The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

March 13,

As we’ve seen through the controversy surrounding Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, women are often labelled as difficult if we take up space. As human beings we all crave connection, and we all want to be liked. Yet, Black girls who express their opinions are often deemed troublesome well before they’re 10, so learn to silence themselves to accommodate feelings of others.

Women are rarely praised for taking up space, and we see Black women get labelled ‘difficult’ or ‘intimidating’ for choosing to do so. We learn very early on to appease everybody else to survive, and we do that really well. So well, that we don’t notice we’re doing it a lot of the time. 

For women who occupy space in two worlds – as someone of mixed heritage, or the child of immigrants – it can feel extra complicated. I was reminded of this in the biggest way watching the fallout after Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.

It’s painful to be born in a country that tells you that you don’t exist — and if it does see you it doesn’t like you. And yet, these women over the coming days did something courageous. They spoke the truth of what they saw, with the hope that things would get better. And yes it was courageous not because they called people out. I mean courageous in the original sense of the word. In her book, ‘The Gifts of Imperfection,’ Brené Brown (yes, that’s right) writes “Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart’”. Those women – and others who are challenging established narratives around race and gender have this kind of courage. It’s not rooted in being contrarian.

Something happens when the world demands that you shrink yourself to make others feel comfortable. Like most women, I’ve felt uncomfortable occupying space. That’s quite a statement coming from a nearly 6ft tall chocolate-skinned woman. My elders and the media told me I was ‘too big’. So much so that by the time I was 10, I literally tried to shrink myself. I was taller than everyone in my class, including my teacher, and being the only Black kid in the class at the time, I was tired of standing out. This despite the fact that my parents demanded it. They demanded that I excel at my studies. They wanted me to stand in the fullness of my actual self. But that was too much for me. I remember leaning on one hip, in the hope that I’d actually be shorter than my teacher when I stood next to her. I stopped raising my hand in class, and lowered my head if my teacher (a woman of colour, btw) praised me in class. I didn’t want the other kids to call me a ‘teacher’s pet,’ or for them to think that I thought I was better than them. 

Of course, none of this stopped the other kids from saying that. When I started to tower over my teacher by the end of that school year, I had to accept that I couldn’t hide, physically at least. Emotionally, I only stopped hiding my talents when I realized that it was shutting me off from opportunities I wanted – and the happiness I yearned for. I stopped apologizing for being talented, opinionated – and yes, ambitious. 

It’s an attitude that many women I interviewed for my series, ‘The Media Disruptors’ share. I talked to six women of colour in the media who are disrupting established narratives for Public Media International. The women, including film-maker Amma Asante and journalist Ilia Calderon, talked about the importance of speaking one’s truth, and looking after yourself in the process. Here’s one clip from my exchange with Ms. Asante:

Early on in my career, ignorance was my greatest strength — not understanding how difficult it was going to be for me. But, at that time, I had a brilliant life coach and he was a great place for me to be able to go and unload, and also just explore and try and understand. Understanding other people’s ignorance, understanding that just because people have power, it doesn’t mean to say they have full understanding of everything.  

But also I think part of it is to really get real with yourself and not to spend time trying to be accepted by those who just simply are not going to accept you.”

That’s a word. I hope you’ll get some inspiration from the conversation too. Check out the whole conversation here.

Photo by Tinashe Mwaniki on Unsplash

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