When I was a kid, I used my indoor voice a lot, even when I was outside. It didn’t feel natural to me to be loud, to yell. My mom taught me that I don’t need to be loud to get my point across.
My mom also taught me and my siblings that it’s important to call people out on their bullcrap. “I hate injustice,” she would say. Unfortunately, when you’re a woman—especially a woman of color—speaking your mind about things that are wrong is deemed a problem.
In Blythe Baird’s slam poem “Pocket Sized Feminism,” she says that she hates keeping her feminism in her pocket and only bringing it out at women’s studies classes or slam poetry events. “I want people to like me more than I want to change the world,” she writes. That is how our society tries to mold us: Go with the flow, even if you see that things are hitting the fan. If you dodge it, it will go away.
We hesitate to voice our opinions on subjects that are important to us because the media has put this idea in our heads that we should be “cool” girls or girlfriends who don’t bother guys with our “silly” issues—like feminism—or else we will be a downer. Discussing why we need to close the pay gap or why we need to stop the push of rape culture is burdening men with opinions and conversations that make them uncomfortable—that’s what we learn, and it’s a deeply problematic idea.
But women who exchange indoor for outdoor voices must expect a lot of resistance, especially in the Internet age.
When Harvard professor Danielle Allen wrote a piece called “The Moment of Truth: We Must Stop Trump,” she received racist, sexist, and even anti-Semitic tweets from Donald Trump supporters. “It was a prompt for the trolls,” she said. While this kind of reaction would cause some people to log off of Twitter altogether, it didn’t deter Allen. For her, it was a chance to show others the dangerously ethno-nationalist views his supporters share.
When seventeen-year-old Amandla Stenberg posted her project, “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” where she discussed the problems of cultural appropriation of black culture, comments about her being an “angry black girl,” “stupid,” and even “racist” went flying. Women of color who air their views on feminism, racism, and misogyny online are routinely bullied by those who would silence us.
In a world that preaches that it wants you to stand up for what you believe in, the fact that there are people who will harass you for doing so is perplexing. When I see the constant nonsense that women put up with online and in person for taking action in their beliefs, I feel exhausted for them. It can be mentally and emotionally draining trying to educate people and create a dialogue with them on important issues when they don’t want to make an effort. Being ignorant is much easier than being woke.
In an interview with Rookie Magazine, Rowan Blanchard talks about how she learned to stop apologizing for herself. “It has felt safer and less terrifying to silence myself to a degree … I have treated, specifically male feelings and ego, as superior and more fragile than my own.” I felt the same way growing up, and in some ways still do. I’ve had to learn how to stop myself from rethinking how I sound and how I act when I put someone in their place, especially when that person is a guy. If I don’t, I find myself pulling back and thinking that I sound kind of bitchy. I end up feeling bad, and I forget the reason why I told the other person off to begin with. There are times when I subconsciously try to keep my tone of voice low, even if I’m passionate about something, because I’m afraid of coming across as angry.
We’ve been taught to put our feelings on the back burner and to protect other people’s feelings, even when they are hurting us. We learn from this that what we have to say doesn’t matter—unless it benefits the majority. I’ve come to understand, though, that apologizing for how I feel doesn’t get me anywhere. If I genuinely hurt someone’s feelings, I’ll apologize. But if you’re intimidated by my opinion or presence, I’m not apologizing for it.
When you’re a woman of color, not only do you have to be conscious of possibly hurting a man’s feelings and ego, but you have to do the same with white people’s feelings. That’s why when we talk about the systemic effects of racism and sexism in our society, we are told to shut up and that we’re the reason racism still exists. Really? How can you say that we need to have an open and honest discussion about race, but when we bring it up, we’re the racists? It’s a move that favors those with power, who control the discussion by refusing to let it happen.
When I see women like Netta and Amandla on the covers of magazines, and young black women thanking them for being an inspiration, it makes me feel good. It reminds me that even when people try to stifle us with stereotypes like that of “Angry black woman,” call us derogatory names, and even threaten our wellbeing, we can’t let them win by keeping quiet.
