I had a long “discussion” about the term Blackish. This began in reference to the popular TV show, but quickly went down a road that is still painful for me to revisit. In my mom’s opinion, she is black and I am blackish. I understood what she meant. I did not fit the stereotypical “black” mold. In fact, I fit the one she built for me. Predominantly white schools, a two parent household, sports, instruments, pets, private school, a car… the list goes on. These things were and continue to be my normal. Unfortunately, these things simultaneously made me “less than black”. How could that be?

My mom’s lived experiences are different. Her relationship with her dad is virtually nonexistent, she grew up in the inner city, her childhood was a low-income one. Is that what blackness is? Absentee dads? Poverty? The hood?

I’ve been ruminating on these thoughts this Black History Month. I’ve been thinking of my great-grandparents who didn’t establish themselves in a hood, but a neighborhood, with a car and a home they called their own. There were two parents and they worked hard to give their children a taste of middle-class life. They wore furs and diamonds, suits and church hats. They endured overt racism in ways I will never truly understand. Were they blackish too?

I am lost. I am exhausted at the thought of having to prove an identity that was handed to me. It covers every inch of my skin in a fantastic bronze hue. It dictates how strangers react to my face, my resume, my voice, my name. I am black. I am black first. I cannot be anything less.

“What do you say to the white kids when even the black kids say you’re not black enough for them?”

This post is an expansion of my statement in the I’m Not portion of the UMBC Women’s Center and Women of Color Coalition’s campaign for the “Telling Our Stories” project, which we posted about here. For more information about the project and other stories, visit us on Facebook here.

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Women of Color – Telling Our Stories: I’m Not/I Am

WOC Telling Our StoriesWe’re proud to announce that the Women’s Center at UMBC and Women of Color Coalition were recently awarded a $5,000 grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The 2014–15 AAUW Campus Action Project (CAP) grants, sponsored by Pantene’s Shine Strong campaign, fund student led projects that fight stereotypes and biases.In addition to the AAUW CAP grant, we were also awarded a $500 community project grant from BreakingGround to help support this ambitious campaign. 

Our project, called “Telling Our Stories: I’m Not/I Am,” aims to 1) raise awareness and reject stereotypes about women of color, and 2) create space for women of color voices and counternarratives. Following a series of consciousness-raising discussions over the past year, many of our students saw the need to promote visibility and community-building among WoC in order to stand in solidarity against racist and sexist microaggressions. First-year student Jahia Knobloch vividly describes the harmful impact that stereotyping can have on women of color: 

Women of color are blessed with so many gifts: our beauty, compassion, ingenuity and grace are unparalleled. But too often our gifts are ignored, with ruthless stereotypes and myths being built around our existence which casting us into either unthreatening or highly exoticized and eroticized roles.

1601492_335695699910799_4361420869028764493_nMy first realizations about what it means to be a woman of color came, as so many realizations do, because of discrimination. Around the age of fourteen, I began receiving attention from boys and men. Many of these attentions were flattering; some were offensive and others downright menacing. But some of the most memorable comments I received were from non-POC boys and men. These comments were memorable only in their flabbergasting ignorance about what being attracted to a women of color apparently means in the minds of non-POC boys and men. Some examples: “I’ve never been with a Black girl before,” “You’re so pretty because you’re mixed—you’re lucky you only got the good features of being Black,” “I love your hair, it’s so dark,” and the jaw-dropping “I love the way your dark skin looks against my white skin.” Really dude?

I came to realize that as a woman of color, you are forced by proxy to represent the exotic “other”—a taste of a world in which non-POC men dare not venture into past a certain point. Even with our own races, we can be subjugated to lesser roles because of our status as women. Yet what those who wish to make us less-than do not see is that we can be the strongest of champions: not only for ourselves, but for our people and all those who are oppressed. We are a force to be reckoned with.

For me, dismantling stereotypes is so important because it gives us as WOC a chance to show that there is no “other.” We will not be your African, Asian, Latin, Native American or interracial vacation to the dark continent. We will not be a stop on your experimental college road trip for you to regale your friends about. We will not be a tourist attraction, an item on your bucket list or a milestone. We will only be us: beautiful, intelligent and independent. We will only be as strong as we have been made to be from centuries of oppression. We will continue to carry our status as WOC not as a burden, but as a gift. We will tell our stories. We will be heard.

