Complexities In Complexion

Photography by Dauss Miller

These interviews between Khaila King and her seven interviewees were originally published in PATTERN magazine Vol. 16, The Identity Issue. We felt the story was too powerful to only live in our print magazine, thus we decided it should live on our digital magazine as well.

Photography by Dauss Miller.

These are the voices, the unfiltered realities, and the multifaceted identities of Black women throughout the diaspora. Where there is authenticity and resilience, there exists intellectual beings with many different cultural, ethnic, and national backgrounds. All stand in their uniqueness, yet face adversity and make sacrifices in their daily lives. They are artists, mothers, companions, scholars, entrepreneurs, and much more. While they all share the commonality of being both Black and women, and often stand together as one, their social experiences are not synonymous.

UNA

How does your identity as a Black woman affect your professional life?
I think it gives me a greater understanding of my own place, my own role, and also my own responsibility. I always think about the need to make sure you leave doors open for others. Being an economist, there are not many people of color and there are very few women [in this field].

How do you feel the “angry Black woman” stereotype and other tropes alter the way you and other women who look like you navigate society?
I think it can be tough for women, period. There is this risk that if you are strong, then you are bossy. A man can be seen as confident, while a woman is seen as overbearing. Black women have an even more challenging path, because someone might be uncomfortable with the fact that you are a woman in a leadership position and that you’re a person of color. You’re dealing with both at the same time.

What part of your identity are you most proud of?
All of it really. Growing up in Nigeria where I had a lot of Black role models; the president is Black, the governor is Black. I didn’t think about race as a limiting factor. I also come from a family where women were encouraged to dream. My mother is a historian, and she helped me learn about a lot of women who have broken barriers, whether that be in sports or entertainment. We read a lot of biographies growing up, and that gave me a sense of understanding of what people of African descent have endured and overcome. I’m proud of who I am!

What’s one thing that you wish your parents had told you about being a woman of color?
Having parents that taught me the sky was the limit, I don’t think they talked as much about the challenges. I remember my father saying life isn’t fair, but [my] not really understanding it. I think sometimes parents need to help kids understand. My mother sent me this article called “Roots and Wings,” and every parent should give their children roots so they know who they are, but also wings so they can fly and dream about a world that’s better than what they had seen. That is a great framework for parenting, but I wonder, too, if parents need to teach kids a lot more about resilience and grit, and dealing with challenges. I think my parents probably had challenges. It’s only now that we ask my father what it was like, because he was Black at Cornell, an Ivy League school back in the ’60s. I think that parents need to share some of those struggles and lessons. You want your kids to dream, you want them to believe that anything is possible, but you also want to teach them that you need to learn how to overcome, resist, and speak up. I learned that through my own experiences.

Describe a defining moment when you realized that social constructs weren’t designed in your favor and how the realization shaped you.

When I was in college I worked as a camp counselor and camp director for a summer program in inner-city Boston. I started as a freshman volunteering in Roxbury, one of Boston’s toughest neighborhoods. I lived in the housing projects for two summers, and I learned very quickly just how ZIP Code and identity defined people’s outcome in America. It gave me such an understanding of systemic racism. The taxicabs did not go there, you couldn’t order pizza delivery. Whenever I took our kids on a field trip and people asked, ‘Where are you guys coming from?’ and we told them, I saw a kind of fear, especially in White faces. So that was a defining experience for me as a young person. It helped me understand how important it was that no matter what you do in life, you make sure you are investing in the lives of others, especially young people, and make sure they are expanding their own dreams and not limiting themselves.

The gender thing came later to me on my journey. Undergrad was like 50/50; women were well represented. In grad school there were so few women. You’d be not just the only Black person, [but also the only woman] out of maybe 40, 50 people. I had a good role model in my father. He was someone that really believed in gender equality. My husband is also somebody who comes from a family of sisters, so he also believes in investing in women. He’s also been a strong champion and advocate.

IDALIA

How does your identity as a Black woman affect your identity as a professor and entrepreneur?
It affects it tremendously. I guess most people see me as just a Black woman and not understanding my cultural identity, which is really something that I kind of streamline between being a professor for Africana studies and Black studies, but also in consciousness for my business, Pretty Authenticated. It is a type of business that helps women discover their personal development through fashion.