Use your outdoor voice. Speak up. Get involved. Do what feels right to you. Why should we apologize for simply existing? We were brought into this world. The fact that we are here on this Earth is validation that we deserve our space.
The idea of self-care sounds, well, selfish. And to be selfish is bad.
At least that’s what we’ve been taught since we were toddlers. We were told to share even when we didn’t want to and to apologize whether or not we felt it. We, as women especially, are told by our parents, caregivers, teachers, and society to hold our tears, lower our voices, and take one for the team. The idea of putting others ahead of ourselves becomes more and more ingrained as we get older. To love someone is to put their needs above your own. We are taught, either directly or indirectly, to sacrifice in all the roles we play: wife, partner, mother, colleague, friend, daughter.
All my life as a Palestinian-American I was taught to put others before myself. It is a good lesson. It is a noble endeavor—and yet it can go too far. There never seems to be a limit. Even when I want to say no, I am embarrassed and feel compelled to say yes. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. There have been so many times over the years that I’ve stayed up all night preparing food for a dinner party, the whole time berating myself. Or the countless times a friend has called to ask me to visit or to go out or to let their kids come over, and I just said yes. Because that’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been taught by my parents. The culture my father and grandparents brought with them from Palestine was very clear: people come first.
I grew up in a house that seemed like it had a revolving door. We always had guests over. Relatives would stop by for coffee and stay for hours. We’d serve a set menu of “courses” that we all knew by heart. From the moment guests entered the house, we all took our positions. Our parents would sit with them in the living room, and me and my sisters would head to kitchen to start making tea. Tea was served with biscuits, followed by fruit, followed by American coffee with an assortment of cakes, followed by mixed nuts and water or more tea. Sometimes visits went into overtime, and we’d find ourselves pacing the kitchen asking, “What else can we serve?” Last thing was always Arabic coffee. When you served Arabic coffee, it meant the visit was over.
Luckily, there were five of us, so there was always someone to help or cover for whoever needed to study or work. But someone had to cover that kitchen. Now that my mother had teenage daughters, she was free to work and socialize, and we took over the household duties. But she never took time for herself. My mother worked full-time. She commuted from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back every day on the subway. But she never came home and locked herself in a room for some quiet time. She never took a Saturday spa day. When we shopped for clothes, she never bought anything for herself. Or if she did, she left herself for last.
It’s a common story. Most women can identify with this. Once I became a mother, I fell into the same pattern. My husband worked, and I stayed home with the kids. I breastfed and we practiced attachment parenting. My five kids are all two years apart. I was stuck in a cycle of breastfeeding, weaning, and potty training. My entire day was filled with children, housework, and cooking. If friends came over, it meant more of the same. It wasn’t that I was unhappy—just unfulfilled.
Again, it’s not a new story. Many women can relate to this. In my case it was babies and cultural obligations. To someone else, it’s a demanding boss or husband, an overwhelming friend or sibling. We all have stresses in our lives. But we don’t know what to do about them. We know we need to take better care of ourselves physically; we diet or go to the gym. But we don’t take time for ourselves emotionally or mentally. We don’t prioritize ourselves.
Self-care is literally defined as anything you do to care for yourself. It can be anything: a walk, a deep breath, a quiet moment of reflection, or a full-on spa day. And yet very few of us take the time. The problem isn’t just the physical, it’s the mental. Whenever I did get a chance to have alone time, I’d spend most of the time watching the clock or thinking about how the kids were doing.
Until recently. Once my youngest started going to school, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I started taking yoga, and it was the first step toward finding my center. After every class, there would be a kind of prayer to remind us to set our intentions for the day, to be mindful and gentle with ourselves. Just those simple reminders resonated with me. I felt lighter. I felt hopeful and empowered to take on the day. But then I’d leave and go back to reality and get bogged down in the routines of the day.