By launching the project with the “I’m Not” poster campaign, we hope to disrupt the misguided assumption that racialized gender stereotyping is not a problem for our campus community. Click here to see the latest posters from the campaign! 

WOC Telling Our StoriesThe second phase of the project consists of creative skill-building workshops which will culminate in a “Telling Our Stories: I Am” showcase. We intend to go beyond challenging the misrepresentation of women of color and actually create a platform dedicated to their authentic self-representation. Women of Color Coalition member-at-large Bree Best explains the importance of storytelling

Not only does telling your story tell people who you are but It give a different perspective of how to view things. These stories are needed and you, woman of color, have the pen in your hand ready to write it.

At the end of the showcase, I don’t want the conversation of women of color telling their stories to stay stagnant. I want this to continue because there are many “untold stories” in the woman of color sphere that need to be heard. These need to be heard so that they can help heal the multigenerational hurt that women of color have accrued. I believe if we tell our stories people will understand better how to heal or not hurt us through racial interactions.

The Telling Our Stories showcase will celebrate the creative self-expression of women of color and empower them to reclaim their own narratives. The showcase will be held on Wednesday, April 29th from 6:30-8:30pm in the Commons Sports Zone. 

Be sure to like Women of Color Coalition on Facebook and follow us on Tumblr for more news and updates on the Telling Our Stories project!

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Valentine’s Day? How about Galentine’s Day?

A post written by Women’s Center staff member, Yoo-Jin 

 

This past weekend was the national holiday called “Valentine’s Day.” At its best, I think it can be a time for people to spend time together in an intentional and meaningful way. It seems that in our society, we are constantly on the run and the first thing that goes to the bottom of our lists is making time to hang out with the people we love. However, when I started to really think about Valentine’s Day, I realized that it’s often focused on the narratives of heterosexual romantic couples.

Like many other holidays celebrated in our country, Valentine’s Day seems to also fall into the trap of Hallmark commercialism, and in this case, heteronormativity. You see this everywhere– in advertisements, media, and storefronts. The narrative is often focused on romantic relationships focused on men, who are often expected to get their significant other (usually a woman) gifts like flowers, chocolates, teddy bears — you know the deal.

The heteronormative nature of Valentine’s Day can be incredibly limiting and isolating for other couples who may not identify similarly. Of course, in terms of gifts buying things for your partner as a token of appreciation (or because you freakin’ love them!) is not a negative thing, and it doesn’t have to be labeled as being sucked into commercialism. If you like the flowers, chocolates, etc- go for it! While romantic relationships of all kinds are great- it would be awesome to have an alternative, for example, for the people who are not in romantic relationships!

This is where Galentine’s Day (a concept from the T.V show “Parks & Rec”) comes in. In the show, Galentine’s Day is celebrated February 13th and centers on female friendships. It’s a day where we get to spend time with our “gal”s and appreciate them for being in our lives! In the show, Leslie throws an annual Galentine’s Day party for her friends. In the episode, they all meet at a restaurant and Leslie “gives them all a gift bag with a bouquet of hand-crocheted flower pens, a mosaic portrait of each of them made from the crushed bottles of their favorite diet soda, and a personalized 5,000 word essay of why they’re all so awesome” (http://parksandrecreation.wikia.com/wiki/Galentine%27s_Day_%28event%29). That sounds awesome to me! I wouldn’t mind a 5,000 word essay from one of my best friends!

This BuzzFeed Article also covers the reasons why we must absolutely celebrate this year! (http://www.buzzfeed.com/kaylayandoli/you-absolutely-need-to-celebrate-galentineas-da-cqn5#.eo8Q8lYwZ)

Of course, while Galentine’s Day is a wonderful event to get away from some of the heteonormative, pressured-to-be-with-someone, and commercialist system- it has some limits too! We have friends and loved ones of all genders in our lives! Even pets who we love a lot! Maybe we could make February a month of appreciation and gratitude for all of the people in our lives who have supported us. Yes, there are days for certain people in our lives (mothers, fathers, even teachers) but it’d be awesome to take time to recognize the people who have often supported us from the very beginning.

Making My Body a Brave Space And a Safe Place

A post written by Women’s Center staff member, Daniel

This year’s Critical Social Justice Week’s theme is Brave Spaces and as the week quickly approaches, I’ve been thinking more and more about not only what a Brave Space is but what it means to be a Brave Space. The center has been implementing what we call Brave Space Guidelines as a way of creating a space that fosters learning, connecting, and understanding. There are some components of the Guidelines that are particularly salient to me as I start to consider my body and the relationship that I, and others, have to it– with the added challenge of navigating mental illness.

