Hair today, (cultural insensitivity) gone tomorrow

emmy
I’m white. My hair is limp and bone straight and tame. I cannot relate or even understand what it is like for black women to engage herself and the world (particularly white people like me) in the journey of hair. I’d always observed the hair of Black women from the sidelines, perhaps commented on it as an ignorant outsider. Those things that are different from us are sources of both curiosity and fear. Perhaps it is a very human thing to say “look at that…that is different from me.” But somewhere along the line there is value associated with those differences… i.e. “that is different from me, I am good, and therefore that which is different is less than.” Our culture values a standard that does not consider race or hair follicles. Up until a few years ago it was near impossible to find a Black woman with natural hair on tv or in print. Long, straight, glossy and full of body, that was the norm; regardless of race and regardless of how your hair actually grew out of your head.

A few years ago I came across a documentary called Good Hair by Chris Rock (the film Dr. MB also mentions in her post). I watched in awe and reverence and rapt attention- the world of black women’s hair beautifully and startlingly became a three dimensional, vivid and utterly important topic for me. How humbling to become aware of how little you know. I cannot possibly relate, or even understand in any meaningful way, but oh how I want to. I’ve battled expectations about my appearance and trying to make my body fit into a template it was never designed to fulfill; this was but a small connection to something I grew increasingly aware of as essentially complex: Black women’s hair. As I write I am left feeling incapable of communicating what I learned from the documentary but what I can say is that my overall feeling is that the subject of Black women’s hair is personal and sacred. It’s hard to be confronted with knowing I may never understand, and being ok with that reality, particularly while wanting to know more. In my relationship with Dr. MB we have talked many, many times about her experiences with hair and people from cultures different from her own interacting with it in ways that make me cringe. I struggle with the feelings that arise in me when I hear people ask her “is that YOUR hair?” as if it is pleasant causal cocktail conversation… don’t they know?! Don’t they realize this is scared ground?! Show some respect! A really wonderful and intimate time in our relationship happened when Dr. MB asked if I wanted to shop for hair with her. I felt honored and so close to her in that moment- grateful for our mutual vulnerability.

I want her post to resonate in all her brave honesty because talking about something that is not the reality of the majority group is always risky, but so worth it if people take the time to listen. My hope is that everyone listens, and maybe even goes and watches Good Hair so that my friends no longer have to have 5 rules to get them through the day just having to deal with ignorance and cultural differences.

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The Change: I guess I am my hair! Teaching and learning about Culture

Blog Moe
India Arie professed to the world “I am not my hair”. But I think some people missed the memo. I change my hair pretty frequently. Lace front, half-wig, glue-in, sew-in, clip-in, box braids, twist or cornrows. You name it I’ve done it, with the exception of going natural1. So it is so intriguing to me how people who see me frequently can’t seem to wrap their minds around the changes. Shaved in the back and probably only about four or five inches long in the front, without the help of store bought hair, I rock a very short cut. So to me it’s fairly obvious that if I am natural (meaning without any hair extensions) on Monday the 1st that when you see me with hair down my back on Monday the 7th clearly it did not grow from my scalp. That part seems more common sense then cultural!
At one point in my life I did not like to change my hair. I anticipated the oohhs and aahhs I would receive, questions about the transformation and request to touch it. Again my college experience allowed me freedom to change as I saw fit. Attending a predominately Black college it wasn’t uncommon for a girl to have a long black Mohawk on Monday and autumn twist on Tuesday. That would be colors 1 and 30! Actually, this was so common most people really did not comment or call attention to the change unless you really admired the new style and gave your friend a “that’s cute on you” confirmation statement. Transitioning back into the real world over the years I’ve struggled with making “the change”. I’ve created these rules around changing my hair and I wonder why I found it necessarily to restrict my free flowing hair transformations.

Rule # 1 – Hair can only change over the weekend – The transformation is always so magical to people that I think it would be sensory overload for me to change during a week day.

Rule #2 – Give a warning – I find myself suddenly letting people know that my hair is going to change over the weekend and when they see me on Monday I will look a little different. It helps remove some of the shock factor.