Then I was invited to join a women’s circle by my yoga instructor. It was a workshop of sorts for women to discuss the idea of courage. I am not one to try new things, but I was intrigued. When I entered the room, it felt like the first day of school. Everyone was just looking around at each other, unsure of what to say or do. We sat in a circle and began to introduce ourselves, and as we did, the anxiety began to fall away. It became clear that we were all looking for support in some way. We all wanted to feel like we were not alone. Because the reality is, we all feel like we are. We buy into the lie that we need to do everything. We are afraid and ashamed to ask for help. The more we feel the need to accomplish on our own, the more we tend to neglect our own needs.
The purpose of this women’s circle was to learn to be our most authentic selves—to break out of living by habit, the tendency to just go through the motions, and truly listen to our needs. Emotional distress tends to settle in our bodies in various ways; we feel anxiety in the pits of our stomachs or our necks and shoulders ache from the burden. But what if we could let go of our emotions instead of holding on to them? Emotions are just emotions, not good or bad, and they only need ninety secondsto course through the body. Ninety seconds! Allow yourself to feel it, and then poof! It’s gone. This idea changed my life. Before, I would get angry with my kids for something which would lead to me ranting about how they don’t appreciate me or how they never listen. But after learning this ninety-second gem, I began to give myself a moment to breathe and then tackle the problem. I taught it to my older kids, too. It’s a work in progress, but it was a tangible tool I could remind myself to use.
I was not living my best life. The most helpful part of being in the women’s circle was realizing that I was preventing myself from feeling fulfilled. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of rejection. There were so many stories I wanted to tell about our travels through the Middle East or raising children, but I wouldn’t write anything down. Forget submitting, I wouldn’t even put pen to paper! But in the circle, I realized so much of that fear didn’t come from anything real. I had never had anyone read my writing and say, “This is crap! Never do this again!’ It was all in my head, as so many fears tend to be. My wonderful coach asked me to go back to my earliest memory when I felt my voice was silenced, and I realized that while I was never told not to write, I was also never encouraged to. Culturally, while I was growing up, girls weren’t told to follow their dreams. We were told to get married, start a family, and then follow your dreams if your husband was okay with it. I internalized those messages. My writing became a dream just out of reach. I encourage you, dear readers, to sit in a quiet place and really think about what’s holding you back. What’s keeping you from following your dreams? Or simply taking an hour for yourself?
When an opportunity for an open call for writers came up, I decided to do it. Whether or not it was accepted, I was determined to get over the fear. Thankfully, instead of all the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t, I finally felt like I could. So I did. And I was successful! My writing was accepted and liked. What a feeling to hear someone has read your stuff and liked it. With that newfound confidence and validation, I started going after new opportunities.
Not everyone will be able to join a women’s circle or have a coach, but we can all help ourselves. We can all take time from our days to take a deep breath. We are worth the time. This may be our biggest challenge as women yet. But healing ourselves will heal those around us. My kids have seen me realize my dreams, and it has inspired them to do the same. Holding ourselves back does not help anyone. Forcing ourselves to do for others when it is draining us only creates bitterness. It is not selfish to take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. It is imperative.
Beautiful. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “generally pleasing” or “exciting aesthetic pleasure.” Synonyms include “attractive,” “appealing,” “delightful,” “ravishing,” or “stunning.”
Personal addendum: beauty is also commonly used to enforce hierarchies, perpetuate toxic standards of attractiveness, and sexualize women without their consent.
Growing up in a predominantly white / Asian neighborhood, I acutely felt the weight of not living up to the traditional beauty standard of having light skin. When you hear comments your whole life about how brown your skin is and what you should avoid to keep from becoming darker in order to be prettier, you learn quickly that the shade of your skin is something to be self-conscious about.
At one point, a neighborhood kid—someone I called my friend—told me on our school playground that he didn’t want to play with me because I was too dark. And so I started to learn that having dark skin was an offense that meant you weren’t quite as good as other people. Slowly, it begins to seep in that the color of your skin is something you should apologize for.
I also began to hate anything that pointed out how different I was from the people I saw on TV or in magazines. When a friend pointed out how my smile made my nose flatten and “disappear,” I was mortified and hurt by the teasing that followed. I spent some time futilely trying to make my nose more pointed by pinching it, before eventually giving up. When someone commented on how small my eyes were, I started looking up tips on how to make my eyes seem bigger.
