I have been going through a fascinating internal journey of self exploration; who knew that it would take the death of an American 17 year old to expose my own ignorance about the way my skin has coloured how the world views me? Who could have foretold that an inexplicably brutal attack on an Indian bus could awaken my dormant feminist
alter ego? How could I have known that even before I recognised the voice, there was a story – that I am a story – waiting to be uncovered?
For the last six months, I have come face to face with the reality that I am black. Twelve months ago, I began to realise that I am, indeed, a woman.
I need to prefix this with an apology: This is an ongoing emotional and intellectual pilgrimage to self discovery. I am in the midst of my own enlightenment and as a result, I will almost surely be superficial, inarticulate, contradictory and incoherent. In anticipation of my faltering efforts, I apologise. But if you follow me as I explore the unknown parts of my self, I am hoping you will find you are witness to something beautiful – the revelation of a black woman.
My realisation of my womanhood has been a slow awakening. Obviously, I have always been aware that I am female. But just as being male does not imbue manliness, having been born female is simply the biological potential to achieve womanhood. Becoming a woman is realised through experience, heartbreak, victory, struggle and education at the feet of those who have come before. It is unquantifiable and indescribable – a destination met in the journey.
It could be described as a putting away of childish rhetoric and a subconscious acceptance of the burden of femininity.
We live in a world of male privilege. The male experience is the control – the standard against which the female experience is measured. We are “other”: men have set the rules and reserve the right to change them. Ours is to simply “suit up”, as it were. Never mind that we don’t particularly like suits.
I have arrived at the point in my emergence where I am becoming conscious about the challenge of being a woman. I was raised without a gender consciousness. It never occurred to me that by (dubious) merit of being female, I would have to work harder than my brothers to achieve the same success. I was never aware that even after working harder for the same title, I would likely be paid less, passed over for promotions and eventually hit a glass ceiling. Nobody ever told me that I would have to fight for rights that I assumed were universal – the right to decide for myself the timing and size of my family, the right to privacy in my hospital consultation rooms, the right to wear what I want without “inviting” criminal assault against my person. I was never made aware that my spiritual leaders would define my God as sexist: A God who encouraged my professional success until it was time to raise my family. I had no idea that if I was bold enough to approach a man, I would be exhibiting undesirable, “anti-feminine” qualities. Who knew that when I entered into a marriage covenant, it would be assumed that I was to have the lioness’ share of the work – provider, nurturer, lover, incubator, homemaker, single parent with a part-time helper? I was never told that if I voiced my frustration with my perceived role in society, if I challenged accepted norms, if I demanded more than equality in rhetoric only, that I would be called a feminist – and that word would be used in a derogatory context. Who knew that “feminism” would need to even exist – a movement to promote the interests of the majority over the authority and will of the minority.
These are temporary truths that I have slowly discovered as life has responded to my naiveté with reality.
I was speaking to a man that I respect, more so for his healthy respect for women, yet even he, a self professed male feminist, is unable to fully appreciate the extent to which sexism is pervasive in society. I spent hours trying to convince him that because women are not as capable as men in physically protecting their families in situations of mortal danger, it does not translate to an intrinsic lack of desire to provide that protection. We don’t want to be physically weaker than men – but we accept that we are. And in accepting that, we have developed alternate strategies to protect our families – with and without men around. The intrinsic assumption that my lack of physical strength when compared to his own translated into a lack of desire to be a protector was either unintentionally sexist or wilfully ignorant.
Men, even the best ones, are still unable to see how differently we are forced to navigate the world. Tim Wise, an eloquent anti-racist advocate used the following example to describe racism or sexism or any otherising sentiment out there: He confessed that he had no idea how he had entered the hall he was speaking in because he did not really need to know. “But,” he said, “if I was handicapped, I would have to consider exactly how to enter this hall”. He went on to expound that people without disabilities never have to consider the challenges faced by disabled people because not considering their experience has no effect on our lives. On the other hand, disabled people need to consider not only their own challenges, but ours also, because our challenges affect them, too. Even the most well meaning man will never be able to be fully considerate of the female experience because there are things we think about that men simply have never had to consider.
It is impossible to separate my recognition that there is a female experience without also acknowledging that there is a uniquely black experience.