Is there any part of your identity you tend to suppress?
Nope. I am completely 100 percent authentic. As a professor, yep, I code-switch and there are many times when my students be like: ‘What did she just say,’ and I’m like ‘Okay this is what I meant by this.’ There’s a lot of island terms that I use, but the way I dress is the same way I dress outside in public, walking around, going to Starbucks. The same way that I show up in a professional way is the same way I show up in a non-professional way. I may put a suit jacket on, but I’m putting some type of element of my ethnicity and myself and my identity into that. I don’t suppress anything. I am who I am.

Have you ever felt you had to suppress your voice to avoid the “angry Black woman” stereotype?
No, because I’m so into Black studies and Black consciousness, I believe that the angry Black woman is something that has been demonized for so long, and I just refuse. We have a voice, we have an expression, we have a way of speaking that is authentic to our heritage and to our traditions. I’ve never had to suppress that. I speak in the same tone. If you think I’m an angry Black woman, yeah, I have a right to be angry, especially when it comes down to particular issues, especially societal issues, injustice issues, equity issues. I’m going to speak up just as someone else speaking up and saying ‘Hey, I have a voice too.’

Describe a defining moment when you realized that social constructs weren’t designed in your favor and how it changed you as a Black woman.
Working at predominantly White institutions, I had already been consciously aware of White spaces, but institutional- wise, especially working at IUPUI, shaped my identity in ways that made me become the critical thinker that I am today. My whole goal is let’s say there’s some other Black young girl just like me who went through college and needs me to be that [person], to say: ‘I got your back.’ I didn’t have that when I was going through college, going through this predominantly White institution. I went through a lot of heartache and pain of trying to figure out, there was nobody that looked like me, and having to navigate through a space that really didn’t want me there, but only to fulfill their diversity pool. They didn’t really want me there. It was difficult, but what I can say is that it allowed me to kind of think about myself in ways that made me become this critical Black scholar — in ways that I’m like, ‘wow, these things that are going on are deeply rooted and largely embedded in the larger project of White supremacy, and there’s nothing that I can do about it.’ But also thinking about the ways in which I can start using myself as a way of resistance, a voice, and to help Black students, to be a voice to say, ‘Hey, you got a space here.’

How do you think being both a woman and a racial minority impacts how you perceive yourself and how the world perceives you?
Having to balance, what I call the double Black, plus the cultural LatinX and Caribbean experience, I think that it’s this kind of tone that people don’t accept, and it’s like, do you not understand that Black people have cultural identities behind themselves? I have a hard time with that. I had a long time growing up with that, because when they say, ‘’You’re Afro LatinX — what does that actually look like?’ — I’m like, well, it’s like eating cornbread, callaloo, roast, beans and rice, and pupusas. It’s normal to me, but when people try to compartmentalize the identities, because they don’t understand, it is tough.

SHAMIRA

How does your identity as a Black/Brown woman affect your identity as a visual artist?
As a visual artist, I use repeat patterns and textile motifs inspired by the African Diaspora. My work has the frame of reference of Black and African traditions and spiritual practices, voices, symbols, and artistic forms that are sometimes marginalized. The main focus of my most recent work revolves around using textiles and objects to promote wellness, and to tell the story of maternal experiences. I also have an educational background in Psychology and am investigating a future in the field around Black/Brown wellness and art therapy.

What is one thing that you wish your parents taught you about being a woman of color?
Over time I’ve learned that our parents can’t protect us from everything. Self-knowledge is important when navigating through life, and everything they taught me strengthened my self-compassion and awareness.

How do you think being both a woman and a racial minority impacts how you perceive yourself and how the world perceives you?
Historically, I largely find that the world perceives us as needing to be regulated in some way. For example, policies in states, schools, and organizations that dictate what hairstyles are acceptable. I also think that we are expected to code-switch. Ultimately though, it’s my responsibility to myself to replace the world’s negative perceptions with my own positive frame of reference.

Who is a positive role model to you—your hero?
I try to be careful about putting people on pedestals, because that can be shaky, but there are people in my life that inspire me and are there for me like my parents, my husband, and my in-laws. They are my heroes, because they are human and face adversity and keep going. It’s important to be my own hero as well.

Describe a defining moment when you realized that social constructs weren’t designed in your favor and how it changed you.
The overall experience of learning about power structures and policies like the Black Codes, Article XIII of the Indiana Constitution of 1851, and Redlining have given me historical context for the social and institutional constructs that we face today. In my lived experience, I learned of racism very young. When I was born, a nurse made a racist comment and was fortunately removed from the delivery room. More so than shaping my identity this knowledge gave me awareness about the realities of the world.

