“We’re so erased. …If you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you’re from a poor family, if you’re from a rural family, if you’re from a family who worked like dogs and never got any respect or a share of the profits - you know that 99 percent of your stories ain’t been told.
In any fucking medium. And yet we still have to be taught to look, and to tell our stories. …Despite the utter absence of us, it’s still an internal revolution to say wait a minute, we are not only worthy of great art, but the source of great art.” - Junot Díaz
I don't take selfies; or at least, I haven't done it on a normal basis. I posted an "ugly Xmas sweater" look on Christmas Eve on facebook once. I posted a photo of how cute I looked for a Carnaval bloco, too. I own an instagram, a tumblr, a twitter, and facebook account, and I rarely post selfies. But I am friends with those who do. All of them are women of color, especially black women. I love selfies, and they are essential, because I see me.
I am often told by many black Americans (whose ancestors arrived centuries earlier) that I am incredibly lucky to have immigrant parents: to know how sweet it is to be in close proximity to a well-defined ethnic group. Accordingly, it is a privilege to know what your direct lineage is. This has been said to me despite not being able to visit West Africa until I was 21. This has been said to me despite being acculturated into American blackness, by my parents choice.
Jollof rice, highlife, and Twi did not prevent my predominantly white neighborhood from swallowing me into invisibility. Seeing my parents did not prevent me from being unable to see my own reflection, even when I looked in the mirror. Seeing family members did not prevent me from being unable to fantasize myself in dream worlds as a child without viewing myself as a white girl.
Here is evidence that being erased, even when you exist, is psychologically damaging. When I was a child, I believed so many career paths and opportunities were closed off to me because I didn't see any black woman, who I'd eventually become, doing those occupations. When I was a child, I believed fun without fear wasn't for black girls: zip-lining, swimming at friend's pools, buying Spice Girl dolls. Even venturing from these ideas was coined as "being white" - i.e., even when was viewed as trying to assimilate into whiteness, whereas they may have just liked something for the sake of it, was still seen as being an "other." I didn't deserve my grades as being a smart and clever black girl: I received those grades, according to classmates, for trying to assimilate into whiteness. Being "smart" is "being white," apparently.
Sometimes, I didn't even (subconsciously) want to be acceptable (re: white, but I'd never have admitted it). It seemed like Japanese and Chinese girls would always be considered cute, smart, playful, w/e. I had to learn that I tokenized them and I had learned that from white people. I also had to learn that I longed to be them because they were not touched by blackness. Likewise, I didn't understand that my childhood attraction to Anglo or East Asian dudes was another way of leaving blackness.
When I was a child, I didn't think black girls were pretty, even though I didn't really think of our multitudes and variations; but I knew a certain kind of black girl would be viewed as pretty, worthy of (an albeit, compromised and tokenized kind of) respect. I also knew I would never be that girl: I was was darker, very African looking, had the hair that had to be straightened, and didn't sound bougie or like I had a white parent.
I had learned that I had no power, and carried that with me until I was 17.
My curiosity, bravery, and will saved me from suffocating in that psychological violence. I had to learn how to unlearn, how to vomit out the toxic stuff - how to survive with whatever was left of me, and to rebuild myself. Studying history, studying the history of black people in the United States was, and continues to be, a solution to healing. I unlearned shame by learning the context of that shame. I learned pride, survival tools, and closure - this is why I am investing my time into it as my life's work.
But that wasn't necessarily enough. Sure, I'm seeing successes and gains and the strength and power my predecessors had in the past - but the present is just as important as the past. This Cassie was growing, definitely, but still empty.
I had moved from feeling invisible, to sort of visible, to okay: I could admit that I was pretty sometimes, but I was just existing. Makeup was not exciting to me, I still felt limited in what I could wear, and what was available didn't look flattering on me. It got a little better over the years: sometimes, I was really feeling myself.
Because of tumblr.
There a countless people who are quick to dismiss tumblr as a black hole; sometimes, I am one of those people. There are many things about it that I really dislike/I find problematic. But even as the site is difficult, it can be affirming too. It was here that I came into community with girls just like me.
You cannot underestimate it: the feeling of being connected. Of seeing other girls have the same experiences as you, the same problems. Similar interests, dislikes, pains and sorrows, joys, illnesses and disorders and traumas. But all different voices, all different versions of yourself, even when you are all black. There is an intimacy in finally having access to those voices, after being starved almost two decades for this.
It is not only affirming to see words, but pictures too. The people I followed posted so many pictures of the girls and women, mostly black, often women of color, and rarely white. Women of color, doing everything: writing, dancing, singing, teaching, screaming, smiling, crying, numb, exuberant, living, and dying.
They also posted themselves doing the same things; but every photo was different and varied. Personal and impersonal. Neutral, normal, valid; when I was a child, those words were reserved for white girls. Why was I so attached and giddy and proud over these simple selfies?
Within this context, the selfie is a new framework for women of color to create their own visibility and subvert dominant truths. Regardless of the content of the image, it is made with the subject’s own volition and published with their consent. It is a genuine image, created privately with minimal filtration. The selfie represents a marginalized human being as a human being, instead of countless dehumanizing stereotypes. To control our image and how it is presented is one of the many ways we reclaim our bodies and celebrate our identities. We are converting a tool used to erase us into means to fashion our visibility. Look at me.
I don't feel affirmed just seeing any picture of a black person, especially if it's chosen to be in the image of/approximation to whiteness. Are you capturing a kind of solidarity or community with me? Are you owning your humanity in the photo? Do you have control over the photo? And are you free in that control?
99% of the time, yes. It's not designated for white consumption; it's not even about my consumption - it's about the picture being theirs and whatever they would like to do with it. It signifies humanity and personhood; away from whiteness and independent of whiteness. The possibility of being possible on one's own terms.
That makes me feel more my own. To honor myself, dress up, smile, speak up, and do the things that I wish to do. To contribute to a community of possibilities, in a world that tells me the possibilities of love, pleasure, happiness, desire, success, and a prism of emotions is not allowed to me. Imagine if I had that as a troubled girl, with her issues invisible because the world was normalized and she didn't exist.
This is why the majority of the people I follow are black girls and women of color. This is why they paint my pinterest boards. This is why I am studying abroad in the blackest part of Brazil. To reinforce possibility instead of closed doors. To reinforce my personhood.
That's why I'm behind selfies, because they are indeed healing.
Maybe I'll be taking them more often.
A *DIFFERENT* SELFIE ARTICLE. DECOLONIZING REPRESENTATIONS OF WOMEN OF COLOR!
A *DIFFERENT* SELFIE ARTICLE. DECOLONIZING REPRESENTATIONS OF WOMEN OF COLOR!