self-acceptance

“Star Trek: Discovery”: How Michael Burnham speaks to my perfectionist, highly sensitive struggles

As I’ve stated in my SlashFilm review, I’ve always been a Star Trek fan ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad about 20 years ago. But while Jean-Luc Picard will always be my favorite Star Trek captain ever (who can say no to Patrick Stewart and the way he commanded with calm authority?), Picard has to battle Spock for the title of favorite Star Trek character ever.

The reason? Because as a half human, half Vulcan, Spock has had to battle his reason with his human emotions, emotions that had the potential to get (and, in the reboot films, has gotten) the best of him. The battle between raging emotions and cold reason is a battle I face constantly. Never did I think Star Trek would continue to crystallize this struggle in such a poignant way, but the franchise succeeded again with Star Trek: Discovery‘s Michael Burnham and her relationship to her father figure (and Spock’s future father) Sarek.

I’ve stated many times on this site and in other publications about how much of my love for Star Trek stems from its ability to showcase varying struggles that exist under the umbrella of “diversity.” Thankfully, the franchise also includes psychological diversity as well, as is the case with the Vulcan race. The Vulcans have stood for many things to many viewers. Some see the Vulcans and their occasional misunderstandings as a way to thoughtfully approach the autism spectrum. Others see the Vulcans as simply uppity living cardboard figures. Speaking personally, the Vulcans have always shown a light on two of my big personal struggles–perfectionism and the highly sensitive (or even empathic) mind.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham. Photo credit: CBS

The running joke my sister and I have is that I’m a Vulcan. In fact, when I said it as self-deprication a few years ago, my sister replied thoughtfully, “You know what? I agree with that.”

I’ve always been a deep thinker, and too many times, that thinking has either gotten me in some type of mental trouble or made me appear as unable to connect with the “normal” outside world. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t connect with the outside world, because I’m so wrapped up in how other people feel, how I feel, and how to best convey those feelings to people who might not have emotions that run as deeply as mine do. As psychiatrist and Emotional Freedom author Judith Orloff accurately described, “It’s like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10. You have more receptors to feel things.”

Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a feeler, and our Western society makes sure it’s tougher than it has to be. As a society,we value loudness over softness, action over reflection, and doing over being. The stereotypes of a highly sensitive person make us out to be gooey bundles of mush that can’t defend ourselves because we’re supposedly so much weaker than the “average” person. That’s not the case–we aren’t weak. We’re actually quite strong. But you wouldn’t know it from how much emphasis people put on having an extroverted outlook and put down those of us who are reserved within ourselves.

All this leads to is, aside from a smattering of depression, a bad case of perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” now, but for a long time, I’ve been investigating where my perfectionism came from. I’d have to say that there are a lot of reasons for it, but one of them is because I’ve used perfectionism as a bad coping mechanism for the harsh world who can’t handle tears. I grew up comparing myself to others who I thought were better than me simply because they could they naturally handled emotions in a different way than I did. I didn’t realize that the way I handled my emotions was simply my nature–it’s as much an integral part of me as my black skin is. After growing into adulthood I’ve realized that there’s no reason to try to change myself, since my emotions work just like how they’re supposed to work. They are part of the inner strength that help make me a better version of myself each day.

Arista Arhin in Star Trek: Discovery (Photo credit: CBS)

Michael Burnham seems tailor made for this type of exploration of inner strength. I see in her what I’ve seen in me all the time. I see her struggle to adapt to her Vulcan upbringing and tamp down her human (i.e. emotional) self. I see her struggle to fit in with her Vulcan peers, possibly feeling a lack of self-esteem at not being like the others. I see the shadow of perfectionism that showed itself as cockiness when she first enters the U.S.S. Shenzhou–you can tell she thinks she knows everything about everything because she’s been the first human to graduate from the Vulcan academies and excel amid intense pressure and a stacked deck. I also see her struggle to understand that her humanness–her emotions–is what makes her great.

Her struggle against emotions is also apparent in Sarek and other Vulcans. Big fans of Star Trek know that Vulcans do, in fact, feel. As Memory-Alpha states:

“Contrary to stereotype, Vulcans did possess emotions; indeed, Vulcan emotions were far more intense, violent, and passionate than those of many other species, including even Humans. It was this passionate, explosive emotionality that Vulcans blamed for the vicious cycle of wars which nearly devastated their planet. As such, they focused their mental energies on mastering them.”

Vulcans, including human-born/Vulcan-raised members like Michael and Vulcan-human hybrids like Spock, always suffered with deep-running emotions. Here on planet Earth, there are tons of folks like me who always seem to be drowning in their own emotions, even as we attempt to tamp them down. The actual suffering doesn’t come from the emotions themselves, but from the attempt to control them. But if you unleash those emotions, then what? The fear of being out of control in any fashion is what, sadly, keeps the suffering going. It’s the Vulcans’ own fear of a lack of self-control that keeps them perpetuating what is essentially a culture of emotional abuse and intense perfectionism over and over. The aspiration to be the ultimate Vulcan, as it were, is what causes Vulcans to stay at war with themselves.

The Vulcan brain can also be a scary place to be due to their intense emotions. Again, to quote Memory-Alpha:

“The Vulcan brain was described as ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium.’ This had some basis in fact, as the Vulcan brain was composed of many layers…Unlike most humanoid species, traumatic memories were not only psychologically disturbing to Vulcans, but had physical consequences as well. The Vulcan brain, in reordering neural pathways, could literally lobotomize itself.”

The human brain can’t lobotomize itself (although it can block highly traumatic memories from ever reaching the surface), but his description of the Vulcan brain, especially the part about how much of a puzzle it is, fits the highly emotional mind as well. A mind that is constantly drenched in deep emotion is a mind that is mystery even to itself. The fact that there’s science spearheaded by the leading HSP expert, Dr. Elaine Aron, that show that the highly sensitive person has a hypersensitive wired nervous system and empathy-targeted brain is evidence that the highly sensitive mind is an overactive (and sometimes over-reactive) place. Also, like Vulcans, those who consider themselves highly sensitive or even empathic have extremely strong reactions to events as well as the mundane, due to the fact that–like Vulcans–we can usually sense the emotions of others.

James Frain and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sarek and Michael. (Photo credit: CBS)

However, with all of this going on, it’s fascinating that Sarek still saw the value in human emotions, so much so that he entrusted his ward to Capt. Georgiou in an attempt to give her the human experiences she never had. It’s also poignant to note that he only shows his true emotions to those closest to him, like when he does his best to hold back a proud smile as he introduces Michael to Georgiou for the first time. Or when he reveals to Michael through their mental connection his regret at not showing her the emotional support she needed throughout her life. His statements are made simply, but you can see the depth of feeling there. You can tell how much he loves Michael and does truly believe in her, like any good father would. Like any parent, he’s made mistakes in raising his child, and he’s emotionally intelligent enough to be able to admit that–and his emotional state surrounding this fact–to Michael. As we already know from Star Trek, Sarek sees a lot of admirable qualities in humans, so much so that he married one and had a child. Perhaps it was raising Michael that helped him open his eyes to the importance of having a balance between emotion and reason.