What is your hope for the future of Black American women?
To be able to exist in all of our brilliance, nuance, and complexity.

How do you feel the “angry Black woman” stereotype alters the way you and women who look like you navigate through certain spaces.
The most common stereotype threat I’ve encountered has been in settings where I’m culturally isolated, with people I’m meeting for the first time or don’t know on a personal level. This has happened while traveling and in professional and educational spaces where Black women are underrepresented. I’ve met people that have tried to provoke a response from me to support their agenda. I express myself when necessary, and have spoken up, which essentially resulted in being labeled with the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype. Stereotype threat is a valid risk and can take work not to internalize. Through gaining an understanding of cultural constructs, hearing the stories of other women, and from my own experiences, I am aware of what can happen if I express certain emotions in spaces where I’m culturally isolated. When navigating those spaces, it’s important that I know my rights, while also being aware of my surroundings. I think as a whole, the women I know navigate in a way that feels safest.

ARNEETRICE

How does your identity as a Black woman affect your identity as a DJ?
Specifically in the way that I DJ, I do a lot of different things. I only DJ for companies and I do weddings, so my performances are usually really clean cross-genre, cross-nationality, and a lot of people see me as a Black woman and a DJ and expect that I’m a club DJ, and I DJ hardcore hip-hop, but I really don’t, ever. So they just always assume that my performance is going to be a certain type of thing, but I end up playing different genres of music, like Latin music. I do a lot of Latin music, house music, pop, so most of my performances really aren’t inside of my racial group.

What part of your identity do you tend to suppress (style, personality, etc.)?
Well, it’s tough because we’re in Indiana, and I identify as what I like to call the triple threat. I’m a lesbian Black woman, so it’s like I have that queer aspect, I have that African- American aspect, and then I’m a woman performer. Women DJs are just now really getting more popular, but sometimes in Indiana it’s pretty tough. I never suppress the queer part. I just would say sometimes I don’t disclose it, depending on what area I’m going to be in or that, honestly, for personal safety reasons at this point in 2019.

Can you describe a time that you ever felt you had to suppress your voice to avoid the “angry Black woman” stereotype?
Yes, girl! And it’s not that I have to suppress it, I have to strategically communicate. I’ve been in the corporate world for a really long time. Before I was a full-time DJ, I was part- time deejaying, and then I was working in sales for a lot of different companies. I worked in insurance, I worked for AT&T, and I think that in a corporate sense you have to be strategic. You can’t be as emotional or as passionate as I am when I DJ. My voice is a lot deeper; I talk really loud. I’m really expressive in nature; it’s just who I am. And that can really always be taken as aggressive when honestly, it’s passion.

What part of your identity do you feel most comfortable expressing?
It’s both the Blackness and the queerness. My wife made a T-shirt that says, ‘My Black is Gay Too,’ and I think that’s just so perfect, because being Black is one of the most lit experiences I’ve ever had. I feel like our people are more creative, our sense of community is what gets me the most. I could walk down the street, and if I see somebody grandma sitting on the porch, I can speak, I can sit down, come on in. It’s always that warm and inviting thing, and then I think it’s also important to advocate for the queer experience while being Black, because in our community it’s just now become a thing where we’re expressing more comfortably in society. I think that in our culture, our Blackness, queer has been, ‘hey, don’t tell anybody your business.’ My mom’s a pastor, and I talk about this avidly, and she wasn’t on board with the lifestyle. But even then it’s like, ‘hey don’t tell them, y’all don’t have to hold hands, you can just live your life behind closed doors.’ In the Black community, gay women aren’t taken seriously, and that really fires me up.

What is one thing that you wish your parents taught you about being a Black woman?
I wish they told me the amount of sacrifice you would have to make. I think Black women all around are sacrifices. We’re sacrificing our emotional experience, we’re sacrificing our compensation, because we’re not paid what we need to be paid. We’re sacrificing in our everyday life, because of the looks, because of the things that are said to us, and a lot of the times you can’t even get what you need to get done. People look at us as nurturers of society. Truthfully enough, I’ve been in White spaces where they expect for me to put a plan together and they expect you to have it all together and you have to stay emotionally calm and communicate effectively or you’re a ‘ghetto Black mess.’ You have to make a certain amount or you’re a ‘welfare queen.’

