Let’s have some real conversation here. How many of us have been guilty of forcing ourselves into a mold based on our surroundings? Depending on who I’m talking to, I might tell you that I grew up in a racially “mixed” environment and it wouldn’t be a complete stretch of the truth since some schools I went to were more diverse than others. In the years it mattered most, that stage in your childhood where you are developing your sense of identity that will come to play a central role in the way you move through life, let’s just say I was in a pretty culturally homogenous environment. While there was a sprinkle of diversity within the student population at Beavercreek High School, aptly named for its location in the suburban town of Beavercreek, Ohio, I can claim with almost total conviction that within the staff, there was not a single person of color (I know, mind blowing right?).
This was the second high school I would attend and it wasn’t a far cry from the first, or my middle school for that matter. In all cases, my family had strategically positioned us to be in high-performing school districts, presumably more focused on stats like graduation rates and test scores than diversity. In their defense, given a choice between quality of education and diversity for my child, I would surely choose the latter, but someone please remind me why this has to be a choice? More than a decade has passed since high school and there are still remnants of social coping mechanisms I developed that have stayed with me longer than I would have liked.
Throughout high school, like every teenager to ever exist, I was preoccupied with a sense of normalcy. However, the backdrop against which I based my perception of “normalcy” was certainly not ideal and largely centered around assimilating within a social dynamic that was systemically uninviting. I can recall a group project in AP History in which we were tasked with creatively educating the class on a moment in history from the perspective of a modern, well-known personality within American culture. History was never of much interest to me, particularly the one-sided version of which we were exposed, so it’s not surprising that I don’t recall what the focus of our project was, but I could never forget the lense from which my group chose to communicate, none other than that of Snoop Dogg.
I cringe instantly from the recollection of the sheer number of times the fictitious phrase “fo shizzle” was spoken in the course of that presentation, but in retrospect can actually laugh at the irony of using an icon within the black community to relay the history of a country that is so conveniently devoid of black stories. I also find it interesting to note that “blackness” will always be welcomed when it is for the purpose of entertainment, but somehow acknowledging us outside of that realm somehow doesn't elicit the same enthusiasm. There were other stories, of course, that collectively encouraged me to shrink away into my very skin, refraining from further emphasis on my already quite obvious differences within an atmosphere that didn’t feel truly inclusive to me. In a nutshell, academically I flourished, emotionally and psychologically, I was impacted quite negatively.
I know I’m not the only with that story. Or maybe my story bears some semblance to your professional experiences. Afterall, in many regards, the workplace has just been a continuation of many encounters I faced in high school with the obvious difference being that I am a grown ass woman. Even so, I am still trying to work through unconsciously manifested thought and behavior patterns, the most pronounced being my affinity for making myself invisible. In the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, he says:
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood -movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
If someone acknowledges you from a place of conveniency or comfort within their own tightly-held conceptions does that mean that they are actually acknowledging you at all? In this case, invisibility is not just a failure to see, but a failure to comprehend a being as it actually exists, but it would be an exhausting task to convince the entire world of what they should see when they look at you. What matters most is your own self-perception, in spite of many external factors, and the surest way to positively impact that is by paying yourself all the love of which you are very much deserving.
This self-love journey has not been a straight path and I’m sure anyone reading this can probably attest to the same, but here are a few keys I’ve learned in my 31 years of being that I hope will be of some benefit:
Stop with the attempts to fit yourself into a mold that is pleasing to EVERYONE.
How others perceive you can be an extreme source of anxiety if you allow it. I spent far too long trying to be everything to everyone in every environment. I spent most of early adulthood in a constant search of approval within my friendships, romantic relationships, even within my family. I really wanted someone to confirm for me that I was enough, standing alone, but we all know that no one is able to confirm something of that nature for you. You, and you alone, can handle that.
Spend more time alone than you do with other people.
This may sound counter-intuitive and by no means am I telling you to renounce all of your relationships and resort to the life of a hermit (unless of course that brings you profound joy!). What I am advising is that you allocate more of your time to learning yourself than you do to being in the presence of others. Most of the time that constant movement and noise act as space fillers so you don’t have to get into the real nitty gritty. I was surrounded by noise all throughout high school, college and through the first half of my 20’s until I had my son at 25. That period of time was hard for me, but the emotional turmoil I faced wasn’t directly correlated with motherhood. It was a period of stillness and quiet, a whole lot of sitting around and being in my own head. I had been so disconnected from myself for so long, always burrowing myself into as much activity as a means of avoiding something that was deeply troubling. I had no real sense of purpose or identity. That’s a tough cookie to swallow, but it’s the perfect place to build from because in a sense you, are starting from scratch.
Say what you mean and don’t be sorry.
Don’t be afraid to shake things up a little. Do you know what happens to a voice that is never used? When you decide to make use of it, to your dismay it’s dried up like an old well which goes the same for any muscle that isn’t exercised. You’ll find that you have to take the time to build it up again and over time it will come to be of use. After many years of suppressing my thoughts and ideas, I found myself really struggling to communicate effectively on even a basic level. My voice essentially packed it’s bags and went on hiatus. I spent a great deal of my childhood public speaking so I couldn’t figure out as an adult why this suddenly became something so foreign to me, but I realized that I was being implored to speak from a place of authenticity and sometimes raw honesty that I was not too familiar with.
Don’t be afraid to wear white after Labor Day.
You know exactly what I’m talking about. Your mother always told you it was off limits and as a result you found yourself seeking approval from the nameless fashion gods who enacted this rule four score and 100 years ago in every expression of your personal style. Is this too trendy? Not trendy enough? So last year? Or is it just really ugly? What I really mean is, stop being controlled by archaic ideas or belief systems that don't necessarily feel true to you. Stop second guessing your style and every other component of your identity. I know what you’re really afraid of, that is if it’s what I’m often afraid of: standing out, potentially being seen as awkward, or what people might say. They might wonder who the hell you think you are, how you have the audacity to flourish with no fucks given, but then they’ll kindly have a seat and take notes. You don’t belong on the sidelines honey, you belong in the game. All eyes are on you and suddenly you find that you’re not so invisible anymore because the person whose attention you were deeply in need of was your own. I see you. We see you, but most importantly, you see yourself.