Rule # 3 – Be ready – I give myself a pep talk in the car and run through in my head what I am going to say to the most common and highly predictable questions and comments.

Rule # 4 – Hit the catwalk – I try to see everyone early on Monday morning by walking around the office more or staying in common areas for longer than normal. This way people can get their comments out of the way and I am prepared with the tailor made response I rehearsed in the car. If I run into someone late in the afternoon I’m likely to be tired by that time, caught off guard and sometimes offended resulting in a not so professional exchange.

Rule # 5 – When all else fails, play the race card – Sometimes I’m just tired of having to educate people or even engaging in conversations about my hair. If this happens I’ve found the quickest way to end the conversation or interrogation is to call to that person’s attention how their comments are culturally insensitive or that they are showing people how ignorant they are about Black culture. Only resort to rule 5 in emergencies!

 
Why the rules? Are they for me or for them? I think at first I lied to myself and said that some of the rules are because I’m a professional in a professional setting and as the military (and several schools across the nation) have recently showed us, hair is a big deal and in some ways part of the uniform. My office is business casual and sometimes I feel my hair is urban chic. I only feel able to relax about my hair once I’ve seen everyone in my office, all the oohhs and aahhs are done, and I’ve completed my educational course on how it’s possible for me to go from last week’s style to this week’s style.
Every time I share a really uncomfortable or aggravating awkward hair moment with Dr. EW she immediately says “Everyone should watch Good Hair”2. And you know what, she’s right! I know a lot about the hair of my Caucasian friends and colleagues. You don’t have to educate me on why you wash your hair daily but I always seem to have to do a tutorial on why I don’t. Watch the movie! If you don’t have two hours You Tube can help you in five minutes or use everyone’s favorite educational tool, Google! Frankly, I feel that my hair is only the business of three people, me, the person I bought it from and the person that glued, sewed or braided it in. However, I’m okay with people knowing the truth. I’m not trying to hide the fact that this is not my natural hair but in ways I feel tired of this conversation and I want to quit this cultural teaching job. I can remember my first sleep over with my White friends and how I spent half the night explaining to them why I showered and didn’t wash my hair and why I have to sleep with that funny head scarf on. I’m in my 30’s now so I’ve been teaching for 3 decades, when do I get to retire? Younger Black women and I have conversations constantly about this topic. They struggle with having to “speak for the race” and answer any question that has to do with Black people, Black culture or Black history. They are frustrated with the fact that they know about Florence Allen one of the first female judges in this country but no one seems to have ever heard of Jane Bolin (I’ll wait while you Google).

As a psychologist, I am called to be aware of the culture of other people so I can treat my clients from their worldview. Seeing as though the majority of my clientele are Caucasian I’m probably a little past the learning curve. Which makes me wonder how some people have no knowledge about the culture of anyone who doesn’t identify as White American heterosexual Christians but treat these people in their practices. If a client comes to you about how she has been treated in her family since making the decision not to wear her hijab (go ahead, Google) how will you respond if you have no earthly idea what a hijab is and what it represents in Arab culture. I’m not even advocating for being an expert. I think being a jack of all trades is perfectly fine. At lease know a little bit about a lot instead of being an expert on your culture and knowing nothing about everyone else’s.
I don’t claim to know everything about every culture and I will admit that at times I am ashamed of how much I don’t know but I pride myself on having the desire to learn more. I’m extra proud of Dr. EW for immersing herself in books and articles that expand her knowledge about my culture. Often those who are in the majority don’t see the need to explore other cultures because they hardly interact with those outside their culture. When I got married Dr. EW asked me was I going to jump the broom (you all are wearing Google out. And the movie that just popped up is not about the tradition or history of jumping the broom). I was impressed that she knew anything about jumping the broom. Now, someone who will remain nameless asked me “What’s with the broom”. There is an obvious difference in the approach that makes me feel honored to share with Dr. EW and an internal desire to just use my beautiful broom to hit the nameless offender. However, I even educated the nameless offender. Maybe one day I will get to retire but for now Dr. MB will continue to educate (even the nameless offender)! But in the meantime do your homework!
Class is dismissed!!