What is your hope for the future of Black American women?
For Black American women I really want us to band together. I love the fact that it’s now ‘sis’ and ‘sis,’ because we can really help each other in a life-changing way. Because our experience in the world sometimes is rough, and you need someone who can relate to you emotionally. ‘Do your thing sis, you can do it. You don’t need a man,’ because right now we’re also trying to get out of this oppressive patriarchy that we’re experiencing. I love the fact that as Black women we are banding together to say: say, ‘No, you can own your space.”

VICTORIA

What part of your identity do you tend to suppress?
As I’ve gotten older, the way I pronounce my words has gotten very different. I didn’t notice it at first, but a friend from home noticed it. If I were to compare how I speak now to how I spoke in high school, it’s not dramatically different, but when you know better you do better. It’s not even an, ‘oh you’re speaking white.’ I’ve had someone say, ‘You’re the blackest White person I’ve ever met,’ meaning I speak correctly. I’m like: ‘there are Black people that speak professionally, this isn’t foreign.’ It’s not a Black or White thing; it’s about being professional.

What part of your identity are you most proud of?
On the surface I’m like, ‘oh yeah, my hair,’ because I really had this deep transition with my hair over the past ten years. But really I want to say it’s my skin tone. Growing up, my family said, ‘Aw, you look pretty; you look beautiful,’ if I had dressed up to go to prom or whatever. My family always made an effort to say how smart my brother and I were, because they wanted to put it in you that, especially for girls, that your beauty isn’t always the big factor; your brain and the decisions you make are important. Part of that kind of hinders you when you are a dark-skin little girl. Because you need that reinforcement constantly, because you have people who may look at you differently than they do your cousin who might have lighter skin. I didn’t always have this loving relationship with my skin tone. I didn’t hate it, but I just never loved it. It was just there. But as I’ve gotten older, I love it so much. Even today I got this yellow shirt on, I would never, never wear this color when I was younger. Now I buy everything in yellow. You’re robbed of certain things like that, even wearing certain colors, because you’re like, I’m too dark. It’s always a negative connotation that you have with it, but really it’s been enhancing you, and you’ve been missing out.

Describe a defining moment when you realized that social constructs/institutions weren’t designed in your favor and how it changed/shaped you as a Black woman.

I used to work at a TV station, and I remember there was this story about this Black guy who was shot and killed by the police. It was a local story here. They were going through this whole, ‘did he provoke the police officer,’ and revisiting the tape. One of the reasons I’m not in news anymore, I was the person who had to write about that story, and kind of the angle that they wanted me to approach was not one that I necessarily enjoyed. It was talking about a Black man who may or may not have done anything at the time, but the evidence that they had didn’t seem like it should have been his fault. But then they were digging for things to see if it was, and I didn’t like that. You have that personal bias anyway, because you’re Black and you see so many of these stories pop up. Then me being one of the only Black people on my digital team writing about this, I was kind of like, ‘Y’all don’t have to live this story everyday.’ That was one of those times where I was like, this news environment is not set up for me.

What is your hope for the future of Black American women?
I just hope that we can have a seat at the table. We can build our own tables. People come from nothing and build up these empires, and I’m just like, this is so beautiful. It’s awesome, despite all the odds, all the things against us, there are people that are given certain things and aren’t able to pull that off, and we’re given nothing and we still create this magic. We have so much power that it scares so many people. If they just scoot on to the side, let us all in, we’ll be running things. And that’s the thing: We are running things behind closed doors a lot of the times. We’re the person who’s behind the guy who’s the CEO, giving him the talks and telling him what decision to make. That’s not good enough, we need to be able to say, “Hey, alright CEO, your time is up, I’ll be that, because I’ve been that forever, my face just hasn’t been connected to it.”

YEMISI

How does your identity as a Black woman affect your identity as a designer?
I know this can be so cliché, but I feel like being a Black woman, specifically from Africa, is magic. It’s the essence of who I am. What I do as a fashion design artist, the African culture is an empowering thing that spurs me on. Really, being a Black woman defines what I do as an artist.

What part of your identity do you tend to suppress?
I don’t think that there is any part of me that I try to suppress, but I feel like navigation is a natural thing. When you’re in certain spheres you have to adapt; you have to be flexible, especially to be successful and to be able to grow beyond just the norm. You have to challenge yourself in ways that make you flexible. Maybe as a Black woman, maybe as an African, especially as a Nigerian. If you think about it in that aspect, you know you bring something different to the table, not everyone will be able to embrace your difference, but you understand your differences. I understand my difference, and I accept and embrace my difference so when I get the opportunity to be in a certain sphere, I have to be flexible in the way that I introduce myself to become apart of that environment. I like to be apart of something that is bigger than myself, because I believe that’s part of who I am and why I’m here. Once I started pushing myself farther out of my comfort zone, I started understanding that I have to be flexible and adaptable to each sphere and each current of power that I go into, not necessarily because I’m trying to change or that I’m being a chameleon.

