You don’t usually become aware of your identity until you are told to be, i.e., until you are told to live in a constant awareness of it. Human beings tend to live comfortably and freely in their person until society interrupts and tells them to do otherwise. This has been the experience of my entire life. As a child, I lived a very care-free life. I can’t say this lasted for as long as it does for other children, due to my more noticeable differences, but there was certainly a period of time in which I thought life was simple and easy. I thought one hundred euro was a lot of money, I thought sleeping at 12am meant you were an adult, and I thought that being black meant you could be seen as a human being just like others. For all three of those things, I was wrong.
I became increasingly aware of my multiple identities the older I got. It was like one layer being peeled off after another, and these layers became unveiled by the different crowds I found myself in. This taught me of the multifaceted nature of my being in the sight of others. I was never allowed to be just one thing. I was never afforded the simple demeanour that my counterparts were allowed to have. If someone was a man, I was a woman. If someone was a lady, I was a black lady. If someone was a minority, I was a black minority. My identities could never be separated. Complexity was just a part of my being, and I had no choice but to accept it. As a result, at a very early age I became aware of the existence of intersectionality, even when I didn’t know there was language to articulate it. Years later I have finally found the language to express the sentiments I have always been forcibly acquainted with.
It starts when you walk into a room and someone gives you their first glance. Except it’s usually not just one glance, but two – the second being a glance of polite surprise – followed by an awkward smile that takes over their appearance. This is the usual acknowledgement I receive when I walk into a room that black people are not usually permitted entry to. As soon as I see this take place, I prepare my mind for the typical type of conversation that accompanies it. It’s usually a conversation that involves a stranger being deeply interested in my roots, in my family history and in their proud explanation of knowing a person who has been to Africa. There also tends to be a strange entitlement that often laces through the speech of this stranger, where they are adamant to receive their desired response from me, even when that’s not the response I have to provide. This is the first type of acknowledgement of my difference – the first layer unveiled.
Other layers are a bit more complex than that to unravel, for example, when I learned that I was a black woman. Or rather, when I learned what it means to be a black woman in Irish society. This layer has many different dimensions to it, and these dimensions are usually assembled apart by various kinds of people. I have learned what it means to be a black woman in academics, in social spaces, in the workplace, at parties, etc. It means a different but similar thing in each setting.
Being a black woman in academia looks like being undermined before you are even given the chance to express your opinion. It looks like being offered a seat at the table but being declined an opportunity to speak at it. It looks like being accused of stealing your work from elsewhere, simply because of how high a standard it is – which was the experience of an aunty of mine at one of the most prestigious universities in Dublin. It looks like being dismissed when you raise issues of discrimination within academia, because you are just acting like an ‘angry black woman’ – which was the experience of my first black female professor. It looks like your fellow classmates being intimidated by your presence and thus choosing to never initiate conversation – which was my experience in my first year of college. Essentially, being a black woman in academia means you have to constantly prove your worth, you have to prove that you have something valuable to contribute, and you have to dim your confidence so that you appear gentle and not ‘angry’. It is a whole job in itself.
Being a black woman in the workplace is similar. Typically, women in the workplace, regardless of their race, tend to face condescending attitudes and patronising behaviour. Our work tends to be overlooked if there is a male counterpart around, or else it is assumed that the male will do a better job in the first place. When an issue arises and we speak against it, we are considered to be overreacting and ‘emotional’ and probably on our period. We are not taken seriously nor respected appropriately, and this is reflected on a casual scale to an economic scale (seen in the gender pay gap). Now imagine being a black woman on top of that. Take all the stereotypes that are placed upon women as a whole, and now add black stereotypes on top of that too – it becomes a whole different story. It is no wonder that traditional feminism is known not to include black women, because even traditional feminists know that our issues are a whole arena in itself. Western feminism tends to only advocate for what inconveniences middle-class white women, and not women as a whole, but that’s a conversation for another day. The point is that the disrespect towards black women runs so much deeper than it appears on surface.
I think one of the worst settings for black women, though, are social spaces. These are home to the most vulnerable of moments, and unfortunately they also tend to be the most common spaces we find ourselves in, because these are a part of everyday life. Black women in social settings are regularly subject to things that other people would be broken down by if they experienced just once. Sexual harassment, being fetishized, being publicly stereotyped…these are simply a few things that we have no choice but to become numb to due to the alarming frequency with which we experience it.
See, black women are at the mercy of the media. We are often the primary victims of its volatile nature. Growing up, the media told everybody to hate black women, and so that’s what everybody did. We became victim to hatred from all races of people, including our own. We became victims of both external and internalized racism. This is because we are often seen as less than, until people are told otherwise. For example, around 5 or 6 years ago the media decided to start liking black women. Society, as always, followed suit. But this time it felt strange because we knew it wasn’t genuine and people did a bad job at masking that. Because of the robotic tendency of people to follow whatever mainstream society tells them to, they would express their newfound love for black women in an odd way. I remember being at Longitude Festival in 2018 and being told by random girls on multiple occasions that I was the prettiest person they have ever seen. Sometimes people would literally stop and stare at me. I don’t say this to brag, I actually say it to pinpoint the opposite. Black women are not a human zoo, that our beauty should be seen as a spectacle. If you ask me, I have a pretty average face, but when your mind is accustomed to seeing black people as ugly, you will think someone who isn’t ‘ugly’ looks amazing. I was told many times growing up in Ireland that I was the prettiest black girl they had ever seen, which is an insult. You would never say that to a pretty white woman, because their beauty isn’t a surprise to you. But this is our everyday experience.
There’s a reason why many of us are forced to develop a thick skin, and funnily enough, even when we develop that thick skin, we are told off for it. Oh, the irony. Despite this, I have grown to love my multiple identities – not for the reasons society has given me, but for the reasons I have found for myself. I am proud to be a black woman in a multicultural society, and never again will I feel shame for it just because others tell me to. Never again will I let who I am be defined by people who are slaves to mainstream media. Never again will I dim my light to make others comfortable. I am who I am, and I will express that in its entirety.
Bealtaine in focus: Every issue, Bealtaine will reach out to at least one artist whom we admire and wish to support. We commission them to create something which amplifies their voice and promotes values of intersectionality, inclusivity, environmentalism, and empowerment. This issue we feature Aghogho Sophie Okpara as our artist in focus.