Identity is a word that floats throughout life. It can be a badge of honor for some, something shiny and embossed. A big, fat star that you wear on your lapel at all times. You are defined by that honor. You revel in that honor. For some, it’s like an overcast cloud, plaguing you like you’re a cartoon character moping as you walk down the block. Your personal rain shower when things get too dreary. It’s a word that overwhelms, yet it’s ubiquitous.
I treated my identity like scraps of paper. The edges of the paper were serrated and torn, but I never tried to connect them back together. The scraps were all separate and defined, and in my head I believed they should never be one.
And essentially, that’s how I lived my life – separate, distinct, never being fully one. Yes, I am black. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I am queer. However, I thought to myself, “They don’t really need to intersect or connect, do they?” And initially when entering college, it seemed impossible that these identities could overlap.
In a way, these scraps encouraged me to not even fully commit to those three identities. I am black, but, like, not too black (whatever that meant in my freshman head). I am a woman, but not like other women (or y’know, girls). I am queer, but, like, I can try to pass. With this segregation, there was always an attempt to neutralize myself in social spaces. If you only saw me as one of these identities in one space, I was much less threatening or mind-boggling or less of an Other.
My biggest fear was to just be placed in the box of an Other. I feared that I would never be recognized for all of my characteristics and nuances, but only known as different and incomprehensible. And through this misunderstanding of my identities, I would just be invalidated and dismissed. My whole being would be suppressed.
However, my response to that fear was to Other myself by different means. I isolated myself from the very identities that I previously abided by. The community I cultivated for myself my first two years of college was homogeneous; it was rich in the aspects I enjoyed, but not in the aspects I particularly needed to survive and understand myself.
Recently, I was talking with a friend over lunch and we both discussed how we created these spaces and worlds on Penn’s campus, turning away from the features that defined us or that we couldn’t particularly hide.
We made ourselves palatable.
But in order to make ourselves palatable, we had to strip away the supposed bad things, the guck. We had to cut away to the “good stuff.” I mean if we didn’t, people would only nibble around our identities, picking and choosing. Why let people work for that (and face the fear of rejection) when we can hand them the things that they want from us by our very own hands?
The “good stuff” we gave them? It was a white-washed and toned down version of ourselves. It was catering to their tastes and preferences, not our own.
We both had to deny the intricacies of our blackness and our womanhood and instead sculpted the nice tokenized and “cheery” black woman. We weren’t radical or militant or angry. We thought we could mold ourselves into the mainstream, into the status quo.
But then we realized something: Neither the structures of Penn nor of the United States has ever granted us access to that mainstream. So no matter how much we fought to be accepted and to be palatable, we would only get an inkling of acceptance. Why were we working in these toxic spheres in such toxic ways when there was no satisfaction in the end?
I don’t have a concise answer.
Lately, I’ve been trying to search for my body. Trying to find ways to glue the loose scraps of paper that are my identity so they are one. If that doesn’t work, I’ll paste those identities on a new, clean piece of paper. I’ll create a collage of what was once me and try to make it beautiful. Searching for your body can take on different modes, but ultimately my own search is seeking the ownership of space for my body to perform in all of its identities – to reclaim my body again.
Searching for your body is searching for what your body represents, not to your environment, but to yourself and only you. There is power as well as limitations that come into the numerous spaces that make up this world and especially make up the small, insular world of Penn. As I grow older, I realize that I need to constantly and critically think about these imposed upon and self-made spaces. To unlearn the negative aspects. Be resilient to the toxicity that can form over time. Get back to my roots so I can greater comprehend and appreciate what is at stake when I minimize them.
I truly believe that before you can mobilize and take action and look out for others, the first action is to assemble your body and look out for yourself. It can feel narcissistic or self-possessed, but more than anything, it is self-growth. It is just one of the steps to not only being a better you for you, but to being a better you for much greater, much bigger causes that affect the loss and invalidation of other’s identities. It is a step to solidarity.
I’m slowly picking up the pieces of my identity, but it will take time. I am taking time to work upon myself and improve, and I will remain hopeful and excited and critical about the search for my body and my space. And I will keep asking questions.
MAYA ARTHUR is a College junior studying English. She is co-programming chair of the United Minorities Council, whose unity month begins on Oct. 27, 2016.
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