I was brought up in a majority black country in which figures of authority in all sectors of life were black as well as white. I grew up surrounded by intelligent black men and women and without knowing it, grew up in a privileged position of never questioning that I could be anything. In striving for academic excellence, I was not blazing any trails – I was simply doing what was expected of me. Both my parents are intelligent, articulate and have graduated from University. Both of them, despite being born into poverty and institutionalised apartheid and racial subjugation, have travelled the world and have lived in societies other than their own. Despite personal affronts and losses in a civil war for racial and economic equality in our country, I was raised to be colour blind. To me, that remains one of the single greatest acts of bravery and forgiveness I have ever had the honour to witness.
I first encountered racism when I was eight years old. I was the only black girl in an extracurricular gymnastics class coached by a mixed-race male who chose the “gymnast of the week”. After a few weeks, every single person in the class had won the award, except me. I was excited, because I knew it was my turn that week. I hadn’t stopped talking about it the night before and I was beside myself waiting to take the little plaque home. Half way through the class, a white friend of mine was having trouble with her hand-stands. I stopped to show her how to balance against the wall and was proud when “Coach” noticed me helping her. Half an hour later, I watched with stunned silence as her name was called out for the weekly award for her “wonderful hand-stands”. I was devastated. Two weeks later, after watching two other classmates win for their second time around, I quit gym class.
That year, we flew to visit my American cousins. My ten year old mixed-race cousin took my brother to school as her exhibit for “show and tell” – her African cousin – and he was bombarded with questions about lions and being hungry and what it was like to come to America on a boat (they assumed).
I went to a majority white high school in a majority black country. At my school, one of the most prestigious in the country, known for academic excellence and socially awkward students, we weren’t encouraged to speak in our native language. We learnt European and American history, but our exposure to African history stopped when the Europeans landed on the continent. We read European literature and studied European thinkers. By the time I was in high school, the Zimbabwean civil war was only 18 years in our history – I did not learn then and do not know now anything more than the superficial about what that war was about. I have family that died in that war, family that fought in that war, and yet I know more about the World Wars, the American Revolution and even the destruction of Rome, than I know about a war that I can touch when I visit the grave of the grandfather I would never meet.
I won’t talk about how our classrooms were unintentionally segregated, where you could literally draw a line down the left side of the room delineating where the black girls sat. I won’t talk about how we flocked to our own, sitting at pseudo-segregated lunch tables, chapel sections, areas in the rest area. I found out I was black at my high school. And despite living in a majority black country, I soon discovered that if I found myself in the minority, my blackness would matter.
I want to qualify that my high school wasn’t overtly racist – only racially conscious. And while it was my first exposure to living a life in which I was aware of my race, I wasn’t victimised because of it. There were subtle things, there always are, but I will be the first to deny that I was a victim of racism at that school. In fact, I have to really try hard to find any examples of overt racism in my life. I may just be lucky, or maybe racism is no longer overt. It may be that I am a black woman, and not a black man.
A few years ago, I was working as an intern in a hospital in a little rural town in Australia. Most of the doctors were Sri Lankan with differing shades of brown skin. I was shadowing a white, male English doctor when we rounded on a white, English elderly woman. It is one of the only times in my medical career that I have wanted to forget my duty of care and simply walk away. When we pulled back the curtain, she didn’t even look at me. She focused all her attention on my colleague and exclaimed, in relief, “Thank God”. She spent the longest three minutes of my life expressing her relief that her doctor was white, that she was afraid she would have to be treated by “these unqualified” brown doctors that were “taking over Australia”, which was “such a shame” because she had “left London because it was being overrun by these black people and Muslims”. If it wasn’t set in anger, my jaw would have dropped. I did not move, I did not speak. I just stood there.
A few months ago, I performed a minor surgery on a lovely, elderly white woman whom I had genuinely liked in our brief interaction prior to her procedure. After she had awoken from her anaesthetic, I went to reassure her that everything had gone smoothly. Being black in Australia, I am accustomed to people asking me where I am from and expected the question. When I told her I was from Zimbabwe, I was surprised to find out that we shared a similar origin. Except not really, because she said “Oh! I’m from Rhodesia”. For those unfamiliar with our history, Rhodesia is the exact same geographical location of Zimbabwe, but it is not the same country. Rhodesia is a place that no longer exists. Zimbabwe is what emerged when a civil war was fought and the black majority won and rebuilt a country and a national identity. Rhodesia is a country that fought to maintain the oppression of black people, that empowered segregation of the races. People who identify themselves as “Rhodesians” do more than align themselves with a country – to black Zimbabweans, they align themselves with white supremacy and a legacy of wilful racial injustice that continues to affect our national and cultural identity.
She went on to explain that in 1980, when Rhodesia died and Zimbabwe was born, she and her family had relocated to South Africa, a country that would continue its Apartheid policies until 1994. I was floored when she looked at me and said “In 1995, we moved to Australia, because, you know…” I did know, but I didn’t want to. Was she implying that I should sympathise with her having to move her family across the globe, running to join societies in which she was a part of a racial majority, regardless of how the minority was treated? Did she know that in her longed-for Rhodesia, I wasn’t even allowed to look her in the eye, let alone be her doctor? How could she feel comfortable enough to have this conversation with me? She was either completely oblivious or deliberately insensitive.
A few nights ago, I had a conversation with a white, second generation Australian about the new (and disgraceful) policy Australia’s “progressive” political party is implementing on immigration. She looked at me and relayed her concerns that by allowing refugees entry into Australia, it would be diluting the white majority and possibly even the Christian-ness of her country. I should prefix this by saying this is a wonderful woman and friend who was simply being honest about her concerns. She was not being deliberately racist. She was simply exemplifying what fear-mongering political dog-whistles have the power to do – make people afraid of each other. What struck me was not so much what she said, although I cannot express enough how much I disagree with her (can we really justify ignoring human suffering in order to maintain white, christian superiority?), but that she could say it to me. I am not white. I am an immigrant. I represent the population that she is so afraid of, and yet she doesn’t seem afraid of me. She either sees me as “not one of them” or she is simply unaware of how her words can be perceived by someone like me.
In all these situations, I was struck by the lack of awareness these people had about the impact their words would have on me. White people don’t seem to really know or even care about how their actions and words affect people of colour – they are unaware of the experience of other races. They do not have to be racially aware because apparently, they assume their experience is the universal experience. I may be wrong and I would love to hear from anyone white who would like to try and explain what is going on here.
FEMALE + BLACK
Any exercise in self discovery that I undertake will be incomplete unless I explore both my womanhood and my race. My experience of being a woman is directly affected by the colour of my skin. I am under no illusion that there is a single shared female experience. Mia McKenzie writes:
Let’s take for example a well-known issue that affects women–the issue of “equal pay.” We’ve all heard the statistic: in the US, women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes on average. That sucks. But it’s not quite the shared experience it seems. A recent report by the National Partnership for Women & Families shows that black women only make 70 cents for every dollar a man makes on average, and only 64 cents compared to every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man. And Latinas make only 55 cents for every dollar made by a white, non-Hispanic man. Well, damn. That 77 cents never looked so good.
My experience of being black is always going to be affected by the fact that I am a black woman, and not a black man. The blogger of diaryofanegress writes:
In the recent decades, black women have risen in different areas of education. Today, black women are in fields that were traditionally made for white males… Not only does the black woman make the bread and butter but she is the matriarch of her family. She tends to the kids homework, attends PTA meetings, cooks, does laundry and sexually services her man. Without her, the family unit suffers.
The black man, on the other hand, scrutinized and made to be “suspicious”, is often denied work no matter how qualified. Stereotyped as lazy and driven out of the workforce under the clever guise of a lay-off, he is under immense pressure. Implosion comes, unfortunately, when he finds no release for his angst, depression and anger.
In contrast, The Thistle writes:
It must be stressed that it was not only many of the men but also a great number of the women in the Black Liberation Movements who were enforcing strict gender roles on black women. In much the same way that women in dominant society do not resist but encourage sexism, black women fell prey to perpetuating patriarchy within the black community.
In the coming months, years and maybe decades I will have to find an internal equilibrium in order to understand and be understood by a world in which I am both a member of a marginalised majority and an underrepresented minority. I look forward to meeting myself and introducing her to you all.