What is one thing that you wish your parents had told you about being a woman of color?
I wish that as a female child, especially as a Black female child, that somewhere along the way someone would have actually told me that it’s okay when the picture doesn’t add up. When you put all the puzzle pieces all together and you’re still missing a few pieces — and it’s not a few pieces down the line, it’s a few pieces that leave gaping holes in the puzzle — that it’s still okay.

Who is a positive role model to you, your hero?
My sister. I struggle with perfection, even as an artist. I thought I had to be perfect to be able to express my art, that if it is not perfect, the audience is not going to accept it. Growing up with her, seeing how she is as a person, how she’s grown as a daughter, as a sister to me, and to others how she has such a big heart and is able to embrace everybody even in the face of adversity. She is very accepting, and she just keeps going. She challenges me to be better.

How do you feel the “angry Black woman” stereotype and other tropes alter the way you and women who look like you navigate through certain spaces?
The bias of stereotype is an opportunity. I understand that it’s a setback and that it’s a challenge, but the way that I look at setbacks is that you can use them as an opportunity. I believe that women are already so powerful. We’re life carriers and life givers. It’s a form of empowerment. So just being you, if you already understand who you are and you accept who you are, when you go forth and you’re facing those challenges, they are not challenges, they are opportunities. Being a transplant from Nigeria, I could keep going out there and keep engaging with people, thinking that I have three strikes against me. Or I can look at it like I have three incredible, powerful strikes that are for me. If I come to any environment, I’m bringing that energy, I’m bringing that magic of who I am. If we can look at challenges, subjugations, oppression, or limitations and look at it as a place of power and a place of opportunity, we’ll tend to thrive.

What is your hope for the future of Nigerian women?
I hope that we keep thriving, bringing our best, keep changing the narrative, and, above all else, keep sharing our message by telling our own stories. Tell the story of where you’re from, tell the story of who you are, but also share the story of what visions you have and missions you wish to accomplish and just thrive in whatever it is you chose to do, and be your best in wherever you find yourself.

LEANNA

How does your identity as a Black woman affect your identity as a marketer?
I consider my race and ethnicity as one part of my identity. It did influence my desire to pursue a career in marketing. I wanted to help craft the stories and imagery that are part of our society.

What part of your identity do you tend to suppress and why?
Rather than suppress parts of who I am, I often seek out similarities with those around me, then find ways to integrate what makes me different. Those differences or parts of my identity could range from texture and pop culture references to life experiences.

What part of your identity are you most proud of?
I love that I come from a loving, supportive family where our mom and dad taught us to strive for excellence and be proud of how God made us. That includes skin complexion, our heritage, and what our ancestors accomplished before us. Strong belief in God, family, education, and service to others are core parts of who I am. Part of that may come from the tight-knit nature of black communities, whether it’s through historical black Greek letter organizations or churches.

Who is a positive role model to you?
My mother is my number-one role model. She navigates the world with grace, poise, and tenacity. She taught me the importance of not just intelligence, but the ability to understand others. She shows, through her actions, the importance of knowing your history and your culture and being proud of what makes me unique.

Describe a defining moment when you realized that social constructs/institutions weren’t designed in your favor and how it changed/shaped you as a Black woman.
When I was about ten years old, my favorite clothing store often sold T-shirts with fun phrases. There often was a picture of a girl on them too. One day, I noticed that there were dozens of shirts with girls on them, but only one shirt with a girl that looked like me. I shared this with my mom and dad. I mentioned they should have more shirts with girls like me on them. My dad responded, “Why don’t you write the store a letter and share your idea?” I did just that. I wrote a letter and mailed it in. I learned two lessons: One, I deserve to be seen and heard. Two, I have the confidence to share my ideas.

What is your hope for the future of Black American women like yourself?
My hope is that we continue to uncover the stories that illustrate how multifaceted we are as black women. Our backgrounds, points of view, and preferences vary. The more we can uncover and share stories, the more young black girls will be able to identify with and say, ‘She’s like me. Someone will understand me.’

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