1 Going Natural – When an African American women wears the natural texture of her hair instead of the straightened permed texture. A perm straightens the hair of African American women where it is a processed used to curl the hair of Caucasian women.
2 http://www.amazon.com/Good-Hair-Chris-Rock/dp/B002TOJOY8

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My Thoughts about Going Through Thick and Thin

emmy
When Dr. MB told me that she was going to blog about weight my stomach dropped. I grew fearful knowing that her post may trigger in me feelings that I did not feel prepared to address, and maybe even worse – prompt me to also create and entry about this topic. My history is in some ways complex and in others straightforward. You see, I’ve been morbidly obese, thin, and overweight. I too have fluctuated across many sizes but have pushed the limit of those sizes to places where discrimination and prejudice lie. Growing up I was always a big girl; my mother took me to the “pretty plus” section at Sears to choose from limited racks of uncool clothes, I was given a book as a tween “Can You Pinch an Inch” which confused me as I could pinch many inches, I was asked frequently by my classmates who had already internalized the bias of their parents, “how much do you weigh?” These are some of the most minor experiences of being singled out in childhood.

As I moved into my teen years and the manual scale at my pediatricians’ office kept being moved up in significant increments; the ways I felt out-of-place and unacceptable increased. Dating was off the table- my weight disqualified me from being attractive to my male peers. Constant doctors appointments, specialists, endocrinologists, nutritionists; these confirmed that I was a problem. My weight sky rocketed as I experienced some of my first depressive episodes, the ups and downs of being a teenager; the experience of being bullied for my weight by peers, teachers, teenagers who took pleasure in yelling insults at me out of the windows of their cars as I walked around my neighborhood trying to fix the problem that caused their jeers- these are the experiences of my teen years. If you have ever been morbidly obese you know the ways in which this world is not for you. It is painful and awkward both emotionally and physically; and the worst part is that everyone around you, including you, attributes these difficulties to a personal failure. I believe I know more about why I gained so much weight during those years now, but in order to provide some level of brevity to this post I will leave those musings for another time.

In college, just when I thoughts I could not live another day as an obese person my doctor, in exasperation, recommended surgery. He could help me no more. At first I was horrified and then I thought, “This could be my way out.” I was not in poor health, I was not diabetic, I was not bed ridden; what I was was a patient who couldn’t lose weight and a social pariah, and I was ready to be worthy of being welcomed back into the fold of the “normal.”

At the green age of twenty I was cut; I was given the gift of lovability, I could be acceptable. Had I known that I would have multiple complications that almost caused the loss of my life I probably would have still moved forward with surgery. After 5 days in the intensive care unit on a ventilator and 14 days in the hospital I was ready to take on the world! I only had to pack an open wound on my abdomen from the second emergency surgery for 3 months, and the one on my hand from a botched IV for 3 weeks before a skin graft could be attached a small price to pay to be accepted by this culture we live in.

Ironically within a year of my surgery I developed a condition that required medication that caused weight gain… oh well. But I did experience a sweet, sweet year of being thin enough to experience the thin privilege I’d always coveted. It was glorious.

I am now, 12 years later, overweight again. I do long to lose weight to again obtain some of the benefits of being thin. The birth of my first child, the advancement of my career, the hectic balance of work and family; these make it hard to take care of myself in the way I would like to. I now view exercise as activity, something that allows me to not experience it as punitive and aversive. I now see food as fuel, something that can allow me to feel powerful and energized and choose variety rather than just taste; I view health as a priority over weight. However, this topic still challenges me because of the trauma of a life-spent taking up more space than our culture feels is appropriate.