When puberty hit, those things no longer seemed an issue. Instead, I was now being called “beautiful” by all different people. At the same time, my shorts were suddenly too short, my skirts were too revealing, my shirts were too tight. My girl friends refused to introduce me to boys they liked. I had no idea how to reconcile my self-image as a person no one would be romantically interested in with these comments about my body, the sudden distrust of my female friends, and my family insisting I needed to be covered up when it had never mattered before.
When I was sixteen, a family member, not blood-related, touched me inappropriately. We were in the living room, waiting for the rest of my family to come in from the garage, when the conversation took a strange turn. Suddenly we were talking about my body and how nice it was as his fingers brushed the curve of breasts, hips, and ass. I froze, terrified and unsure what I should do, as my senses screamed that this was wrong, he was too close, he shouldn’t be touching me like this. Luckily, someone came through the door a few seconds later and he stepped away from me, so casually, as if nothing had happened.
Later that evening, when I was ordered to walk him to his car, the fear came rushing back, but I was also too scared to refuse. As we neared his car, I turned, faced him, and said if he ever tried to touch me like that again I would punch him in the face. I’m not sure if my voice actually shook as I mustered up my courage or if it was the feeling of my knees shaking, but he apologized and said it would never happen again.
I turned and ran back to the safety of my room. When the deadbolt slammed home, I sank to the ground and called my mom, trying not to cry and terrified she wouldn’t believe me. Luckily, she did. And so did the other people she told. But she didn’t tell the person closest to him, because, as she explained it to me, they were worried she would take his side over mine and blame me. When another family member told me “that’s what you get for wearing tight clothes,” I fought back and told them it didn’t matter what I was wearing, that kind of behavior was inexcusable and shouldn’t be blamed on me, and I stormed back into my room.
No one spoke of it afterward.
But the scars stayed. Even though I had declared so vehemently what I knew to be true, I remember the deep, abiding sense of shame and fear of what had happened and how my body had been “the cause.”
There was another time, when I was traveling with my teammates at an out-of-state tournament, when one of my guy friends blew up at me because I was unsure of my feelings toward him. After I left to keep an appointment with some other friends, I started receiving a barrage of hurtful, hateful texts calling me a flirt, insinuating I was a slut, telling me that other people were right when they called me a tease. When I read them, I broke down and cried for hours because I never thought someone who I thought knew me so well could say such horrible things—could use all of my insecurities, vulnerabilities, and secrets laid bare and weaponized against me because he was angry I had told him “no.”
I had never felt so alienated, alone, and heartbroken as I did that night, trying to find a deserted corner of the hotel where no one I knew would be able to see me cry as more and more texts came in. I called my best friend and told him what happened between gut-wrenching sobs. And I was afraid to go back to my shared hotel room where I would have to face the people who had told him those things in the first place.
There have been so many other instances, moments that repeat until they build a lifetime of experiences: all the times when I felt threatened by men who approached me with “You’re so beautiful,” or “Hey gorgeous,” with that proprietary tone in their voice, when my “no’s” have gone unheard, ignored, and dismissed, when I have been touched without permission or consent. I learned that my body was something to be ashamed of: a source of harassment and hurt and unwanted sexualization. But I didn’t even know I’d learned it until a friend casually mentioned how he and another mutual friend had noticed how I tried to play down my curves, but that it didn’t work. I was stunned. I hadn’t realized how deeply the idea that I shouldn’t draw attention to my body had seeped into my mind. I disliked wearing anything that emphasized my breasts. I had felt uncomfortable buying my first pair of skinny jeans because I thought they drew too much attention to my hips.
As a woman of color, as a Filipina-American, there are so many conflicting narratives about beauty and what it means that, often, the nuances get lost in the telling. We strive to be beautiful because society has taught us we should be, but our beauty does not belong to us. It has taken me years to realize how deeply ingrained it is in our society for women to hate their bodies. We are told over and over again we are not beautiful the way we are: from the color of our skin to the shape of our nose to the curves of our hips. We are simultaneously too much and too little, not quite the right shape or size. Or else our beauty is fetishized, found “foreign” and “exotic.” Our looks are subsumed into narratives of colonization, race, and sexualization. We cannot own our bodies because other people own them first.