I have, and have always had, a complicated relationship with my body. Growing up as a fat girl and eventually coming out as trans has a way of messing with the way you see yourself and the way you regard your body. Add experiences with depersonalization and derealization to that and the simple task of being a body at all becomes nearly impossible. Becoming a safe place for myself has been a life-long challenge that I continue to struggle with. Feeling safe and secure in my own skin is a rare and wonderful feeling that I think a lot of us– mentally ill or not– have a hard time with. With all the images we see and all the expectations we have for how we’re supposed to look and move and be, being comfortable with one’s body is not easy. As I meet people with similar experiences to mine and I begin to exist in spaces that are purposeful in their missions, I find myself being encouraged to become not only a safe place but a Brave Space.

Recognize that your experiences, values, and perspectives are unique to you. Strive to learn about experiences other than your own, and seek permission to ask questions about other people’s experiences

Intent is important, but it does not trump impact. Recognize and own the impact of your words and actions. Also, practice forgiveness and generosity: remember that this is a space where we are all learning and growing.

Recognize and respect the range of emotions that you and others may experience...be thoughtful about how your emotions and behavior may impact others based on their experiences.

Recognizing the uniqueness and value of individual experiences has helped me see others as complex individuals who have stories and experiences that I can learn from. It helps me remember that trauma and mental illness looks different for everyone and allows me to be more open to these differences.

Intent over impact is incredibly important. While mental illness can be an explanation for behavior, it is never an excuse. The effects my actions have on others or the effects the actions of others have on me are valid and important and shouldn’t be dismissed because of mental illness.

Practicing forgiveness and generosity– for others and especially for myself– is the most difficult and most important lesson I am still struggling with. I am still learning and I will make mistakes. This does not make me a bad person nor does it decrease my value. Others will make mistakes and I need to acknowledge when they have made personal growth and change. People are inherently good and all people are capable of positive change.

Emotions can be difficult to deal with, especially when you’re constantly told that you’re overreacting or “just crazy.” The way I feel about something is true to me and important even if it is different from how someone else or even most people feel about it.

I can’t even begin to express how much these three guidelines have shaped the person I am now and the person I am still trying to be. Being a Brave Space for myself and for the people around me requires conscious effort and it’s not always easy, but it’s helped me be kinder to myself and others feel safer in my presence. I can trust my body to sustain and support me and it can trust me to be gentle and work towards positive change in return.

My Click Moment

A post written by Women’s Center staff member, Bria

 

My click moment was progressive. It proceeded slowly, with caution, and then consumed me.

For as long as it has been relevant, I’ve believed in autonomy. I didn’t have the word for it in 7th grade, but I knew that I was never obligated to dance with a boy at a mixer* or hug a stranger just because they insisted I should. I don’t remember the day I realized I was black, but I do remember the day I learned of “Affirmative Action.” Eleven years old is a little soon to tell someone they only got into that middle school because they are black. I knew of overt racism, but the door to covert racism swung open with the hiss of that tongue.

I don’t remember the day I realized I was a feminist, but I do remember the day my “friends” tried to make me feel like a slut** because I told them I lost my virginity to my then boyfriend. I was unaware at the time that they had become sexually active years before and were taking the opportunity to project some regretful feelings in the form of hate. I don’t remember the first time I spoke out in support of reproductive justice, but I do remember the devastation I felt after the only comprehensive reproductive health class at my high school was dropped due to its “insignificance” in relation to English and science.

And then there was the first time I consciously acknowledged my liberality.

The moment when you cross the line from spectator to activist is a scary one. You know there’s no going back, no renouncing your titles. It’s permanent. To go from the quiet girl who solely acknowledged injustices and microaggressions to the one who actively spoke out against stigma, prejudices, and misogyny… that was my click moment. It was a sneaky, powerful, positive, scary moment. Think of it like approaching the peak of a roller-coaster, but the thrill of anticipation never ends.