Showing Sarek reveal his emotional side to Michael, and Michael revealing her emotions to Georgiou, brings up another point about highly sensitive people, or at least, someone like me–it’s difficult showing your full self to the public. It’s much easier–and much more intimate–to show the full extent of your emotions to those closest to you, to those who understand you. Not everyone realizes that emotions aren’t there to be played with or used against the person; we highly sensitive people only feel safest revealing ourselves to those who mean the most to us in our lives. Those people have earned the right to know us as we are, and that is a coveted position to hold. In Star Trek terms, it is a coveted position to have a Vulcan as a friend, because they will probably be extremely loyal to you because of the position you hold in their life.

James Frain as Sarek. (Photo credit: CBS)

The scene between Sarek and Michael in the mind meld was extremely special for me. It hit home in a way I didn’t expect that scene to do. It made me feel like I finally have someone who understands my personal struggle on television, and she’s also a black woman. It showcases a different side to blackness that is rarely seen on television (so much so that tons of Star Trek fanbros are up in arms over Michael leading the series). She’s not loud or brash. She’s not sexually promiscuous. She’s not even funny, really. She’s a no-nonsense, yet naive woman who is still trying to find herself amid her place between two cultures. She’s ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium,’ and it’s good to see someone like her exist in our pop culture. She lets other black women like me, women with Vulcan brains, know that not only are they just fine, but they can–yes, I’m saying it–live long and prosper. 🖖🏾

Halsey talks with Playboy about growing up biracial

Singer Halsey knows what it feels like to not belong. She recently opened up to Playboy in a wide-ranging interview that included her experiences as a biracial woman and how she has learned to navigate the racial space between worlds.

“I’m half black,” she said, adding that her dad was a car dealership manager. “I’m white-passing. I’ve accepted that about myself and have never tried to control anything about black culture that’s not mine. I’m proud to be in a biracial family. I’m proud of who I am, and I’m proud of my hair.”

She talked about how she does have moments where she experiences what she calls “racial blips.”

“One of my big jokes a long time ago was ‘I look white, but I still have white boys in my life asking me why my nipples are brown,” she said. “Every now and tthen I experience these racial blips. I look like a white girl, but I don’t feel like one I’m a black woman. So it’s been weird navigating that. When I was growing up I didn’t know if I was supposed to love TLC or Britney.”

She also had some interesting stuff to say about white allyship in the time of Trump.

“White guilt is funny, but this is really hard time for white allies,” she said. “People don’t want to do too much but want to do enough, and in my bubble of Los Angeles I’m surrounded by a lot of good people with a lot of good intentions. But as I’ve learned in this past election, my bubble is just a small fraction of how this country operates. That is ultimately my greatest frustration with the public perception of any sort of activism: the mentality of “Well, it’s not affecting me.” Open your f***ing eyes.”

Read more from Halsey at Playboy.

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Being Asian in Hollywood: Actors, directors, and creators talk representation

(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)
(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)

Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.

JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.

This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:

Whiteness as the default

IMDB
IMDB

Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.

The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.

“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”

Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”

“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”

“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.

“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”

“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”

Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”

Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”

Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)
Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)

Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”

“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience.  It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries.  With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”

“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”

Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”

Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)
Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)

Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”

“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”

Next: The pain of exoticism

My Journey with AncestryDNA, Part 2: 4 things I’ve learned from my results!

My AncestryDNA results! (Screencap)
My AncestryDNA results! (Screencap)

It’s time. It’s finally time to go over my AncestryDNA results!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my reasons for taking the test in the first place. Now, we are here, over the rainbow, in a point in time where I now what what makes me me! Let’s get into the percentages.

Despite the popular belief of too many people from my childhood, I am indeed BLACK. 80 percent black, to be clear. What I’ve always wanted to know is what part of Africa I’m from, and as it turns out, I’m from several different parts of Africa!

I already gave a hint at some of my heritage on Twitter the Sunday I got my results:

I am 26 percent Cameroon, to be exact. Here are the other African percentages:

Cameroon/Congo: 26%
Mali: 16%
Ivory Coast/Ghana: 16%
Nigeria: 11%
Benin/Togo: 6%

Trace regions:
Senegal: 3%
Africa North: less than 1%
Africa South-Central Hunter-Gatherers: less than 1%

I have a lot of research to do on my peoples. Now that I know exactly where I’m from, I’m ready to dive head-first into everything I need to know to be more of myself.

Here are some more percentages to take a look at some of which surprised me:

Native American: 2%
Asia Central: less than 1%
Asia East: less than 1%
Ireland: 9%
Scandinavia: 4%
Iberian Peninsula: 2%
Middle East: 1%
(Most percentages listed here are trace regions in my DNA)

After I have this information, I now feel like a more secure person; I’ve always wanted to know what ethnicities made me me, and now I know. Here are four things I’ve learned from this experience.

1. America has a limited view of what blackness entails:

As I’ve said many times before, one of the things that irritated me the most about my childhood were individuals believing that I was more than just black because of how I looked. What people failed to realize is that blackness isn’t just one look; blackness encompasses a myriad of looks.

There’s even more looks than just what’s featured here. In short, instead of some of us limiting what blackness  “should” look like, let’s accept the wide array of blackness as a whole. We say blackness isn’t a monolith, but some of us have got to truly believe that.

I do have to say, though, that it is a very rewarding feeling to know exactly what parts of Africa I’m from. The pain of being African-American is having your ancestry essentially robbed from you through slavery. Whereas others know exactly what part or parts they come from (or at least have a idea of where they come from), many African Americans don’t know anything about our pasts. This journey with AncestryDNA is the start of me knowing exactly where I come from, and that knowledge–the knowledge that was taken from us to dehumanize us–is something we should all have. We as a people aren’t just a group of people without a past; we do have a past, and I think it is important to learn about it (especially if you’ve always been interested in ethnic studies) because through that knowledge, I feel we can better honor our ancestors and, in some ways, ourselves.

2. The Native American ancestor myth is real:

The Native American ancestor is a big deal in black American households. It was a part of my childhood, too; supposedly, my paternal great-great-grandfather (my great grandmother’s father) was supposedly a Native American. I was told it with such conviction and with such clarity from relatives that I was like, “Well, it must be true; why would they make that up?” However, I never really discussed it with anyone except on the rare occasion, since I later came to the fact that this just might not be true, particularly thanks to the wisdom of my mother, who said in so many words, “You’d probably need to check that to see if it’s true.”

