Compliance

It’s something I’ve heard since I was a child: Go to school, get an education, get a good job. It’s a mantra recited by Black parents to Black children ever since we were allowed to be educated and gainfully employed.

So much of Black history is about celebrating Black firsts: the first Black to reach an executive position at a corporation, the first Black head doctor at a hospital, the first Black ambassador. Reference books are full of sepia-toned photos of dignified-looking men and women of color who overcame prejudice to graduate from Ivy League schools or obtain government appointments. Education and hard work was the only approved way for respectable African-Americans to get a piece of the American dream. The background of iconic Black entertainment is all about coming up. From The Jeffersonsto The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airto Black-Ish, the message is that upward mobility is the way out of poverty and discrimination.

The flip side of that aspiration is less spoken of. It’s the unwritten but universally understood employment contract drawn up between White employers and Black employees in America: To be allowed access to the world of upward mobility, there are certain adjustments to be made. You will have to dress a certain way. You will have to speak a certain way. There are certain behaviors of your employers that you will have adapt to or overlook. That contract has undergone amendments and modifications over time, but the primary stipulation remains the same: if you’re Black and want to get—and keep—a job, you will have to compromise.

To be allowed access to the world of upward mobility, there are certain adjustments to be made.

In my early twenties, I was working the third shift at Johnny Rockets in Jacksonvillle, Florida. One night I was running the dishwasher with a coworker, a Mexican guy who had been there some months longer than me and was unofficially in charge of the night crew. The restaurant manager, a white guy, poked his head into the door, and he and my coworker went over some closing procedures. The subject of a lack of supplies came up, and the manager placed the blame on the stinginess of the district manager, whom I had to assume was Jewish from the joke the restaurant manager made about him.

I remember thinking that it didn’t affect me, as I wasn’t Jewish, but I knew it was an unprofessional and offensive remark to make in the workplace.

I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I remember thinking that it didn’t affect me, as I wasn’t Jewish, but I knew it was an unprofessional and offensive remark to make in the workplace. I looked at my colleague and he rolled his eyes, a gesture I interpreted to mean that I was to ignore the manager’s comment, which I did.

The next year, I worked a summer job at a warehouse, and one of the foreman handed me a note to give to a shipping and receiving clerk. It said to be sure the “dago truck driver gave her an invoice.” Obviously, the foreman thought nothing of giving the note to me and had no fear of me reading it and saying anything—and he was right, as it turned out.

Both Johnny Rockets and the warehouse job paid minimum wage, and I had no intention of making a career out of either, but the idea of quitting or confronting a manager and getting fired because I felt offended was unthinkable to me at the time. Jacksonville was, and is, a very conservative southern city, and jobs were hard to get if you were Black. I wasn’t rich. I needed to work. So I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my job, not making waves, and working until I could do better.

I wasn’t rich. I needed to work. So I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my job, not making waves, and working until I could do better.

Things improved when I moved to Atlanta. In Atlanta, the Black success mantra manifests itself like no other city in America. You could say Atlanta was built on it. Here was a city where Blackness wasn’t defined by survival, but by prosperity and its display. There were Black people in positions of power, from the mayor’s office to corporate boardrooms. Black culture was Atlanta culture.

The economy was booming, and I landed an office job not long after I arrived. The casual displays of racism I saw in Jacksonville were nonexistent here. But in the “Black Mecca,” genteel condescension can be as bad as blatant hostility. In meetings, I would be interrupted while trying to speak. If I made a suggestion, it was patronizingly listened to and quickly ignored—but if a white colleague made the same suggestion worded differently almost immediately afterward, they would receive praise for it. White coworkers would make coded comments about other coworkers’ mistakes being due to their ethnicities in my presence.

In meetings, I would be interrupted while trying to speak. If I made a suggestion, it was patronizingly listened to and quickly ignored—but if a white colleague made the same suggestion worded differently almost immediately afterward, they would receive praise for it.

I hid my displeasure behind nervous smiles and shaking my head. I moved from one corporate job to the next, and very rarely did I speak up. I was making a very nice income for a single man with no kids in a major city. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.

I grew up proud and aware of my heritage. My immediate family shared stories with me about our ancestors from the time I was old enough to understand them. As a teen I devoured the words of Malcolm X and the music of Public Enemy. In Atlanta I was surrounded by examples of Black empowerment. Me and my friends were heavily into Afrocentrism and got into discussions about racism that would last for hours. I knew what Black people suffered and how they fought to gain access to gainful employment, and I believed in Malcolm’s strategy of confronting racism head on wherever it exposed itself.

But when I walked through office doors on Monday morning, I still made the compromises I felt I had to make to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.

