It all began a couple of years ago, on a sunny afternoon drive around town, when a friend of mine — a white, hyper self-aware feminist who swears she was a cat in a past life — very casually said, “I need to go to the drug store to get a pair of neutral pantyho…” and as SOON as those words left her lips, she very abruptly covered her mouth with her hands and blushed. She apologetically said, “Well, you know what I mean, like neutral for ME, they wouldn’t be neutral for you, because, well… you’re black, why DO we call them neutral anyway, that’s colorism!” and she was absolutely correct.
It was not as though she said something that I had never thought about, or something that came as a shock to me. It had just been my reality for as long as I could remember; the neutral colored band-aids given in school would contrast my ashy chocolate skin. The drug store makeup that would only ever carry shades 1-5, so instead I’d have to go to the department store and pay double what most women had to pay. I’d grown used to not being able to identify with the “everyday girl” they’d use in Tampon commercials because she didn’t look like me. I’ve heard over and over that the token black character on TV shows reminded my acquaintances of me, only because they had no other black identifier, and needed a way to assimilate during conversation. “Neutral” was “normal,” but “neutral” was never me.
But in that moment, I realized that I no longer had to accept this version of reality as my own. In fact, I wondered why I had for so long, but it’s true what they say about life — that it gives you what you need, not when you ask for it, but when you’re ready to receive it. I was ready to put that gift to good use, and that’s what happened that day. I had a lot of work to do; I had to take a long look back on my life (a process I’m still going through now) and more times than not, I need to re-open wounds that have been poorly bandaged but not yet mended. I’ve cried and cringed and cracked up over the choices I’ve made, and the areas of my life that are still bruised.
The most reoccurring theme at the heart of this story was the realization of what my black femininity meant in terms of my sexuality and my relationships with men. It made me think about the number of times that men have come up to me and said absurd things like, “I’ve never dated an African girl before,” or, “I wonder what it would be like to sleep with a black girl,” or, “You’re really pretty for a dark skinned girl.” always leaving me thinking twice about what that meant, and yet accepting these back-handed compliments when they were really nothing but blatant insults.
Was my beauty a surprise to you because I am black? Why is the black experience so vastly different than it would be in another ethnicity? The illusion of “jungle fever” that is so aggressively perpetuated in popular culture is just that: an illusion. Yes, I may be black, I may be African, I may be beautiful, but those things are but mere pieces in the greater story of who I am as a person. So I accepted things out of what felt at the time like obligation, because the alternative — to speak out or retaliate — would make me unlikeable. How silly, right? Heaven forbid I’d ever be another “angry black female,” irrational or disagreeable. I just wanted to be accepted and not ruffle any feathers, so I put the comfortability of others above my own.
For most of my life, I’ve done a phenomenal, Oscar-award-winning job of pretending that this version of normalcy I had learned to accept was okay. In my complacency, I implied that it was. A lot of the time, I played the part of the appeasing, cool, black friend, who apologized for the idiotic remarks of others instead of standing up to what I knew was just basic ignorance. I ignored my identity as a black woman living in a white-centric world. I forgot that it was actually okay just to like the music I liked or the books I read or enjoy the hobbies I had, not because they were supposedly for “black” people, but simply because that was my choice. I could never quite articulate how this dismissal of who I was as a person not only silenced me, but also inadvertently stifled my growth, until now.
There was something about that conversation in the car that day which slowly began to open the proverbial flood gates of my self-acceptance and discovery. It wasn’t just about the pantyhose. It was about the fact that it became abundantly clear that I had been placed into a box that I had also taken part in placing myself in. I had learned the unhealthy habit of compartmentalizing myself, and I was finally ready to leave the confinements of that imaginary box.
But what I also learned was that the suppressed pain and confusion that I had felt for so long was a necessary component to my journey to self-awareness. There were no real regrets, just realizations and awareness of how those moments felt, and now, I was promising myself that I’d move forward and try to never feel that way again. Feeling that pain in all its entirety and confusion and shame was the only way I could heal from it. And then, let it go. Because now, it’s pain that I no longer feel. Instead it’s freedom. I can no longer be hurt by something that no longer controls me.
I realize this is about my personal experience as a black woman. I know that I can’t feel the pain that you’ve felt in your journey through womanhood. I can’t pretend to say I know what I’m talking about when it comes to my Latina, East Asian, South Asian, or biracial sisters. I don’t even fully understand the experience of another black woman. But I do know one thing for sure: that as a woman — any woman, EVERY woman, you are enough. This is a story about the woman that is only praised or criticized entirely on her superficialities, her face, her ass, her curly hair, her straight hair. What about our brains? What about our fears, our goals? Our family?
Since this awakening, I have realized that as a black woman, I am a WHOLE person — I’m not the bits and pieces of the unrealistic expectations and stereotypes others often see when they look at me. I can’t control the comments that come out of the mouths of people that I encounter. All I can do is change myself, and hopefully educate those around me to start a conversation that will hopefully change their perspectives. I deserve more, and I am more. I’m now incapable of going back to thinking otherwise about myself, and that is a beautiful and powerful place to be in.
Danai Mush is a communications pro and freelance writer who still feels 17 at heart. While she has no formal dance training whatsoever, she hopes to be part of a professional hip hop troupe some day. You can follow her escapades on Instagram and Twitter, or on her website.