Here is a clip from an email I sent to Dr. MB after I finally read her post:

I’m in love with your post. To be honest I was scared to read it…. Scared because my weight, over the years, has caused me some significant trauma (some of which we have talked about and some I keep as shameful secrets). Doing so much with eating disorders I often see people say that it is just as bad to be accused of being too skinny or being asked if they were anorexic as it is for someone to be bullied for being overweight. This feels hurtful to me in those moments because being overweight in this society bares with it prejudice and discrimination at the systemic level that being thin or underweight does not. The personal attributes of thin people are not assumed to be “lazy, slovenly, unhygienic, dumb” the way overweight and obese people are often perceived. Having been both morbidly obese and thin I have first hand experience of the different ways our culture receives those two things. I think your perspective as a black woman is interesting and challenges some of the things I know to be true in white culture. I think obesity (or morbid obesity… even the name is terrifying) is universally looked at with disdain however; perhaps I am wrong on that though. Anyway… your post was wonderful, it was thoughtful and honest and really balanced and I want to write a contribution to follow it. This topic is so very raw and I always have to think about what I am comfortable saying because it’s so tender to me.

So I write my post and hold my breath. Hoping it is not met with judgment, or disgust, or the thought that “she asked for it, if she just ate less and moved more…” This is my experience and I know that it is one shared by many people whose weight struggles have extended to the highest levels of the normal curve. It is my truth and I share it boldly with courage and vulnerability. I am a believer in the healing power of stories; healing that occurs in both sharing and receiving. Stories that sustain us through thick and thin.

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The Weight War of the “Skinny” Girl

ImageMy closet is really a franchise of my favorite store.  There you will find clothes divided by type: jeans, sweaters, dresses and blouses.  You will also find clothes organized by size.  What size would you like ma’am?  I have everything from a 2 to a 12.  At some point in my life I’ve been a size 2, size 12 and every size in between.  However, my weight struggles have been my little secret.  I feel as though I am not allowed to have feelings of insecurity when it comes to my weight.  Even making the comment that I am going to the gym to workout is met with angry glares and mumbles of “what are you working out for”.  This makes me assume that only someone wishing to lose weight is allowed to workout.  What if I actually just want to maintain a balance of clean eating and exercise so I can live a long and healthy life?  Who am I kidding? I need to drop a few pounds and the snickers I just ate probably didn’t help, but I really wasn’t going anywhere for a while so it only seemed right!  I don’t talk about my weight because the rebuttal is most likely going to be “your so skinny, why would you be worried about your weight, dieting, exercising, blowing money on some quick fix”.  The truth is that this weight war crosses all ages and races and sizes of women.  As a Black women who was brought up in a predominantly white suburb I am extra confused with whether I should aspire to be like  Kristen Stewart, Monique from The Parkers or Monique now.  However, I do appreciate whoever made baby doll tops popular even when you aren’t pregnant because this muffin top is real!

I was innocent and carefree for a while but I can remember exactly when this internal battle began.  It was a little over a decade ago when I stepped on the yard of where I would spend the next four years educating myself about psychology only to be miseducated about my appearance.  “You’re too skinny” felt like a part of the normal greeting people gave me.  I was a Black woman in the South and I was too skinny to be attractive to the Black men on campus.  However, the freshman 15 became a real experience and by the end of the academic year I was very sexy and was often told so by the cute boys.  Unfortunately, I had to return home to the suburbs where people then reminded me how real the freshman 15 was.  “You’ve put on some weight” replaced the welcome home I had hoped to receive from people.  This created a state of confusion.  I crossed one state line and two socioeconomic classes and all of sudden I’m too fat or too skinny.  The summer after my freshman year I worked out obsessively to lose the weight that everyone so lovingly drew attention to every time they saw me.  Unfortunately, at the end of the summer I had to go back to the same school with the same cute boys and the same welcome they’d given me freshman year.  Once again my body was not right. 