Learning about how rampant the Native American ancestor myth was in black households also made me doubt my great-great grandfather’s heritage. Granted, there are black Native Americans, but if you’re a black Native American, you probably have concrete records showing such. My family, like many families, have none, except for what we’ve been told by other relatives who swear we’re related to Pocahontas or some Native American chief (my great-great grandfather wasn’t labeled to me as anything but Cherokee, so the fact that he was just some dude made me think that the story of his heritage could actually have been true).

Now that I know the actual percentage of my Native American ancestry, I could say, technically, that I have 2 percent Native heritage. But what does that even mean? How could I even claim such when it’s already part of my “trace regions” ancestry? The truth of it is is that my Native American ancestry has been greatly reduced over time, to the point where I virtually don’t have any Native ancestry, which is in line with how I’ve always lived anyways. Also truth: my great-great grandfather was probably just black, since it’s mathematically impossible for me to be just 2 percent Native and my great-great grandfather to be 100 percent Cherokee.

3. The effects of the Slave Trade are, thankfully, not as large as I expected, but still in effect:

The amounts of Iberian and Ireland ancestry I have, as well as the amounts of Middle Eastern ancestry I have, could be more than likely attributed to the slave trade and/or migration. I’m surprised that there weren’t larger amounts of what I expected, which was a larger amount of British or Irish heritage. I’m guessing that’s because of one or two things (or both): 1) like with the Native ancestry (probably), my African ancestry has been reinforced over centuries through marriages and couplings in general, dulling down the other strains of DNA I have and 2) perhaps my ancestors’ journey to America is a lot more of a winding road than I expected.

I believed that I’d find a large percentage of European ancestry because my ancestors, like a lot of ancestors, were brought over the Middle Passage. Or so I believe. They still could have taken that route, but perhaps the low amount of European ancestry I have means something less straightforward happened in ancestors’ past. Basically, whereas many black people are shocked to find European ancestry, I’m shocked to find so little, and I’d like to know the story behind these percentages.

However, it still is interesting to see the echoes of those ancestries still kicking around in my bloodstream. If I decided to go deeper into my ancestry (which I just might, since I still want to have my own Roots moment), I’m sure I’ll find ancestors I’ll be deeply, deeply disappointed with. I’m sure I’ll find ancestors who have been violently misused by some of my other ancestors. But still, it’s fascinating to see just how far around the world my ancestry goes.

4. Where’d the Asian and Scandinavian heritage come from?

The only question marks I have are where the Asian and Scandinavian heritage stem from. I’m intrigued by this. Again, the percentages of these aren’t enough for me to claim them outright, but I’d really like to know who from Scandinavia and Eastern and Central Asia contributed to the person you see today.

Final thoughts

This journey is just the beginning, however this chapter has come to a close (doing this ancestry work takes money after all, and the next step is going to take even more money than just this DNA test). I’ve been shocked my results, and at the same time I’m pleasantly surprised. I’m proud to know that I come from so many African nations, and I’m fascinated by the other aspects of my ancestry that I have yet to explore. Overall, it is neat to be a person of the world.

(Another startling thing: Ancestry shows you individuals who are the best matches at being your 4th cousins or closer. The service shows you at least through your 8th cousins matches. I haven’t contacted anybody yet mostly because it’s startling to see people you don’t even know listed as your possible family members. I’m still processing that bit of information right now, so if you’re reading this and I’m one of your cousin matches on Ancestry.com, feel free to reach out to me, since it’s taking me a while to process a lot of this.)

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#RepresentYourStory: Shaun Lau of No, Totally! on Overcoming Self-Hate

no-totally-logo

“The worship of whiteness as a person of color requires and encourages self-hatred.” Does this statement resonate with you?

This is part of the personal story of Shaun Lau, creator of podcast site “No, Totally!”, a site that actually was the genesis of this #RepresentYourStory project.

As I’ve written on the #RepresentYourStory page, this project started as a thought after I was on an episode of Shaun’s podcast. On that episode, I talked about my own struggles with identity and race. My struggles were more about not feeling accepted and/or exoticized by other black people around me, leaving me feeling unsupported despite my deep-rootedness in the black experience. Shaun’s story, on the other hand, is of facing internalized racism.

Shaun’s story isn’t unusual; there are many people out there who have had to come to terms with their own feelings of self-hate and the ways in which they relate to themselves in a society that praises whiteness.

What is interesting is that there are parallels between our two stories; while our own journeys might have started at different places, the feelings of ostracism, loss, and the desire to have a sense of identity are very much the same. The desire to feel “normal” is something that drives a lot of us, and that desire manifests in many forms.

Read Shaun’s story, and if you identified with him, leave a comment and share it on Twitter and Facebook. Also, take a listen to my episode of “No, Totally!” and share it with your friends if it resonated with you!

Family members sometimes call me a “banana,” because an Asian-American who consumes white American culture as readily as Asian culture is often seen as inherently treasonous; like a banana, you’re yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.

The name never bothered me, to be honest, but finally understanding, years later, the reason it didn’t bother me was horrifying: I took “banana” as a compliment because it meant that my “true self” was white, and I didn’t see a problem with that. To be brutally honest, I secretly exalted in the knowledge that any kind of inherent whiteness made me automatically better than the rest of my family.

Nothing I encountered until my thirties challenged this internalization of white superiority, which is a kind of decaying of the soul. The worship of whiteness as a person of color requires and encourages self-hatred. I remember going to movies, identifying with the white protagonist, and then experiencing massive deflation at seeing my Asian features reflected in the theater’s gigantic glass doors on the way out. I’ve blamed myself for not being white with nearly every breath I’ve ever taken.

The process of scrubbing white worship from my psyche over the past few years has exposed its converse: condescension towards my Asian background, upbringing, and culture. Accepting that my estrangement from any kind of Asian-American community has been my fault is a work in progress, and untangling all of it without falling into old, familiar habits of self-hatred is a puzzle I’m nowhere near solving.

If I could relive my life, I’d do everything I could to recognize that culture is deeply personal. The ethnic boundaries around different cultures in a country as diverse as the United States are malleable, in my opinion; it’s well within our power to respect where we come from while engaging with cultures that aren’t historically our own. I wouldn’t be so quick to believe that expertise in American culture requires a kind of monogamous, Eurocentric engagement. I’d know that any culture requiring self-destruction, self-hatred, and self-erasure isn’t worth obeying in the first place.

Do you want to participate in #RepresentYourStory? Share your story of self-acceptance at monique@colorwebmag.com, or fill out the #RepresentYourStory questionnaire! Read more about #RepresentYourStory here

#RepresentYourStory: Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds

Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds is an internet juggernaut. The site was created, as she’s said in many interviews, after finding no representation of black girl nerds on the internet. The site speaks to many, including of course black girls who have nerdy pursuits, but also others who have felt marginalized and ostracized.

I asked Jamie if she would consider participating in #RepresentYourStory, and she happily agreed. I’m pleased to share her story.