*mixer: a middle school dance

**slut: a person who should is shamed for their sexual activities

UMBC Women Who Rock: A Reflection on Encouragement and Accountability

UMBC Women Who Rock is a blog series I’m working on throughout the 2014-15 academic year. In my role as Women’s Center director, I have some of the best opportunities to become acquainted with some of UMBC’s best and brightest women on campus. I admire the ways they live authentic lives unapologetically that challenge the stereotypes and assumptions that are often assigned to women. By debunking these stereotypes and forcing us to check our assumptions, they allow us to expand our notion of what a woman is and can be.

-Jess

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UMBC Women Who Rock! A Reflection on Encouragement and Accountability

With only three posts in this series, it might seem a little too early to spice things up, but the spirit of this series is really that of personal reflection (in addition to of course, celebrating other women) and I have some reflections to share. So for this post, I’m expanding the concept of the series to not just write about a particular UMBC woman but the experience of working with other UMBC women.  In this case, it’s the experience of writing a chapter for a women in leadership book series called Advancing Women and Leadership: Moving the Needle through Applied Theory Building with Virginia Byrne of Student Life and Crystal Diaz-Espinoza of CWIT. Our chapter called “The Non-Traditional Patchwork of College Women Student Leaders: A Multidisciplinary Reflection on Theory” focuses on ways in which we seek to build bridges at UMBC between marginalized groups of women leaders and the larger campus community in an effort to encourage transformational leadership development. We specifically focus on the experiences of UMBC women adult learners and women students majoring in information technology and engineering.

Now that the first hurdle of submitting our draft is behind us, I’ve had time to reflect on the experience. It was hard! I knew what I wanted to write and had all the confidence in the world until I sat in front of my computer trying to put my thoughts into words. It was like teaching someone to tie their shoe or ride a bike. I’ve been doing the action for so long that taking a step back and breaking it down part-by-part proved to be more difficult than I thought. On top of the challenge of actually writing, we were doing so with a week left before the spring semester begun. I felt behind on my work in the Women’s Center and some of our biggest programming and events were coming up in just a few short weeks. And it was cold and winter is the worst. Long story short, I was a grouchy baby.

I look back over the past week of writing sessions and writing and recognize they weren’t some of my proudest moments. I kept looking for ways to convince myself that I wasn’t smart enough to write this paper and that I possibly didn’t have anything worth including in a real-life book. I kept hoping that maybe Crystal or Virginia felt the same way and we could quit this whole thing.

Shine Theory fail.

Through my love of podcasts, I’ve recently been exposed to this concept of Shine Theory. Explained by Ann Friedman in her article over at The Cut, she explores the idea that powerful women make the best of friends. She writes, “Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.” I can get on board with that, but what I really take away from Shine Theory is how Anne’s best friend, Amina, sums it up:  “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.”

Thank goodness Virginia and Crystal were willing and able to share their shine with me. As Friedman continues in her article, “True confidence is infectious.” While I know we all had our doubts, my writing partners wouldn’t let me quit. Time and time again, they’d share accolades and encouragement with me and with each other. This is great. You’ve got this. Yes, keep going. We’re going to finish this.

And, you know what? The more I heard it, the more I believed it. As our paper came together, I gained more confidence. The words came out easier and I was able to be a better teammate in the process.  I also think our chapter is pretty darn awesome and I’m really glad I didn’t give up. Thank you Virginia and Crystal!

When I hear people talk about Shine Theory, I hear it presented from the perspective of “you, good person… go find other great people to help you shine,” which I think is important and enriching for one’s personal and professional lives. We all need people to learn from and share encouragement. But, I want to hold myself accountable as well. I want to be a person that just isn’t doing the taking of the shine but is giving of the shine. This experience reminds how easy it can be to make something just about you. I wasn’t the only one who was busy and working through other deadlines or feeling challenged by the task at hand. Where could I have provided more support and encouragement to my writing partners? What steps do I need to take next time to get my shine on earlier? These are questions I’m going to keep in mind as I move into a busy spring semester and will be confronted with opportunities to shine for others and be motivated by the shine of UMBC Women Who Rock.

Shine on UMBC…. Shine on.

Who are the UMBC women in your life that inspire you to think outside your expectations and assumptions? What are the counter narrative stories they’re sharing with us allowing UMBC and our greater community to be more of exactly who we want to be? Comment below and maybe you’ll just find them featured in a future UMBC Women Who Rock post.

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Check out other UMBC Women Who Rock:

Amanda Knapp (featured August 2014)
Susan Dumont (featured October 2014)
Jahia Knobloch (featured January 2015)