I was taught that the color of my skin somehow made me “less” because darker skin was not considered beautiful. I was taught that my body was not my own because other people’s perceptions, criticisms, and attention came first. When I got sexually harassed, it was my fault because I drew their attention by being “beautiful” or “sexy” or simply having curves. I have learned that usually when a man calls me beautiful, it is because he wants something from me. I have learned that somehow I am showing off by complaining. I have been told so many times, even by other women, that I should feel gratified by this attention, as if I am ungrateful for feeling threatened when a man approaches me and sexualizes me against my will.
But realizing those things has also given me the ammunition to replace them with other, more radical ideas of self-love, acceptance, and rebellion against these pervasive beliefs. It took years of effort, trying to find aspects I liked, before I could honestly look at myself and think, “I look pretty the way I am.” I remember texting one of my friends what had happened and her response was a blasé, “Of course you are. I could have told you that.” But that day marked a huge milestone for me: the beginning of claiming my reflection as being good enough, not for others’ attention or opinions, but for myself. I had begun the revolutionary process of reclaiming my body as my own and no one else’s.
Now, I have reached the point where I can look at the mirror and smile at my own reflection. And I am proud of the way I look, but even prouder of how I can practice a kind of radical self-love that fights against everything society has told me is unlovable or negative about my body.
For all the years I spent learning to hate myself, there are still so many more in which I want to grow in love and self-love for all the people who were taught that their bodies were not meant for them to nurture, take care of, and feel comfortable in. See, the thing is, I don’t need external validation to be content in the way I look. I don’t need strangers or acquaintances to tell me I’m beautiful, as if somehow telling me is a boon. I don’t care if other people call me beautiful because I don’t need their opinion of my physical appearance. I’d rather be complimented for how I live than how I look.
I am tired of being told that I cannot be comfortable in my own body. I am tired of dealing with what society tells me is “sexy” or “exotic.” And I am tired of men using the word “beautiful” as leverage in their quest for sexual gratification. I do not owe anyone any aspects of my body, from my smile to my skin to my sexuality. I refuse to engage in and perpetuate the colonial rhetoric that tells me my body is not good enough unless someone else wants it sexually. I refuse to let my personhood be dependent on misogynistic narratives of race and sexuality. And I refuse to let my life be one where other people’s recognition of and opinions about my body dictate how I live, work, and love.
The way a person’s hair grows from their head is purely genetic. It’s not a curious wonder. It’s not an oddity. It’s just hair. We can wear our hair in any style and it’s perfectly fine—it’s an exciting and purely personal choice.
My hair journey goes a little something like this: Growing up a tomboy with little patience for sitting still meant I either wore the same style for days or I sat on the kitchen floor for hours while my hair was washed, dried, and pressed for the week. Neither scenario made me happy. I grew up, but I didn’t really change my process, except that I went from getting my hair pressed every week to getting a perm. Still wearing it straight.
The decision to wear my hair natural was actually pretty easy. I made it because I was tired of sitting in a salon chair every two weeks to get my hair permed and cut into the style that I wore, and I was preparing to train for a marathon. I needed the least amount of maintenance and the best style to accommodate my new healthy lifestyle choice. Up to that point I had been perming my hair and wearing it straight for over twenty years, and I had no idea what it would look like unprocessed. But I couldn’t afford to sit in a salon for hours only to have my hair fall apart after a long run, so my decision was inevitable. I did the “big chop”—a process of cutting off my permed hair and leaving behind “virgin,” or unprocessed, hair—and I’ve never looked back.
Quite frankly, this was the best choice I’ve ever made regarding my hair. I love the idea that I can go from curls to straight to braids to afro. But this was a choice I made without thinking about what it would look like in an office environment, a choice I didn’t always see as revolutionary. Why should it matter?