In this audio recording, you’ll hear about her childhood and contending with not just nerdy stereotypes, but the classic stereotype a lot of us black nerds have been afflicted with, “acting white.”

Take a listen:

As you can hear in the audio, she was using questions from my #RepresentYourStory questionnaire, which you can fill out here. Please make sure to share this post with the people you know, especially the ones who could use a helping hand and a gentle reminder that they can and should be themselves.

Do you want to participate in #RepresentYourStory? Email me at monique@colorwebmag.com or find me on Twitter and Facebook. You can also fill out the questionnaire linked above, and I’ll create a post based on your answers. Or, if you want to do like Jamie and make an audio recording, feel free to do so, and I’ll post them in an article just like this.

15 #DarkSkinnedHeroines Who Will Reaffirm Your Worth

At the time Leslie Jones’ Twitter harassment happened, I didn’t know how to write about it. Not because I wasn’t upset by it—I most definitely was. But I was saddened by it to the point where I didn’t want to write about it. But sometimes, not talking about something does just as much damage as intentionally doing the wrong thing. What happened to Leslie Jones didn’t just affect Jones, but it affects every black woman, especially those of a darker hue.

First, let me give a quick rundown of what happened to Jones a few weeks ago. It all started with Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos. He took it upon himself to write a “review” of Ghostbusters with the title “Teenage Boys with Tits.” We’re already on a roll here.

This launched a huge spew of vile, racist, colorism-laden tweets directed directly at Jones. I won’t put them in this article, but you can read their tweets (if you want to) at Fusion.

After facing as much as she could take, Jones left Twitter.

Thankfully (or rather, after much criticism), Twitter finally banned Yiannopoulos, who has been a troll on Twitter for a long time. Twitter denizens rejoiced, but there were still some issues to suss out.

1. None of Jones’ other co-stars came to her defense publicly. I make exclusive note of the word publicly because for all we know, her co-stars could have come to her aid over coffee, or could have called her, or could have visited her at home or something. We don’t know what type of relationship she has with Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Chris Hemsworth. However, no one saw or wrote about any of them saying something in defense of Jones; Jones was seemingly left to fend for herself against hoardes of trolls.

Because of the optics of the situation, regardless if they did comfort her in private, it looked like once again white feminism reared its ugly head. (To understand what white feminism is, read some of these posts.) Instead of showing solidarity with Jones as Ghostbusters sister-in-arms, there were no public tweets of support or public outcry from Jones’ other female co-stars. And let’s all remember that Hemsworth barely escaped controversy with his wife’s Native American themed Halloween party, so maybe it was best he didn’t speak at all. But still, it wouldn’t have hurt if he said something in support of Jones.

The lack of help smells of “Strong Black Woman” Syndrome, in which white individuals don’t recognize the vulnerability and emotional life of their black counterparts (to read more about the plight of the Strong Black Woman, read this post and this one). While white women are routinely shielded and protected over the slightest of infractions, black women are constantly left to fend for themselves. We are constantly faced with the “But you’re so strong!” mindset. This codes into “But you have no feelings!”

2. The type of abuse Jones faced had a specific strain of colorism to it. Excuse me for repeating some of the phrases tweeted out, but the epithets of “big lipped coon,” Yiannopoulos gleefully writing, “rejected by another black dude,” and the constant comparisons to gorillas all reek of colorism directed at darker-skinned women.

The obsession some people have with skin color runs deep in the culture of this nation. The lighter you are, it’s thought, the closer you are to whiteness and acceptability. Whiteness also has erroneous connotations of femininity, gentility, vulnerability and worth. The colonialism of the mind not only affects white Americans, but Americans of all stripes. Within the black community, colorism has a huge history, from the Blue Vein Society of the past, to people claiming other ethnicities (whether it’s true or not) to remove themselves further from their blackness.

Dark skin is not just at the bottom of the colorism ladder; because it’s at the bottom, it’s wrongly associated with lack of femininity, brute strength, and once again, lack of emotion and vulnerability. A dark-skinned woman has had to grow up with verbal and nonverbal abuses about their skintone, which can take a toll on self-esteem; just take a look at the “Paper Bag Test” phenomenon, which tests how light-skinned (and supposedly how acceptable) a person is, as well as the famous doll test performed by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. If you don’t know about the test, the Clarks gave black children white and black baby dolls, then asked the kids which doll they liked the most. The kids ended up liking the white dolls more, while the felt the black dolls—the dolls that looked like them—were worthless. When I was growing up, there were, thankfully, black dolls, and there had been black dolls since the mid-to-late 1960s (particularly after the Civil Rights Movement). But dark-skinned dolls, dolls that look like this:

Barbie-Fashionista

haven’t been around all that long. In fact, these dolls just came out April and June of this year. (I’ve personally seen one other dark-skinned contemporary Barbie doll a few years ago, and this is without counting the South African “World Culture” Barbie doll, which seems to be discontinued on the website.) Darker-skinned girls and women have still had to wait for proper representation in dolls, not to mention in actresses on television and in film.

3. Jones’ non-European features were also the subject of ridicule, and this is based in a European-centric ideology. Black women with more European features, such as thinner noses, lighter skin (again, colorism), and and smaller lips, are often given higher booking over actresses with more pan-African features such as flatter noses, darker skin, and fuller lips. This reflects society at large, which gives precedence to those who have more European features and appearances. This is why Stacey Dash has completely changed herself from this:

Stacey-Dash-Clueless
Movieclips.com/Screengrab

to this:

Stacey-Dash-FOXNews
FOX News/Screengrab

and why Lil’ Kim became unrecognizable.

The Young Turks/Screengrab
The Young Turks/Screengrab

This is also why Viola Davis has been public about combatting colorism and racism in Hollywood. In her interview with The Wrap, she said:

“…[W]hen you do see a woman of color onscreen, the paper-bad test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire. And in the history of television and even in film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me.”

Society and Hollywood should be ashamed, because Milo Yiannopoulos represents a culmination of societal issues left to fester and, indeed, to make money from. Both should more open to darker-skinned women, because the impact on young girls is humongous. Thankfully, there are darker-skinned girls paving the way for others and showing them that they matter, that they are worthy, and that they are loved and can be loved. In honor of Jones facing the onslaught of the worst of Twitter and coming out on top (not only has Yiannopoulos been banned, but Jones is back on Twitter!), and as a way to say thank you to her for standing up for black women, especially dark-skinned black women, here’s a list of 15 dark-skinned characters who have defined today’s TV and film.

If you have characters you’d like to add to the list, share your post and hashtag it #DarkSkinnedHeroines on Twitter and Instagram!

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For Lisa Turtle: On Being Black, Beautiful, and Still Not Enough

I’ve suddenly come to a realization. I am Saved by the Bell’s Lisa Turtle.