I believed in Malcolm’s strategy of confronting racism head on wherever it exposed itself.But when I walked through office doors on Monday morning, I still made the compromises I felt I had to make to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.

What’s a paycheck worth? If someone makes a racist remark in a social setting, it’s easy to call them out on it. In a business environment, how do you handle that? Do you go off on the person or ignore it? Whatever you do, you’re risking a lot—your career if you address the remark, your self-respect if you don’t. It’s a choice no one should have to make, but Black employees face it every day. The results can be soul killing.

A couple weeks ago, political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry publicly parted ways with MSNBC. On the day she left, she released a statement saying that the tone of her show was being compromised and that she refused to be a “token, mammy, or little brown bobble head.” Her experience is not unique. In workplaces across the country, there’s still an expectation that people of color who rise in their chosen professions should be eternally grateful for being given the opportunity to work—as if they didn’t get there on their own merits—and that they are obligated to maintain a safe, nonthreatening image.

Whatever you do, you’re risking a lot — your career if you address the remark, your self-respect if you don’t. It’s a choice no one should have to make, but Black employees face it every day. The results can be soul killing.

Recently, I was talking to someone being groomed for a management position in a company I work with. He was a younger White guy, and he often came to me for mentorship. We weren’t close, but we got along pretty well. I enjoyed having someone to talk to about my work and exchange ideas with. One day, in the middle of one of these conversations, a client approached us. She was a Black woman, in her early forties if I had to guess. Her speech and dress gave the impression of being poor or working-class. She asked a few questions about a product, then left. Once she was out of earshot my colleague said, “Leave, and take your nappy weave with you.”

I was stunned. I’d never felt anything from him that would have made me expect a comment like that. I can only guess that he felt comfortable saying that around me because I was seen as “safe.” I felt anger rising up inside me, and right away the professional and social indoctrination about not making waves rose up to check it. This time, however, outrage won out. I pulled him aside and confronted him, and he gave me a weak half-excuse, half-apology.

Our relationship hasn’t recovered. I cut off any conversation not pertaining to work, and I stopped mentoring him. I may have betrayed my own “safe” image, but I don’t care. I’m at a point in my life where the one-sided compromise of the Black success mantra no longer serves me.

Words matter. When disrespect goes unchallenged, it only gets worse. I want to be successful, I want security. But I don’t want either at the cost of my integrity.

Words matter. When disrespect goes unchallenged, it only gets worse. I want to be successful, I want security. But I don’t want either at the cost of my integrity.

I have a pretty good professional life. I have mentors of different backgrounds in various fields, and I’ve made connections that I hope to be able to cultivate for years. But I’ve also had enough contact with clueless and casually racist people in business settings that I have my guard up, anxious for the day when someone I thought knew better makes a hateful remark couched as a joke and I’m expected to laugh about and shrug off.

I shouldn’t have to accept that, and I don’t intend to.

Follow Torraine on Twitter @TorraineWalker

top photo by William Stitt on Unsplash

Surveillance

I stopped being a writer; today I have the words to tell you why.

I don’t write because I’m being watched. I turn off the words; I numb the feelings; I avoid the associations; I distract the thinking; I step away from the situation. I am here to document the ways in which I have chosen silence over action.

Community

The first time I went to Friday prayers after moving to Chicago, no one said salaamto me. I thought, “Is this how a Desi gets treated in a predominately Arab masjid?” I remembered Dad telling me about the young, connectionless men at his masjid. He said, “They keep coming and going out of nowhere – they must be spies. No one talks to them.”

He asked me, when I told him about volunteering at an Islamic nonprofit, where their charitable donations went. He said these organizations get in trouble for sending their money abroad and their members get labeled terrorist sympathizers.

Family

I text my sisters that I have a thing to tell them that’s not bad but I feel weird telling them on the phone so remind me to tell you when we all next meet (days, weeks, months?) so whoever the FBI has assigned to read this group text won’t find out (can’t I have some secrets, FBI agent?).

Love

Before we got married, Neema seriously asked me if I was an FBI agent. “You’re perfect,” he said. Too perfect, he didn’t say.

You could say we’re paranoid; but we’ll say we’re up-to-date on our news and have learned our histories. Connection is risk.

Heart

I decided to practice radical empathy after Michael Brown was shot. I did not and do not have a hard time feeling empathy for protesters, for rioters, for the rage that leads people into the streets or for the rage that leads them to want objects to burn. I never wrote that I felt this way but I do feel this way and have no difficulty conjuring these emotions (but do struggle to make them disappear).