Navigating the workplace with natural hair was an interesting experience. My white coworkers showered me with “oohs” and “ahhs” when I came into the office the Monday after I did the big chop. The tiny bit of insecurity I might have felt was met with acceptance by all but one older black coworker. She pulled me to the side in the bathroom and said, “Why did you cut your hair? No one is going to take you seriously anymore.” Words that cut. I tried to reason that she was from another generation, but she was the resistance I had anticipated—I just hadn’t expected someone who looked like me to deliver it.
I understood why she felt the way she did. Despite her comments, I felt secure in my choice to represent myself as my best self until the day I was touched.
As my hair grew, I began wearing it in various styles. Depending on those styles, I would often add extensions to make the braids fuller or the buns bigger. One of my colleagues stopped me in the hallway one day to comment on how much she loved my hair, and then she leaned in and touched me.
She didn’t ask to touch me, she just did it.
As she was petting me—because that’s what it felt like—she said, “How do you get those braids? Are they extensions?” My smile turned to a frown, and I backed all the way up. I looked at her with confusion, anger, and violation. I knew she was just curious and had no malicious intent, but it was also a teachable moment. I stepped back and said: “Yes, they are extensions. Thank you for the compliment, but please do not touch me.”
Now she looked confused, too. She hadn’t meant to offend me, she explained. She was just wondering how my hair felt. “Yes,” I said, “but it’s attached to me, and you didn’t ask.” She apologized and walked away.
There was a lot more I could have said to her about why it’s offensive to touch someone without permission, and especially offensive in the corporate environment. What I ended up saying to her was that it’s just hair. In the same way that her hair grows from her own head and she’s able to style it as she sees fit, my hair does the same.
Both the older colleague and the one who petted me placed me in a situation where I had to defend my personal choice. There was a bigger message in this. I learned that resisting the temptation to conform is an expression of revolution, and one I walk away from in confidence because I don’t address the “why” so much as I ask the question: “Why not?” Why I wear my hair in braids, for example, is not up for discussion, so much as, why does it matter? Owning my choice is how I stand in my confidence.
Each colleague took my personal expression as an invitation to violate boundaries, to overstep, and to have an opinion about something that truly has nothing to do with them, but my ability to look beyond that and continue expressing myself as I saw fit was a way to take that power back, because at the end of the day, it’s just hair, and aesthetics has nothing to do with genetics. It’s personal.
Rihanna released the widely anticipated video for the Drake-assisted “Work” last month, the first single off her eighth studio album, Anti. Not only were we lucky enough to receive two separate clips in a single sitting, but the Barbadian singer graciously took us into a steamy night of Caribbean-tinged twerking and whining (two dances that she executes quite well).
While the catchiness of “Work” is irrefutable and Rihanna yet again showed us her vocal versatility, her sexuality as a black woman—not her undeniable talent or almost magical pop star staying power—is at the forefront of discussion surrounding the song. In fact, anytime a black female pop star shows conceptual complexity, it is almost inevitable that mainstream criticism will soon follow. Publications and outlets balk at the idea that black women can be multifaceted—and Rihanna’s latest visuals are just the tip of the iceberg.
At twenty-eight years of age, Rihanna has literally grown up right before the world’s eyes. She signed her record deal with Def Jam when she was just sixteen. Over the course of her career, she has publicly dealt with financial troubles, family turmoil, and high-profile relationships. Despite all of her setbacks, she has remained fearless when it comes to artistic reinvention and uses her music videos to convey the power of her brand and agency.
Considering the history of black women in this country, to say that Rihanna shows resilience and confidence as she navigates the music industry would be a vast understatement. It is groundbreaking to watch her become so successful by disregarding what society deems acceptable and by following her own creative impulses.
All too often, this particular narrative surrounding her career is ignored in favor of focusing in on one single aspect of her life, regardless of how irrelevant it is to her artistry. As a survivor of domestic violence, her personal life is often used to frame her every musical move; others view her as a sexual object whose sole purpose is to perpetuate male hedonism. Her cultural roots make her an exotic entity to some, and her current stint as creative director at PUMA left naysayers wondering what her credentials are when it comes to designing fashion. While her contemporaries are also subjected to unwarranted scrutiny, the words used to describe Rihanna and her professional endeavors are always harsher and often contain racist undertones.
Why is it so hard to believe that black women can occupy such visible spaces while being multidimensional?
This question has never been more prevalent than when Beyonce recently released the video for her latest song “Formation.” A departure from her signature universal love ballads and boisterous club anthems, the single celebrates her black roots while addressing police brutality and promoting sisterhood. Her Black Panther tribute at this year’s Super Bowl cemented the predictable backlash centering on Bey’s “newfound” political awareness, and a bevy of ridiculous questions and critiques soon followed: Is Beyonce now anti-police? How could a light-skinned, blond black woman be pro-black? Doesn’t her being rich make the likelihood of Beyonce experiencing racism obsolete?
Once she used her platform to voice what matters in the black community—and step outside of the comfort zones of her listeners—the adverse reactions became inevitable.
Nicki Minaj is another talented black female musician in the limelight who is often forced to justify her sexuality, outspokenness, and drive in a genre dominated by men. Her gritty and brilliant delivery of bars is frequently juxtaposed by her choice to treat sensitive subject matter, yet her creativity and proliferation in hip hop is overshadowed by her body type and how she chooses to showcase it. Minaj is aware of the controversy surrounding her career and has stated that young women can dance and dress as provocatively as they want yet still be well educated—though society encourages us (read: black women) to choose between the two.
And earlier this year, former video vixen and model Amber Rose had to explain—in the most elementary of ways—to two grown men on a naturally syndicated television show that just because she used to be a stripper and has dated famous men doesn’t mean that she wants to be viewed as a sexual object. She is a mother, a feminist, and an author—but that seems to be lost to the mainstream, which has written her off as they see fit. Will black women ever be embraced as the complex, talented, and fascinating beings we are?
Despite the strides made by the aforementioned celebrities, the lens used to view black women in pop music and culture is dangerously narrow. What is even more disheartening is that for many, perception equals reality.
The depiction of black women over hundreds of years has been nothing short of an assemblage of conflictions. We are regarded as hypersexualized yet undesirable, simplistic but routinely analyzed, and renowned while being innately feared. While many look to pop culture to clarify, exacerbate, or extinguish these tired tropes, we are led to believe that we somehow bear the burden of disproving both historical and generational stereotypes.
However, black women are not responsible for the ignorant assumptions surrounding how we talk, what we wear, how we dance, who we date, and ultimately who we are. There was a time in this country when our bodies were sold, then literally caged and put on display. It wasn’t that long ago that there were laws concocted to remind black people of the disdain America had for us. The criticism that black women in the music industry face today is also a reminder of this contempt, although it is guised as harmless commentary instead of as thinly veiled racism.
The burden is not on Rihanna or Beyonce or Nicki or Amber to prove they can embody various principles and ideologies—it is on society to cultivate and continually harbor safe spaces for their complexities to exist in the first place.
I was born in Britain at the tail end of the Thatcher era. My mother was a nurse, my father an accountant, and we moved from London to a suburban part of Essex just after I came along.
There’s a lot I don’t remember about my childhood. I don’t remember any specific toys I liked or what my favorite meal was. I can’t remember the color of my first bike or how old I was when I first learned to ride it. What I lack in specifics, however, I make up for in the memory of how certain things felt: the pride when our neighbor, David, let go of the back of my saddle and I cycled on two wheels by myself, feeling the wind brush sharply past my cheeks. The memory is only a split second long, but it is powerful.
I can’t tell you when I first heard the phrase “playing the race card,” or even when I first came to understand its meaning as a black child growing up in a predominantly white area. What I do remember vividly, though, is what it felt like. As an adult, the only comparable feeling is the frustration of being unable to articulate a point or argument because you are up against someone who is more confident—or at least louder—than you are. They aren’t necessarily right, but you have no choice but to back down anyway, because you’ll never be able to convince them to see your side.
In my teens and twenties, I feared speaking out about how I really felt in certain situations, worried about being branded as “playing the race card.” I didn’t want to be seen as difficult or angry—I just wanted to keep my head down and blend in. The problem is, as a black, female, second-generation Muslim growing up in post 9–11 and 7–7 Britain, blending in was never going to be possible. That’s when I really started to notice how the “race card” was being used to silence valid and legitimate voices.