I’m not her in the sense that I’m fabulously wealthy. The way I’m like Lisa Turtle is that on paper, I have what every guy is supposedly looking for (or so they say): brains, looks (if I may say so myself), talent, and likability. I’m nice, caring, goal-oriented and respectful of my elders. I’m the woman that, supposedly, every guy would like to find to take home to their mother. Even better, I think I’m a pretty good role model, something Lisa also was to many black girls who had never seen a rich black girl portrayed on television and felt represented by this new portrayal of blackness.

The only problem is that the guys haven’t been knocking down my door. Like Lisa Turtle, I am dateless. Perhaps unlike Lisa Turtle, I actually wonder why.

Urban legend has it that Lisa was actually written to be a snobby Jewish (read: white) girl, but Lark Voorhies impressed the Saved by the Bell folks so much they gave the role to her. After learning that tidbit, I have to wonder if the writing department then decided to change other aspects of Lisa’s characterization, such as who she’d wind up with in the dating department. For a show that came on in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it wouldn’t surprise me if they then decided that Lisa wasn’t the right kind of girl to end up with someone like Zack or Slater. As a black girl, she might work best with another outcast, like the terminally nerdy Screech.

“But Lisa dated Zack that one time!” Yes, that was that one time, a time so brief I don’t even remember it; I read about it online. Apparently it was only for one episode, and the reason they split up was to save the fragile emotions of Screech.

Instead, Lisa —fashion-forward, stylish, popular, cool, rich Lisa—was fated to always become Screech’s main crush. And even then, it would seem that Screech actually moved on from Lisa to a little-seen character named Violet Anne Bickerstaff, leaving Lisa officially the only character on the show who had never had a long-term relationship.

What was Lisa missing that denied her the opportunity to be a part of an It Couple like Zack and Kelly or Slater and Jessie? How come Lisa couldn’t have a relationship that showcased her femininity, vulnerability, and otherwise humanness? Why was she relegated to just being the rich snob?

I have to assume that race played a role in the writers’ inability to see Lisa as anything beyond just a joke character. I assume that because not only does it play a role in how characters are designed, but it also plays a role in how we choose our own potential partners and how we see ourselves in relation to said partners.

In an earlier article about Sleepy Hollow‘s Abbie Mills, I wrote about the trope called the Strong Black Woman. You can see many characters that fit this trope, even in a character like Lisa. So what is the Strong Black Woman? Allow me to quote myself:

the Strong Black Woman trope that became associated with positivity happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a prime example being Caroline Bird’s 1969 New York Magazine essay on black womanhood. Alternet rightly calls the article “flawed” since, as the site states:

[The essay] deems black women capable and independent (read: strong) by necessity. Black women fight, Bird says, because they have no one to fight for them, unlike white women with proximity to white, patriarchal power. “Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Negro women in America have escaped some of the psyche-crippling education of white girls. They haven’t been carefully taught how not to fight. On the contrary, some of them fight hard and develop a personal style of fighting that suggests that ‘grace under pressure’ which is supposed to be the essence of courage.”

Bird’s piece spins allegedly distinctive black female strength as a powerful weapon, giving African American women an edge over white women and black men–a dubious message. It also paints black women as possessing a durability that is nearly inhuman. For instance, Bird asserts that “The absence of Negro fathers hurts growing boys more than girls, and saved Negro girls from some of the dissatisfactions with their sex that brought many white women to psychoanalysis.” Abandoning black girls does not hurt them, this suggests; instead, it makes them stronger.

This article by Bird means well, but it basically does a good job of reinforcing the original Strong Black Woman stereotype from slavery times; that black women don’t have feelings and are immune to the societal and familial pressures others are. Somehow, they are more powerful than everyone, yet they are still the mule of the world because going by this analysis, the black woman still takes in society’s ills and is still burdened by them. However, the burden, according to Bird’s essay, is the pressure that makes the diamond form. In Bird’s words, the burden is necessary, not something that should be alleviated by society coming to grips with itself and uplifting black women as women and human beings.

Lisa has shades of the Strong Black Woman because, despite having everything a character could ask for and despite the fact that she would be seen as desirable because of it if she were white, Lisa’s instead relegated to being an emotionally invulnerable character.  Despite being neglected by potential suitors, broken up with by Zack to save his friendship with Screech, or denied any other position other than “that black girl,” she’s somehow never broken up about the role society has given her. She doesn’t get hurt. Instead, as Bird suggests, she becomes stronger, more Lisa Turtle-y than she was before. She becomes the invincible rich girl who doesn’t need anyone because she’s going to become a fashion superstar.

I mainlined Saved by the Bell growing up, and I believe much of that subconscious Strong Black Woman programming triggered me. I saw myself as Lisa, as the girl who had everything going for her, but for some reason, couldn’t get the boys to like her. I wasn’t like Kelly or Jessie, who were white, therefore seen as more desirable. I was as smart as Jessie, so I wondered if I, as a Lisa, would ever get a guy like Slater, who was apparently into smart girls who wore mom jeans. However, what if the one thing Jessie had over me was her race? To be fair to Jessie and Slater, their relationship meant a lot to me because I could actually see that interracial dating was possible. Maybe it wouldn’t happen for me, but it was, at the very least, possible. But I still wondered how much more work than Jessie I’d have to do to get a Slater. Once again, white privilege allows you to be seen as more attractive than you might actually be. Case in point: the many black male athletes who tote their white trophy wives around. The most egregious example of this: Tiger Woods liking no one but white, blonde women.

I definitely had no illusions about being a Kelly; I knew I would never be America’s vision of an “All-American Girl”; I’m not white. I immediately saw someone like Zack as the unattainable fruit growing  high on a tree I wasn’t allowed to pick from. Even still, I wondered if Lisa would ever truly get with Zack, since they always seemed to vibrate around each other (apparently, Voorhies and Mark-Paul Gosselaar were dating in real life). But despite their off-screen romance, Lisa and Zack would never date on the show, save for that one time that hardly anyone remembers. Even in that brief dalliance, Lisa’s heart had to take a back seat to Zack’s supposed deep friendship with Screech. Even then, Lisa is thought of as the Strong Black Woman, whose emotional state is never considered because, as a Strong Black Woman, she’s thought of not having any.

Lisa and Zack’s unrealized potential as a couple also taught me something else: that racial divisions were still alive and well when it came to on-screen relationships. Seeing Lisa never getting a Zack or a Slater-type character made me worry about my own well-being in the dating department. Lisa was my avatar into the world of Saved by the Bell; if she, who had the money, style, glamour, popularity and rich-kid access to any and everything, couldn’t get the guy of her dreams regardless of his race, then what hope did I, a glasses-wearing kid who felt self-conscious about her weight have? I might have been as smart as Jessie and heck, I was just as lovable as Kelly, but if my black sister-in-arms wasn’t seen as desirable, what did the world think about me?

The first time I distinctly remember seeing a black girl with a white boy was on Boy Meets World, when Shawn dated Angela. Even though Angela annoyed me at times, I viewed their relationship as something that reaffirmed what I’d been taught about loving all people (back in the ’90s, the buzzword we were all taught in elementary school was “colorblindness”). It made me think that I was finally seeing what had been preached to me —about love knowing no color –actually being put into practice. The actress who played Angela, Trina McGee Davis, wrote about her Boy Meets World experiences to the Los Angeles Times in 1999. She wrote that most of the responses she received, particularly from the younger audience members, were positive, with many young viewers asking her when Angela and Shawn would reconcile.

“My character, Angela, has intimately kissed Shawn (Rider Strong) a number of times, and the show’s creators have never made an issue of our race,” she wrote. “…The black kids are not asking, ‘Why are you with that white boy?’ When I attended the NAACP Image Awards, a black girl lamented to me that Shawn and Angela are a perfect couple and should be back together. The next day, a white girl in a mall begged to know if Shawn and Angela are still in love…They are the new face of tolerance. These kids are not looking at race; they’re absorbing the love story.”

Shawn and Angela’s relationship was revolutionary not just in the interracial dating department; it also positioned Shawn as just a guy, not the unattainable white guy that all non-white girls would have to work hard to get. If there’s one thing that was taught early in ’90s television, it was that The Beautiful People were white, despite some of the Beautiful People also being black, like Lisa Turtle. Lisa could use her popularity to become a satellite of the group of chosen ones, but the true chosen ones were the white ones, the ones who would immediately be crowned Prom King and Prom Queen.

Kelly and Zack exuded that classic white teenager trope of being good-looking, desirable, congenial, popular, and amenable to everyone while still having an invisible, bulletproof shield of white privilege surrounding them. In fact, it was white, able-bodied privilege that made them seem desirable. Because of that intangible privilege, they had a leg up on the nerds of all races and the minority kids like Lisa and Slater. Kelly—the head cheerleader and volleyball, swim, and softball captain, and Zack—lovable class clown—were the highest recipients of of this intangible privilege, allowing them to rule the school without having to work hard for respect; it was just given to them. As Lisa Turtle, I’d have to work twice as hard just to be seen as competent.

Developing this mindset at a very young age has left me paranoid in the love department. Sometimes I do wonder if race plays any part in why I’m not with anyone. I distinctly remember a high school classmate of mine saying, as if it was the most normal and self-empowering thing to say, that she wouldn’t marry a black man because she wanted her kids to look like her. I didn’t say anything, even though I was furious, and the guy I did like—who was basically Zack Morris—did his best to try to get her to shut up for my sake. But I wondered since she could say that out in the open, for my ears to hear, if a guy, particularly the guy I liked, felt the same about black women. I wondered if too many guys felt that way about black women. In fact, I limited myself from my chance to tell the guy I liked that I actually liked him for fear of being rejected—either because of my inflated idea of my own nerdiness, my weight (which wasn’t bad in hindsight; I was a size 10), my emotional sensitivity or —the big reason—because I was black. I saw myself as Lisa Turtle, and Lisa never got with Zack Morris.

Sometimes people don’t realize how sneakily racial discrimination can worm its way into a child’s mind. They don’t get how truly menacing white privilege can be. When you see images of yourself constantly alone, you begin to think that that’s what you should expect. Nowadays, it’s even worse; not only are young girls afflicted by the white privilege happily flaunted by the Taylor Swifts and Gigi Hadids of the world, the It Girls who have magazines falling on themselves to cover every moment of their lives, but they are seeing how people treat actresses like Leslie Jones, who was actually removed herself from Twitter for a short time to escape trolls sending her demeaning comments solely because of her dark skin.

Girls growing up today not only worry about how their race affects how people view them, but how their bodies are being judged as well; everyone wants a Kim Kardashian-esque big butt, and you can read how I feel about that. The pressure on girls is immense, and the pressure they place on themselves is even bigger. Thankfully, there are more examples of black women in relationships of all kinds than there were when I was growing up. But there need to be more. There needs to be enough examples of black women being treasured to stamp out the persistent question many black girls have growing up: “Am I enough?”

So what can I say to the other Lisa Turtles out there? I actually wish I could give you the step-by-step of “Here’s what I did to get over my self-imposed stigmatization.” The truth is that I still struggle with my dating paranoia. I still imagine what it’s like to be a Lisa Turtle that actually gets the guy. But perhaps, I can say this: You are not what society deems you to be. Dating sites can make all of the studies they want to “prove” how black women and Asian men are deemed the least desirable to prospective dates, but do your best to let none of that affect you. No matter what anyone or any site says, you are a beautiful, vibrant, complex, vulnerable, emotional, and loving black woman. You have everything you need to have. Keep being you, because you are everything the man or woman of your dreams is looking for. America—and for that matter, the Western World at large—might not realize it, but you, Lisa Turtle, have earned your right to be here.

#RepresentYourStory: A New Initiative By JUST ADD COLOR

JUST ADD COLOR is known as a place that discusses representation in entertainment. But let’s be honest; there are a lot of sites and online personalities that discuss representation in entertainment. And even though my biggest interest is in how entertainment highlights Americans of all backgrounds, I’m even more interested in how those of us that aren’t always represented still manage to find ourselves and our voices, despite society telling us we shouldn’t even bother.

If I may be a little transparent here, I have to say that I’m surprised other sites who do focus on representation, particularly race, in entertainment haven’t focused on cultivating self-worth just as fiercely. It’s one thing to talk about what’s wrong with representation, and it’s another to discuss that as well as give examples and tips on how to combat the depression and isolation that comes with being weighed down by stereotypes. I wish there was a site that helped me overcome my issues growing up, so with that in mind, I’d like to provide that kind of a site to others. Thus, the introduction to a new permanent part of my site, #RepresentYourStory.

I’ll start off the #RepresentYourStory initiative with myself. I am a black woman who has had to face her share of colorism, hair politics, and general odd treatment growing up. As I’ve told Shaun from the “No, Totally” podcast, I might not be the lightest person in the world, but I’ve still felt like I’ve been given “light-skinned privileges” for other reasons beyond my skin color.

The stereotypical image of a black girl is one that unfortunately still seems to relate back to the “pickaninny”, a stereotype that vilifies black children, especially those with darker skin and coarser hair. I, on the other hand, was born with long, thick, medium-grade hair, and I’ve had to field questions of “Is that your real hair?” to people literally praising me solely because of my hair. Some folks even thought I wasn’t black because I had long, loose (and at that time, permed straight) hair. People have wanted to separate me from my African-American heritage because of my hair, declaring me to be French, Caribbean, Indian and so forth. That kind of attention made me feel really strange growing up, like I was a freak. I don’t like being made to feel like I’m somehow better just because of how I look, since anyone, regardless of their skin color or hair texture, can be beautiful. Top it off with the fact that, apparently, I am a highly sensitive person, something I don’t think many teachers expected from a child in general, much less a black child. I have always dealt with being the odd person out in many different scenarios.