I practiced empathizing with George Zimmerman and with Darren Wilson and with Timothy Loehmann and with the officers of Waller County Jail and with Dante Servin and with the Baltimore Police Department and with Jason Van Dyke and with and with and with and with and with

I didn’t like it and I succeeded. But that’s a different story.

I am going to qualify here because if I do not you will wonder that having empathy for someone does not mean excusing someone.

I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed.

I am trying not to stop myself from writing this.

I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed. That empathy exists as a heaviness in my chest and a shortness of my breath. That empathy pushes at the edges of my heart but I am scared to let it in. I feel it as a failure of my humanity and I fear it as a failure of our humanity. I do not Google ISIS because I do not want anyone to know I Google ISIS. I do not know the stories or motivations or language of the humans-not-monsters who constitute ISIS because I do not think I can subsequently assert their humanity without putting my own into question. Empathy is risk. I am not a monster.

Mouth

But I will own to being a coward; by now you know this. In my circles we talk about strategies for change: sometimes you want to be a Malcolm and sometimes you want to be a Martin. Mostly I am a chump choking back both my words of violence and my words of peace.

I remember back to my ethics class in journalism school. The question was whether journalists should not publish information that the government asks them not to publish for security. “Well of course,” said the class, “for security.”

For. Whose. Security?

I do not remember agreeing to value our lives more than their lives. I do remember my question knocking up against the insides of my teeth as I kept my mouth shut. I do remember remembering Abu Ghraib and air strikes against civilians and the Pentagon Papers and the people like me who were killed for the security of people like me. I do remember not saying that I thought our allegiance as journalists was to the truth.

I grew out of wanting to argue to argue. I do not hold these ideas as objects in my mind with dimensions I can manipulate and play with. I feel them in my gut and they bubble up as bile in my mouth. I do not want to taste this publicly in our class discussion or over coffee or as a Facebook comment. I do not want the acid that is burning holes in my stomach to sting in polite company. Would you even understand that while I skinned my knees on the same playgrounds as American soldiers and while my livelihood is tied up in American interests they serve, my mouth also prays the same prayers as those Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and Persians we are meant to fear? Maybe you could not understand me but you do suspect me in my skinny jeans and brown skin.

Hands

Understand this: I have written. And I have deleted. And deleted and deleted.

Eyes

I know I am watched. As a consequence, I decided to restrict my speech and my press and my pursuit of happiness. I have been silent, but I have not been blind. I, too, have been watching.

top photo by Nathaniel dahan on Unsplash

Minor

I started stealing razors from my dad in the first grade. It was easy.

I watched my mom and older sisters do the same for as long as I could remember. As soon as I began sprouting hair in areas I didn’t want covered (i.e., not the top of my head), I slicked them off quickly and painlessly without telling a soul.

Although I began signaling sexual maturation sooner than most, I was sure that my very understanding mother wouldn’t approve of depilation at age six. I was right. Dr. Miles, my pediatrician, had forewarned her that I showed signs of precocious puberty. My mom vigilantly observed for the markers that I expertly hid.

When I began menstruating at age ten — I concealed that fact for months before an untimely trip to the mall forced me to reveal it — my mom, in shock, exclaimed that it had happened before any pubic hair growth. I sassily retorted that that was only because I handled the fuzzy inconvenience before she even noticed. The glare she darted my way warned me to tread carefully in my remarks.

I was often referred to as “mujercita sin tiempo” — little woman before her time. It began when I decided to put the dolls away and play instead with my little sister. Toys held my interest for a very short period of time. That was the most prominent feature of my precociousness until I opened my mouth. That mouth got me sent to the naughty table in the first grade. It was there that I formed a lifelong friendship with Miguel, the first and only person to know that I had “woman problems” at the time. Perhaps my smart aleck-y attitude should havve alerted my mother to the situation.

Merriam-Webster simply defines precociousness as having or showing the qualities or abilities of an adult an unusually early age, exceptionally early in development or occurrence (emphasis on early). The National Library of Medicine provides a more precise demarcation for precociousness. Precocious puberty is the development of sexual maturation in boys and girls at a chronological age that is 2.5 standard deviations below the mean age of onset of puberty in the general population.

I was often referred to as “mujercita sin tiempo” — little woman before her time.

The language is ominous. Precocious puberty is 2.5 times away from average. Average is typical. Two and a half standard deviations below normal naturally seems abnormal. But is it?

For me, it was a minor change. And if you take it from the perspective of pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan, MD, coauthor of The New Puberty, a book geared toward guiding parents through early development and sexual maturation, it’s a minor change for a growing number of girls. In a study launched in 2005 that evaluated a controlled group of girls in three cities, nearly 10 percent of the participants developed signs of puberty before eight years of age.