For a while I realized that it was too hard to please everyone so I am going to work out when I want and eat Blue Bell straight out of the container when I want! I’m just me! My hair changes like the Texas weather.  I’m confident whether I’m rocking the curly afro or the shaved Mohawk. My make-up style, if any at all, is gloss with a pop of color and just a hint of eye shadow.  I live for jeans and a cute pair of heels nothing shorter than 5 inches.  But what size jeans should I wear, the 2 or the 12?  At one point in my life I thought I was confident in my body.  But that changed when this man who was madly in love with me decided he wanted to marry me.  The nightmare of picking a wedding dress took me right back to the ups and downs of freshman year.  Who can really get a realistic view of whether this is the perfect dress to marry Mr. Right in if you cannot even try the dress on?  When did the sample size become a 4 (which in wedding talk is a 0)?  Is that because every bride needs to develop an eating disorder before making her dress fitting appointment?  I had dieted and exercised.  I even sprung for a little medical cheating.  I found the dress I wanted!  I felt ready to try on the sample because after all this is the smallest I’ve been since freshman year.  I was confident and ready but in actuality I was unprepared for what would be an epic fail!  From the back it looked like a hospital gown giving everyone in the salon a nice shot at my backside because the three of us couldn’t get it to zip past the fattest part of my butt.  In the front it looked like I should have been holding a warning sign not to stand to close in case of explosion. Then my very sweet sales lady takes my measurements, applauds me on how much weight I’d lost since the last time I’d been in, checks the size chart, and then writes 16 on the order form!  Really, 16!  Feeling discouraged on one of the most important days leading up to the big day, I did not feel comfortable sharing my hurt with anyone.  But that day I realized I was upset for a different reason.  It was not as much the size that upset me as it was that I still cared!  I went as far as thinking that I would not be the most stunning looking thing in the church on my wedding day (that was a lie though, I looked amazing)!  But for the first time I realized why my expression of my weight struggle is regularly harshly received.  I am a pretty strong spirited then size 4 with a size 16 wedding dress and I worried for what would this experience do to a not so strong spirited size 16 woman who wanted to feel amazing on the day she said yes to the dress. 

Ten years ago when SizeUSA did their study on the size and shape of adult consumers and found that the average American woman is a size 14 I was at that time a size 2.  The research hasn’t drastically changed and now that I am closer to the average I still feel just as insecure as I did when the study was first published and I was six sizes smaller than average.  I talk often with DR. EW and my BFF about weight and size.  None of us are completely satisfied.  I remember not too long ago my BFF and I sat and listened to our mothers talk about weight and size.  I think we equally felt saddened knowing that our mothers who are both smaller than us and obviously older than us are still having this discussion.  So age, size, being “average” or below “average” all seems to leave us feeling the same, unsatisfied with our bodies.  Even with the average women being a size 14, when shopping, the Plus Size section is far smaller than the non-average size section.  And instead of companies making their consumers feel better about themselves they change the sizes to make the larges mediums and smalls even smaller.  I wish more women would look in the mirror and say to themselves “I feel healthy today” instead of “I look skinny today”.  Me included!

Today when I go to the gym, right after I finish this snickers, I know that I need to be there.  Not because I wore the size 10 pants to work today but because my family has a history of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.  Maybe I’ll never feel comfortable being honest about my weight struggles (as I ironically talk all about it in this public blog) but hopefully I can start to realize that healthy is not a size.  Maybe I can constantly keep in mind that I was not any happier far from “average” than I am now that I am closer to “average”.

 

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The Angry Black Woman and The Weepy White Woman

emmy

The angry black woman/man- I’d never heard directly about this stereotyped archetype but I know that I had an internalized template for it- one that could help me dismiss and invalidate black men and women if I ever experienced them as angry. Again, a tool I had gained living in a society where judgments and prejudice seep in and deposit spores in our brains, like toxic mold in old houses.

I had a friend three years ago, a black male psychologist, with whom I engaged in many conversations on race and identity and multiculturalism. He told me that he would not allow himself to publicly express anger or even frustration, or any affective state that could be interpreted as anger due to the risk of being seen as “the angry black man.” Dr. MB’s post, expressing her similar experience of this dismissed character of the “angry black woman” has sparked inspiration in me. I need to write.

When we classify others using internalized templates that boil them down to a one dimensional character we dehumanize them. We see the black man who gets ignored by the staff at a retail store become frustrated- and when he speaks out to assert his needs as an equal customer ready to engage in a money for goods exchange we (the majority) think “wow, he’s over sensitive, it’s not always a race thing. Relax dude… “ In an instant we have boiled down a life time of pain- being ignored, being looked over, treated as second class, discriminated against, and perhaps even a lifetime involving victimization at the hands of the majority in the form of hate crimes or racial profiling, or just daily constant microaggressions- into an explanation of “Just another ‘angry black man.’ Oversensitive.”

I’ve been taught and told in a number of settings that anger is a “secondary emotion.” This has meant that anger should be something which I pass over in therapy- in order to get at the real issue or feeling, which consequently must not be anger. I realize now that the concept of “anger as a secondary emotion” is an ethnocentric notion. It comes from a privileged male perspective- it comes from those who wrote the theories of my profession. For men in western culture, anger is socialized as one of the few acceptable affective forms of expression, and thus other feelings, potentially deeper feelings, are funneled and compressed and eventually expressed as anger. As a therapist I am to engage in the task of unpacking the anger to better understand and care for the original feeling that had not had an opportunity for expression. However, in our society anger is not a socially acceptable affective expression for women. When anger is expressed women are flattened into the one dimensional and demeaning prototype of “The Bitch”- the connotations inherent in this derogatory label lead to instant undercutting of her perspective- and so she learns her place. To be angry, to assert one’s self is to enter into “bitchood” where what you do, say, think and feel is inconsequential. For many of us that means that we stay quiet, but where does the anger go? How does it get funneled and compressed and eventually expressed?           

I will never forget the day that I first knew I was angry- to be clear it was not the first time I had experienced anger- but rather it was the first time I could identify that what I was feeling was anger. My whole life had been filled with feeling “upset”- which meant for me a degree of self loathing, blame set aside for only me- in which the feelings I felt were a result of my inadequacy rather than a reasonable reaction to the inadequacy or carelessness of others. If I was “upset” or hurt it was my own fault and I viewed it as my penance for being born so flawed. These times often, if not exclusively, involved an interaction with “the other” in which I was treated unfairly. The resulting feeling was “upset.” If you’ve ever felt upset you will know that it’s a feeling that has no energy to it. It possesses a quality of despair and lethargy. You can’t do much with “upset.”

One day I had experienced some sort of injustice that left me feeling upset. I don’t really remember the circumstances but I do remember that ever-familiar feeling. I believe I was crying and talking to my husband about it when he clarified for me “you feel angry.” My immediate thought was “no, this is not anger. I feel upset.” But his words turned me toward a churning deep in the pit of my stomach. A wrenching, a friction that told me this was more than just upset. That was the first time, the first moment in my life, that I knew I was angry. And suddenly there was energy!

I realize now looking back at the many experiences in my life in which I felt upset- times I had been wronged, where I had been hurt and not afforded human dignity or respect- and I know now those were times of anger. But my anger was turned inward and the target became me.

This is not directly a result of the cultural mandate that I should be made of sugar and spice and everything nice- but there sure is a correlation. Parts of my propensity towards feeling “upset” are my own make up- however I was socialized in a culture that colluded with that propensity and threatened to label me a “bitch” if I stepped outside of my prescribed role.

I think of Dr. MB and my other friend feeling threatened by the label of Angry Black Person, and my own fear of The Bitch- and perhaps all three of us face the same threat of being labeled “overly emotional” or “too sensitive” by this culture if we express our fears of being dismissed for our anger. Anger which is often the primary feeling for women and minorities- the most important and true feeling, the one that gives life and energy to fight prejudice and discrimination. Anger: the feeling that is oft disregarded by my profession as useless and secondary and something to not dwell on.

The following diagram is my attempt at a pictoral representation of my theory about the expression of anger amongts sexes. Enjoy.Slide1

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Race and Gender in Identity Salience: the car I drive and the signs I hold

moeFeminism is really something that Dr. EW has taught me.  Most of my life I’ve been too busy assuming that “It’s because I’m Black” to ever consider that “It’s because I’m a woman”.  The only time being a woman really came into play for me was the “Angry Black Woman” (whoever she is) that I am always being compared to when I show any type of assertiveness or show any type of negative emotion.  The real eye opening moment for me was just two years ago when Dr. EW and I met the same man at the same time and at the end of the day she experienced him as being sexist and that had never crossed my mind, I had just assumed “It’s because I’m Black”.  I guess being a double minority really makes you prioritize what is salient.  I sometimes forget how women have had to fight and continue to fight for equality in several aspects of life.  Society has showed me some places where I need to think about my gender and in those places being a woman is definitely more salient.  For example, the car dealership, which I have visited a few times with my father, is a place of female minority salience.  My dad brings his wallet and his negotiation skills but I bring all the facts and figures about the car.  My dad required that I do my research and be completely familiar with the specs of the car I intend him to gift me!  At the dealership we are met by some eager salesman (not a microaggression, it’s always been a man) who is ready to help my dad buy a nice new shiny ride.  I can probably count on both hands and toes how many times my dad has to tell the salesman, “It’s her car, I’m just here to write the check”.  The salesman talks to me for point two seconds and then is back to trying to convince my dad how great this new model is.  Dad, who has looked over my facts and specs before we even step onto the dealership floor, is really not concerned with what I choose (as long as it’s in budget) because he knows I’ve researched the car and have made the best decision for my needs. Dad, who has also given me the budget and insured I’ve done the math on the price after tax, title and license, doesn’t care if we buy a car on that day, from that dealership or really at all.  So he would be more than willing to go play golf if I am not satisfied with the vehicle.  Someone should really tell the salesman these things!  Tell him that the Woman in this picture is the person making the decision.  She is the one that knows about the car.  That she . . . I am actually the customer!  But I am fairly young, at that time much younger and also Black so again I forget to factor in that I’m a woman. 

Dr. EW started making connections with successful women at our workplace.  And being excited by her passion I followed suit.  However, being a woman in the workplace driven by men I recognized that I couldn’t leave my Black behind.  Because being a Black woman in the workplace driven by White men means both things are salient.  Sitting at the feet of successful Black woman I realized that they too found the struggle of being Black and being a Woman very intertwined.  I wondered why I can never for a second let my color not be the focus or the reason.  This made me think about circumstances in which being a woman is the most salient.  To me this only comes into play when I am among only African Americans, because then my Blackness is no longer salient. 

blog 2 pic 

 
The Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identities shows that we have several roles and depending on the circumstances or situation different things become more salient to us.  I love this diagram because it’s a true depiction of how I feel at times; my roles are always in motion as a reaction to the situation.  I’m always MB at the core but depending on the context I might be Dr. MB Christian Black Woman (please say this in a superhero voice and visualize me in a cape)!

 

Needless to say I am far behind Dr. EW who can clearly articulate her journey in Feminism.  I am learning to recognize when the atom is shifting and gender is closer to the core.  Ironically in the diagram Race is closest to the core so I feel comforted that I’m not the only person still working on this! Being around other women who are farther along in the journey like, Dr. EW, has been a tremendous help to me.  It’s also been refreshing to feel free to put down the “It’s Because I’m Black” sign that I carry around all the time. That thing gets heavy on the soul.  However, I’ve also learned that this does not mean that I have to replace that sign with the “It’s because I’m a Woman” sign.  I can just be MB and pick up a sign to picket when it’s time to, when the atom has shifted in that direction, or the next time I’m at a car dealership (which my dad has assured next time will be without him and his wallet). 

 

Jones, S. R., & McEwen, M. K. (2000, July/August). A Conceptual Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity. Journal of College Student Development, 41(4), 405-414.

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gender microaggression and feminist identity development- for me, knowledge was power

emmy

I’m not sure when I became a Feminist. It may have been a gradual process that began during graduate school or it may have been a gradual processed that began the day I was conceived and my chromosomal makeup reflected an XX orientation. As a child I was blissfully ignorant of power dynamics, perhaps due to many privileges allowed me by my race and my middle class socioeconomic status. I was authentic as a child, I was hyperactive and spontaneous and internally driven towards self expression. I was also ADHD. I suppose at that time I experienced a level of rejection from society and my peers- many ADHD kids have a difficult time socially, however I was somewhat unaware of how I impacted others and because of this had an effervescent joie de vivre often reserved for the most confident and unfettered among us.