In short, I’ve grown up often feeling like a token, especially in my mostly-white high school (the first time I’d been in a mostly-white environment); because I didn’t act in accordance to people’s narrow definitions of black behavior, I was automatically given other privileges and allocations and, in many ways, placed closer to whiteness. Meanwhile, other black kids in high school would look at me strange, as if I’d done something wrong, when I’d never asked for the treatment I was given. The irony is that I’m one of the most black-focused people there are, with a love for my blackness instilled in me by my mother. You can listen to me talk about my life on Shaun’s podcast here:

I resented being thought of as a token then, and I especially resent it now, since social media is, in many ways, like another big high school. There are many gatekeepers to what it means to “be black” on the internet, and I often don’t fit the bill for what their version of “blackness” entails. Having come up against that type of thinking on the internet in a very personal way, I have little patience for black folks telling other black folks how they should or shouldn’t think in order to be accepted as “black.”

It was only until a few years ago, particularly when I started my journey into owning a website, that I began to find myself and my voice. I realized that I didn’t have to feel weird because of my sensitivity, my hair, or how people viewed me. The baggage folks were placing on me wasn’t a reflection of me; it was a reflection of their own insecurities with themselves as well as their own narrow view of what blackness can be. I’ve always been a person who didn’t follow the crowd, but now I know there is a true strength in not being part of the flock of society. Being different is not a weakness. Being different is a strength if you can value the insight there is in being different, and if you have the internal fortitude it takes to own that difference. I admit that I didn’t always have that kind of fortitude. To be honest, there are days when I’m still not up to snuff 100 percent. But I’d rather be myself, be different, and own my self-worth than try to portray everything to everyone else.

So now that I’ve given my story, I want to read yours. How do you represent your story? What affected you growing up or later in life? What advice do you have for others who might need the same advice you needed years ago? Tell me about it! You can either submit a short article to me at monique@colorwebmag.com, or if you need help getting started, you can fill out my #RepresentYourStory questionnaire, and I’ll write an article based on your responses. If you love the #RepresentYourStory initiative, share it with everyone you know!

Either way, we can all help each other heal our wounds society has given us if we have the courage to be transparent, honest, and empathetic. Regardless of how we portray ourselves on social media, we all aren’t perfect; we’ve all had hills to climb in life. But we can all show each other the way by saying, “I’ve been there, too.”

Paisley Park Is In Your Heart: Prince and the Power of Individuality

“I‘m finally feeling better,” I told my mom over the phone. I’d just expelled a lot of grief I was experiencing in an hour-long rant to her. At that point in the day—around 10 to 11 in the morning—my grief wasn’t anything Prince related. In fact, like everyone else that day, little did I know the rest of my day would be consumed by the news of His Purple Majesty’s passing.

At the time, what I was ranting about was about personal stuff; my Sleepy Hollow post concerning Abbie’s death had become one of the biggest hits, if not the biggest hit, JUST ADD COLOR and my personal writing portfolio had seen. Even Variety‘s Maureen Ryan, a writer I’m a huge fan of, and Kelly Connolly, my Entertainment Weekly Community Blog boss, had read it, having found it organically (I had actually considered sending them the link to the article, but I figured that if they read it, they’d read it, and if not, then whatever.) Ryan even went a step further and highlighted a part of the article she was the most affected by and retweeted the article to her followers. I was flabbergasted and honored that I was now considered worthy to be retweeted by writing elite. That’s when the panic and fear set in.

Now that I had reached another plateau in my online writing career, what did followers expect from me? Would I have to write about every pop culture thing, even if I didn’t particularly care about it? Would I have to give my opinion on everything? And if I did give an opinion, would it be the opinion that would put me on the ever-present “problematic” lists of Twitter and Tumblr denizens? I’d already had my brushes with that before—those brushes exposed me a lot more to the hypocrisy of social media life than I would have liked to have experienced. How hypocritical was expected to be? In other words: what kind of “self” was I now allowed to have on Twitter now that more eyes were looking at what I’d have to write?

These thoughts about self-preservation, self-representation, and the inherent fakery of internet culture had consumed me for days, leading me to rant about it to my sister the night before, and then to my mom the next morning after staying in bed for far too long, dreading to start my day and deal with my social media quandaries yet again. After that hour of ranting (so much so that I was putting my mom to sleep by talking so much) and letting off steam in the form of tears, I felt better and said so. “That’s good,” my mom said. “It’s good to get it all out.”

“Yeah,” I said, already feeling lighter and finally looking forward to writing some stuff on Underground and maybe even that pesky article about Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange. I got out of bed, remade it, did my morning routine, and started putting some laundry away while talking to my mom about whatever else had been rattling around in my brain.

Then my sister texted me. “Prince is dead!” she exclaimed. Angina, something I’ve never really had an issue with (despite my history of chronic stress and anxiety), flared up so badly I briefly considered if I needed a paramedic myself. As strange as it sounds even to me, the most recent time I’ve felt so directionless was about two years ago, when my uncle—another person I wrongly assumed would live forever—died. Instantly, I was trying to figure out if this was a hoax—it had to be a hoax, because Prince doesn’t just die—but as I switched between my mom and Twitter, I saw that it wasn’t a hoax. It was true. “NOT PRINCE!” I yelled to my empty room and my mom on the other end. “NO! NOT PRINCE!” My mom, on the other hand, was waiting on CNN or MSNBC to confirm it. Once they did, she sounded tired. “I was waiting to see if it was true,” she said. “That’s sad.”

♦♦♦

Like the news junkie I am, I ran to my television in the living room to see what MSNBC was saying. As I watched Brian Williams say what we were all thinking at that moment—that we were all living what we thought would be a normal, uneventful Thursday only to hear the unthinkable—I started reflecting on things. It’s not unusual for me to think a lot; thinking is what jumpstarts this site every day, after all. But this train of thought, after the shock started subsiding microscopically, began to center around Prince’s way of life. More specifically, how Prince never let anyone define him; he was always in control of himself and his image.

My sister observed that Prince’s iron grip on his image might have been “a little psychotic.” But regardless of what kind of control issues Prince may have had (or probably did have, judging by how rigid he was with how Vanity 6, Sheila E., and Apollonia are all versions of the same dream woman archetype he fostered over the decades) Prince’s control over his outward persona and his introverted personal life is deeply rooted in two of his philosophical mottos:

and

“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”

The former is one of the reasons why Prince became known as the Prince of Shade on social media, and the latter is about his battles with Warner Bros. over owning the rights to his own music. But both also speak to how Prince carried himself and how he practiced the art of disregard for other people’s feelings about how he should live his life.

Prince became a star because of his musical talent, first and foremost. He was a musical prodigy, playing at least 27 instruments, not counting his own honeyed vocal cords. But what launched him into supernova-dom was his ability to be completely unique, particularly during a time in which everyone wanted to be unique.