Precocious puberty is the development of sexual maturation in boys and girls at a chronological age that is 2.5 standard deviations below the mean age of onset of puberty in the general population.

On a slow Saturday night, a Google search of “early puberty” returns approximately 1.3 million hits in 0.31 seconds. The right side of the search window shows a chart proclaiming precocious puberty a rare condition that is treatable by a medical professional.

Several headlines, some by prestigious news organizations, lament this ordinary change, a change that occurs in all (minus a sliver of a minority) sooner or later. Each publication parrots the others, rattling off a list of negative affects of early maturation — depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, early initiation of sexual activity, etc. — expounding the fears of clueless parents.

On a slow Saturday night, a Google search of “early puberty” returns approximately 1.3 million hits in 0.31 seconds.

I was the fourth born, the third girl in a family of five siblings. My home was a stable household steeped in femininity. I watched my two older sisters grow into their womanhood, and the lessons my mother instilled in them flowed unto me in seamless transition. While I didn’t comprehend everything that was happening, I did understand that puberty was a series of events that would occur over time. My mother explained these changes as they were presented to my sisters, as I was a witness to their evolving bodies. My turn would be next. I wasn’t sure when, but I did know it was coming.

Four years ago, writer Elizabeth Weil profiled a mother and daughter experiencing the onset of precocious puberty for a piece in the New York Times Magazine. The article chronicled how Tracee Sioux, mother and now author of The Year of Yes! fought for a “solution or treatment” to the “problem condition” her nonplussed daughter, Ainsley, was traversing. Doctor after doctor had deemed Ainsley advanced but normal, but that was not the answer Tracee sought. The big, ugly world was revealing itself much too soon. Momma bear had to protect and guard against it. A puritanical concept of innocence was at stake.

The big, ugly world was revealing itself much too soon.

The false sense of loss of innocence is the most pressing negative affect of early onset puberty. Society’s fixation on the sexualization of young girls — the famed Lolita Syndrome — should not dictate how we educate our daughters. Let’s divorce the idea of being wanted from that of being a woman and teach girls from the earliest moment possible that they are the owners of their own bodies, and that while they grow, those bodies will change. Girls need to be granted agency over their selves in order to successfully navigate the challenges that arise from childhood into adulthood. Womanhood does not begin with desirability.

In her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison suggests that being a woman requires pain. Jamison goes as far as describing menstruation as “one kind of wound.” For such a central aspect of womanhood to be described as an affliction so casually is troubling. If everything ails, nothing will heal. Pain is not a gender.

Let’s divorce the idea of being wanted from that of being a woman and teach girls from the earliest moment possible that they are the owners of their own bodies, and that while they grow, those bodies will change.

Women need to lead the change to stop the stigmatization of our changing bodies. While it may seem preferable to be viewed as a victim rather than a whore, both perspectives are damaging. Our collective understanding of self should be the source of our bonding. The pains of our periods may indicate the possibility of fertility. There should be no shame in that potential. It’s potential: a maybe, but not a certainty. And if it does become a certainty, the reality is just another step in life.

For such a central aspect of womanhood to be described as an affliction so casually is troubling. If everything ails, nothing will heal. Pain is not a gender.

Puberty is a beginning and not an end. It’s a minor change that leads to another that will successively lead to more. It may be scary (or not) and weird at first, but it’s just another phase, like fallen teeth and lanky limbs. Our bodies are our own, and that personal space requires respect. Teach this to our girls and our boys.

Let’s not rob our girls of the beauty of transformation. It will happen whether you want it to or not. Womanhood is process. Revel in the process. Revel in self-care. Love being a woman. It is not unclean.

top photo by Andrea Reiman on Unsplash

Leave Your Indoor Voice Behind

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.

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.

In an interview about the Black Lives Matter movement, how feminism has shaped her, and the importance of owning herself, Johnetta Elzie (@nettaaaaaaaa on Twitter) says of negative responses to her work, “I don’t live a fairytale life. I don’t live a celebrity life. There are people out there that want me dead.” Here’s a young woman who is making the necessary moves to bring attention to issues such as police brutality and racism, and people want her dead? I thought it was supposed to be important for every citizento fight against injustice. Or is that only true when you’re white and male?


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.

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.

Women who exchange indoor for outdoor voices must expect a lot of resistance, especially in the Internet age.

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.

Women of color who air their views on feminism, racism, and misogyny online are routinely bullied by those who would silence us.

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.

top photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Why I’d Rather Be Called Radical Than Beautiful

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.

And so I started to learn that having dark skin was an offense that meant you weren’t quite as good as other people.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

top photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash