My Black Feminist ‘A-Ha’ Moment

I was born in 1991—the dawn of the Girl Power era. Feminism as we knew it was over, and my friends and I could grow up to be anything. Buffy was kicking evil vampire ass every week, and Mulan saved China while staying true to herself. My friends and I would have lengthy debates on which Spice Girl we were (I’m Baby Spice), and Barbie was a dentist, a firefighter, and a Presidential candidate.

My family raised me to love school, to work hard, and to never settle for less than I deserve. They told me that I could be anything and that there were no limitations on what I could do as a girl.

However, my race and gender intertwined in such a way that I did at times feel limited.  My identity was in fact an obstacle that I struggled to verbalize or even understand for years.

***

I’m 5. My white kindergarten teacher shakes me violently and tells me to “shut up” when I start to cry. I corrected her on how to pronounce my name and she was embarrassed.

I’m 10. I stop spending the night at a friend’s house because she thinks it’s hysterical when her mean-ass Chihuahua chases me around her house and nips at my ankles. “I guess she doesn’t like Black people,” she giggles.

I’m 11. My younger, lighter skinned cousin with green eyes comes to visit. My half white mother and extended family spend most of her trip fawning over her. One night, I overhear my aunt calling me “dark, fat, and ugly” in comparison.

I’m 13. My mother and I meet with my school guidance counselor to pick classes for my upcoming freshman year of high school.

I love this particular guidance counselor, a Black woman, because I feel like she understood me in a way no one else did. She talks to me respectfully, unlike most of my white teachers.

My guidance counselor informs my mother and me that now is the time to start thinking about college, and as a double minority I have a great shot at attaining scholarships. “What’s a double minority?” my mother asks. That was the first inkling I had of my race and gender being a big deal.

I’m 15. I’m one of 5 Black kids in my high school class. I have a huge, debilitating crush on a boy at school. My mother gently warns me that he may not like me back because I’m Black.

It’s the same story with every crush I have on a non-Black person. I would come home and gush to my mother about the funny things my crushes would say in class, and she would nod and say, “just remember, they may not like you.” I know she only meant to spare my feelings.  And when I would ultimately see them holding hands with some girl with flowing blonde hair, I would just assume my mother was right. I would often feel inadequate in comparison to these girls because of my dark skin and relaxed hair that wouldn’t flow as nicely as theirs. I didn’t date in high school because of this.

I’m 18. I’m coasting through my last few months of my senior year after being accepted to my top choice school on a scholarship. “You only got that scholarship because you’re Black,” a friend remarked.

I’m a freshman in college. The school I chose has a lot more People of Color than my high school but is still a Predominately White Institution, or PWI. However, I finally feel like I’m somewhere I belong.

I put a lot of energy in trying to date, to make up for lost time, but I seem to be every white guy’s “first Black girl.” They give me pet names like “Mocha” and “Chocolate.” All of my new friends think I’m sassy and fierce. I tell people I’m from the posh Virginia Beach and not Norfolk, because my real hometown “has a reputation.” Norfolk is 48% Black.

I’m 20. I’m in love with my best friend, who chooses to pointedly ignore that, and me. We haven’t spoken in almost a year. Devastation is an understatement. At times when I bring this up to other friends, I’m brusquely cut off and reminded that I’m “a strong Black woman who don’t need no man” anyway. I’m then expected to listen attentively to their romance troubles, to be their shoulder to cry on.

A friend is reading Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth for her Intro to Women’s Studies class and lets me borrow it when she’s finished. It piques my interest enough to sign up for the class the following semester. My professor doesn’t assign The Purity Myth, but we have a whole series dedicated to Black Feminism, and things finally click.

***

In my Intro to Women’s Studies class, I learned about some great Black women writers like Audre Lorde and bell hooks. I also learned a term which helped me to make sense of my past trauma:

Misogynoir: “coined by queer Black Feminist Scholar Moya Bailey and is defined as anti-black misogyny in which race and gender are factors in the hatred of Black Women and Girls…Misogyny differs from misogynoir in that misogyny is the hatred for women in general whereas misogynoir is the hatred of Black Women, specifically.”

As confused as I was at 20 about how my race and gendered affected how others saw and treated me, learning this word felt like a revelation. Everything made sense. I never felt the way my friends saw me— a sassy woman. A natural caretaker. An Affirmative Action Pick. A strong woman who could live without romance, without the need to feel loved and wanted.

But this word, this word, explained it all.

And, of course, since then I’ve learned other important words. Microaggressions. Intersectionality. Womanism. All of these words have followed me. They have shaped my activism and my life’s purpose. But misogynoir, I will always feel so intimately. Unfortunately.

***

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Photo : Jenika McCrayer

Misogynoir fills me with anger and intention. I become a Black Feminist, and the capitalization is necessary. The lens in which I see the world is necessary.

I immediately switch from a Biology major to a Gender Studies major, stunning everyone. I start to call my friends out on microaggressions, and question why they choose to call me “sassy” instead of anything else. I tell white guys to stop grabbing my ass, to stop calling me “Chocolate.” I’m no longer hurt when they don’t call me back.

I throw myself into community service and activism. And I happily teach everyone the words I’ve learned. My Black girl friends and I commiserate over Misogynoir. We uplift each other when the word’s burdens are too heavy to bear alone.

***

I was born in 1991—the dawn of the Girl Power era.

My family raised me to love school, to work hard, and to never settle for less than I deserve. They told me that I could be anything and that there were no limitations on what I could do as a girl.

But that wasn’t necessarily true. My gender intertwined with my race makes things damn hard. I know this now. This knowledge allows me to speak out against this. And not just for me, but for my Black sisters who may also be struggling to put their trauma into words.

Becoming a Black Feminist was a long journey that is far from over. But I’m learning new words every day, and new methods to combat the ones that hurt. I’m learning to uplift myself and others like me. I’m striving to create a world where there are no limitations on what I can do as a Black Girl.

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Feminist, activist, writer, and horror movie aficionada. She’s currently trying to lose her Virginia drawl in NYC. Tweets nice things @JenikaMc
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