Friday, May 2, 2014

There, I Said It: Reflections on Identity by a Feminist Racial Hybrid

When I first proclaimed myself as a feminist in 1993 through my campus' Black student-run newspaper, I had only a few months prior started reading and researching anything I could get my hands on by and about black feminist activists and scholars.  My mind was completely blown when I first read Deborah King's "Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness" about the triple oppressions of racism, sexism and classism that black women faced..  From there, I read bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Barbara Christian, and several others.  Like a sponge, I absorbed as much as I could until I felt a strong urge to share with the world that I was a black feminist.

I wrote my article, "There, I Said It" as an act of defiance to the sexism I was experiencing within the Black Student Union at my university. I was tired of sitting in meetings to be told that I have undermined black men by not allowing them to have other women without complaint because that's what our ancestors did in Africa.  I wanted folks to know I wasn't someone who was going to stand for none of that "The Black Man's Guide to Understanding the Black Woman" bullshit which advised black men, "When she crosses this line and becomes viciously insulting it is time for the Blackman to soundly slap her in the mouth."  Naw, partner, even at the tender age of 20, I knew better than to fall for that okey-doke which many black men I encountered at my school liked to quote from.

But I was naively unprepared for the backlash against my feminist proclamation even as I explained that black women have had a long history of feminist activism (even in pre-colonial Africa).  Nope, feminism was for white women and since I was already so light (in complexion), I must be confused about my racial identity.  Up to that point, I had a only a handful of incidents where my skin color was an issue and because my mixed race mother and maternal grandmother experienced much of the same thing growing up, they prepared me with a type of "psychic armor" to deflect alot of hostility from folks because of my complexion or the length of my hair.  But my feminist "coming out" became completely undermined and overshadowed by questions of my racial identity and racial allegiance.  While I didn't learn the terminology to describe what I was experiencing until years later, the question of political intersectionality - being forced to choose one identity over the other - was a major turning point for me.

I was always militantly black until I had my blackness questioned for my "dalliance" with feminism.  I formed my high school's first black student union, attended statewide black student union conferences and immediately got involved with black student organizations at my university.  I never thought of myself as anything other than black, publicly.  Privately, we were black and Filipino.  Raised by Filipina great grandmother, black, white and Filipina grandmother and mother, we learned how to "identity switch" (sort of like code-switching) as a way to protect ourselves for ignorant backlash.  I could be all of who I was at home but outside of the safety of our home, I was black and I might even curse you out if you called me something else.

But my article not only struck a nerve with readers who were in opposition to my public declaration as a feminist, it forced me to decide whether I was willing to risk handing over my "Black Pass" in order to stay true to my new found feminist identity.   I refused to give up feminism in order to make folks feel comfortable and lost a number of friends along the way.

I was elected president of the Black Student Union the following year but the outgoing president gave keys to the campus office and BSU files to someone who wasn't elected - a Black male student.  The guy I went out with a date with and who was trying his damnedest to have sex with me, now treated me like pariah, even going as far as calling me "a race traitor" because I was running errands with a white male co-worker from my work study gig.  Once again, I had to find that "psychic armor" that was instilled in me by my mother and grandmother and keep moving.  It would take 12 years later before I was ready, however, to embrace my mixed-race identity and proclaim it publicly.  As with all racial-cultural identity development theories, everything is a process....

The Mixed Race Feminist

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