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The ’80s are best known for its androgyny, the pounds and pounds of makeup women and men would wear, the frantic, desperate desire to be something new and different, something no one’s ever seen before. You had Madonna, The Culture Club’s Boy George, Adam Ant, and even “standard” R&B acts like Shalamar played with beauty and androgyny (something Charlie Murphy hilariously highlighted in his infamous Chappelle‘s Show skit about Prince). All of them, though, have to pay homage to originators of androgyny-in-music, like Little Richard, David Bowie, and even James Brown to a certain extent. And while I’m certain David Bowie, who was steeped in soul music history, did know how his bread was buttered (and often said so), Prince (as it has been said so much over the course of these strange days) was one that relished in the path paved by his musical forefathers and sought to create alchemy with the tools they left behind. He certainly did, giving the world something that was both in line with the era’s play on sex and sexuality and much more than anyone could comprehend. (Indeed, Prince himself actually said so in “I Would Die 4 You”: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something you could never understand.”)

From where I’m sitting, Prince’s legendary status wasn’t achieved just because he participated in the ’80s androgyny; it was because he defined what it meant for him and never apologized for it or explained it. Whereas most others were still defining themselves by labels, Prince used none. To use another song, he raps “My name is Prince,” and that is the summation of it all. He is everything you saw and then more, tons more. He wasn’t man or woman, and he wasn’t something we could comprehend. The fact that he was the only one who could understand his own mystery intrigued us and made us want to be in his quirky, fascinating, dreamscape of a world.

In his way, he invited us all to discover our own mysteries. When he sang “Paisley Park is in your heart,” he wanted us to find out what made each of us special and cultivate that, just like he’d figured out how to cultivate his own specialness. Prince, who had been bullied in school and suffered from epilepsy, wanted us to create our own Paisley Parks, our own personal universes that allowed us to be the spectacular selves we want to be. He had figured out the secret, and in order to join in on his fun, you had to be willing to search for the answers to yourselves. You had to build your own personal Paisley Park, a task that’s much easier to sing about than it is to actually do.

I’d say a direct parallel to the ’80s “gimmie more” culture is right now. The ’10s are a time in which we’ve got access to everything and everyone just by using our phones, tablets, or laptops. We are closer than we ever were to celebrities, dignitaries, and presidents alike. You’d think that would satisfy us. But instead, all of this access to each other has only made us more neurotic and more prone to wanting to fit in than ever before.

Article after article after article states how Facebook (and social media in general) has led to a dramatic uptick in depression, all because we’re posturing to each other. Most of what you see on social media isn’t real. Too much of the time, there’s someone lying to you about what they’ve got, who they know, how “woke” they are or how accepting or inclusive they are. If they’re not busy trying to convince you of how much more together they are than you, then they’re busy overloading you with opinions about how to get to where they are in life and why you aren’t there. Why you and your fave “will never.” (“Will never” what, exactly?) Why you should strive to be a #carefreeblackgirl, even if you don’t feel that carefree. Why you shouldn’t express why you don’t feel as magical as the #blackgirlmagic hashtag suggests you should (Dr. Linda Chavers, who wrote in Elle about how her debilitating illness has left her feeling like a shell instead of someone who feels magical and important, received a mountain of clapbacks instead of nurturing support from a community). There are too many people out there busy tearing down others to uplift themselves. Too many times in the social media world, having your own view on the world—whether that opinion is something the majority agrees with or not—can be seen as detrimental to your social standing, much less your career.

The “gimmie more” culture has evolved into a shaming culture. Are you feminist enough? Are you queer enough? Are you alternative enough? Are you black enough (and to that end, are you carefree or magical enough)? There’s even a specific uniform for the “alt” person; just go on Tumblr and Twitter and you’ll find that a lot of folks who want to be perceived as “special” all end up looking similar, depending on what brand of “alt” they aspire to. But is wearing a uniform actually being alternative? Is critiquing others for their personal Paisley Parks building up your own?

Prince didn’t tear others down while staying in his own lane. Instead, he worked on his own stuff and released his own personal stamp on life into the world for us to marvel at. What we saw in his music and artistic representation was a manifestation of his own high self-worth. As many have said online, what they loved most about him was his ability to be himself. While most of us are struggling to find peace with our identities, Prince seemed to casually live in it and mine it for inspiration. He was his own inspiration—how many of us can say that about ourselves?

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I hate that it took Prince’s death for me to realize what was the most grand thing about him, and that he was the teacher of the most important lesson I need to learn in life. I’ve always struggled with just being myself; if you read my Mr. Robot piece, you’ll see that I’ve always had a bout with accepting my own sensitivity. But I’ve had other battles, most of them racially and culturally charged. The more I’ve become a part of the social media and online journalism/blogging spheres, the more I’ve realized how crucially important it is to have a strong sense of self-worth and self-understanding. Not only is it important just in life in general, but it’s comes in so handy when having to deal with strong personalities, a barrage of opinions, and others who are keen on tearing you down just to prove how special they are.

That’s what brings this article full circle; my rant to my mom was based in the fact that I still didn’t know how to grapple with the stress of being in a forum where almost everyone is trying to present their best, most perfect, most special selves. I couldn’t get my mind around how social media perpetuates the act of folks trying to prove their specialness by pointing out where others are “problematic” and never letting them live down whatever mistake they might have made. All I wanted to find was peace and the belief that I could be whatever and whoever I wanted to be without worry from what other people would have to say. I wanted relief from the stress of “fitting in,” a stress that I thought would have left me once I graduated from high school years ago.

Unfortunately, Prince’s death taught me that I have yet to own my masters, because the master—my fear—was owning me big time. I learned that I honestly don’t need to worry about what anyone else thinks of me, as long as I have belief and love for myself. If I work on becoming the version of Monique want to be, then the stress of “fitting in” will go away. I will be me, and everyone else can be them, whether that’s them being their best selves or not. Like Prince, can find my own Paisley Park and happily live there in my heart. Once I discover that, I’ll be able to attract others to me, others who want to know what my mystery is. That’s a lesson we can all learn.

To quote Janelle Monaé (who was also one of the people Prince called “friend”), “Categorize me, I defy every label.” Prince challenged us to not just define ourselves, but to defy the labels people put on us and the ones we put on ourselves. He wanted us to challenge others to try to put us in boxes, and he wanted those who tried to categorize to fail. We should try to learn from his example and try to truly accept what makes us unique; if anyone tried to play us, they’d soon learn they were only playing themselves. His name was Prince. My name is Monique. Who are you?

Other articles to check out:
“Whether Or Not Prince Knew It, He Was A Disability Icon To Me” | Black Girl Dangerous
Prince never apologized for who he was. For that, he was an inspiration. | Washington Post

Prince gave black kids permission to be weirdos | Vox

Prince Knew What He Wanted: Sex, Soul and You | The New York Times

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