At some point this changed, at some point I became aware that I was unacceptable. I was bullied, singled out, shamed, accused of being “overly emotional,” “unintelligent,” “Fat. Fat. Fat.” I took up too much space physically, emotionally, and socially and in order to conform to a more accepted place in the world and perhaps to make myself “smaller,” I developed a clinical depression that would come to define much of who I was and who I would become. Although this does not appear to be related to my sex or gender, particularly early on, it was related to the ways I was “outside the norm” or had inadvertently challenged the “status quo.” I was different– and while many children dream of being the president, an astronaut, a doctor or an actor- I dreamed of being normal.  Ahhh… the American Dream: normal. To me normal meant that I would perhaps be above vulnerability to the cruelty of others, or maybe it meant that I aligned more with the majority. To me normal was the seductive thought that I could be of average weight, average intelligence, average social skills, and only stand out when I wanted to. Either way I was never going to be average, which now in my adulthood is a much less painful reality for me- in fact perhaps now a place of pride.

As I pursed my degree in Clinical Psychology I began to notice an interesting theme: that individuals who struggle to have a voice in society, for whatever reason, experience higher rates of mental health pathology. I came to learn that women, people of color, and LGBT individuals all have more reasons to be depressed in this society. I learned that they are made to feel responsible for the pathology of the systems they inhabit. I learned that pathology often resides in systems, particularly hierarchical/stratified systems. Patriarchal systems based in power differentials, whose reality is defined by majority, white, male experiences. Cue mind being blown. What did this all mean?!

I still was not a feminist at this point, and as I stated earlier I struggled to engage with the parts of my education that required me to give one-sided empathy to the emotionally painful experiences of minorities. I had so many emotionally painful experiences which had not been affirmed and cared for, raw painful wounds inflicted by a culture that viewed me as abnormal. I was not seen in my own culturally inflicted pain and therefore could not see others truly and deeply in theirs.

I went on internship and was supervised by a tall, gentle, bearded Buddhist psychologist and a petite, curly-haired, feminist, lesbian psychologist. I fear that these descriptions trivialize these influences in my life so readers please know that these are two of the most treasured and cherished individuals that walk this earth. They saw me, they knew me, and they taught me. I began to develop a feminist consciousness rooted in social justice and power analysis. I saw oppression: my own and that of others. I felt affirmed and free to fight for the wellbeing of others whom society told were overly emotional, unintelligent, unwanted, too much.

In these days I still called myself a “girl.” I could not wrap my mouth or brain around the word “woman” when referencing myself. I was 28. My fellow intern noted that this was strange; I concurred but did not think much more about it. Fast forward a few years.

A series of experiences in my professional life lead me to a desperate Google search of “bullying in professional settings.” At that time I came upon an article that discussed gender related microaggressions. My world began to change- for the better. Sue, 2010 describes microaggressions as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, or religious slights and insults to the target person or group. As I read more about gender, feminism, women’s issues and microaggressions-what I came to realize was that my experiences were common experiences for individuals with certain marginalized groups. I began to understand the world in a new way. It was empowering for me to have my experiences of invalidation reflected in peer-reviewed journals. My reality was shared by others and there was, in that moment, a window that opened in my mind- a potential community that could be out there, people who had shared some of my own experiences and wanted things to be different.

Subsequent to my discovery of feminist theory and gender related microaggressions I have spent time intentionally seeking out women in powerful positions at my place of work. I think my goal originally was to share my story and to hear theirs… I got much more than that. I gained a network of wonderful and smart women who have given the me the opportunity to experience mutual empathy and support from a place of understanding. It has been therapeutic and it has reminded me of why and how I come to call myself the a feminist. The F word continues to illicit condescending and at times vitriolic responses. Another psychologist once described my feminist theoretical orientation as “rah rah women are great” therapy (read: MICROAGGRESSION). For me now I can weather these indignities as I have found support- there is such beauty in finding community amongst others with experience being relegated to the margins.

 

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