In January this year, the London mayoral battle started to get pretty messy, with Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith accusing Labour’s Sadiq Khan of “playing the race card.” In terms of my personal vote, I’m not gravitating toward either candidate. I’m not even convinced that any one person is enough to be the mayor of London. If it were up to me, there would be a group of at least four people with separate areas of expertise who could each bring something different to the table—like the Power Rangers, or the kids from Captain Planet. That said, the use of the phrase awoke a frustration in me that had remained dormant for many years.
The idea of a “race card” suggests a privilege. The race card is a go-to argument that everyone who considers themselves an ethnic minority is free to pull out of their pocket and play whenever they need—a theoretical free pass to victory.
Doctor: What kind is it?
Midwife: It’s a brown baby girl, doctor. Parents are Muslims.
Doctor: A brown Muslim girl? Oh dear, best give her two race cards then. She’ll need them.
But this isn’t what the phrase has always meant. Historically, “playing the race card” meant to pander politically to racists. The race card was a political trump card that could beat all others.
Following an influx of immigrants into the UK in the 50s and 60s, there was known to be a degree of racist discontent amongst the predominantly white indigenous population [and] there was an informal gentlemen’s agreement not to benefit electorally by pandering to this racist element. Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate for the parliamentary seat of Smethwick in the 1964 General Election, was accused of using the slogan, ‘If you want a n****r neighbour – vote Labour’, in an attempt to capitalise on the electorate’s fears of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. Later, once the phrase ‘play the race card’ had become part of the language in the 80s, commentators wrote pieces suggesting that Griffiths ‘played the race card’ in order to get elected.
So to play the race card means both “to attempt to gain advantage in an election by pandering to the electorate’s racism” and “to attempt to gain advantage by drawing attention to one’s race.” There is reversal suggested here: what used to be the racist’s tool has become the ethnic minority’s asset.
What the two meanings have in common is the idea that the race card trumps all arguments and shuts down debate. Whoever holds the race card wins.
Yet who really wins, in this day and age, when one person accuses another of playing the race card? The person who does so effectively removes the possibility of debate by dismissing and invalidating the other party’s opinion. When we remove the opportunity for debate, we substantially minimize the opportunity for understanding—and when we are unwilling to understand each other, we become separated.
In the past, we’re told, white politicians played the race card, pandering to racism as a way of shutting down their opponents’ arguments. Today we are to understand that people of color hold and play race cards of their own—but in fact it is the accusation, not the “card,” that holds all the power.
My frustration at Zac Goldsmith’s words extends so much further than it being a turn of phrase that irks me. These are not words that can be ignored and brushed off: these are words that are being used every day to ignore and silence people who are attempting to voice their frustrations.
I’m now thirty years old, and I’ve been trying for years to put into words how and why race is such a huge deal to people of color like me. The closest I’ve come is this: being able to exist and not have to think about race issues is a privilege. I always felt that until I could say something helpful, different, and poignant on the subject, I may as well keep quiet. The trouble with this “race card” thing is, I just can’t sit quietly while a prominent public figure perpetuates a term whose use results in people being shut down—people like me, who are people like everyone else, whose thoughts and feelings are equally valid. People like me, who have grown up experiencing first- and second-hand what it actually feels like to exist as a minority in a world where the playing field between those who are white and people of color is not level.
To me, the “race card” is not a card at all. A mere card couldn’t possibly fit all of the reasons I need to challenge and call out racism. My reasons for speaking out span the three continents that form a part of me and hundreds of years of colonialism, immigration, and experience. My race card is not a card: it’s the lives of my ancestors distilled into speckles of my genetic makeup. I’ve accumulated a “race book” full of experience, of bittersweet memories and difficult-to-process feelings, and I stand ready to explain to anyone willing to listen why I will no longer sit down and accept the dismissal embedded in this phrase.
Next time I’m accused of playing the card, I’m throwing down the book.