Listen to this story
Of course, I don’t really want to give up who I am: a black, biracial, African American, and white woman. But I sometimes crave a break from having to trudge this descriptor with me into every thought and memory, every writing assignment, or vacation — every single new encounter with a stranger.
I write about race, gender, and social justice. This is my work. My calling. My vocation. The chemical components of the oxygen I breathe.
But sometimes I wish it weren’t.
It would be so refreshing, I think sometimes, as I curl up on the couch to re-watch the Dowager Countess fire off one-liners on Downton Abbey. There isn’t a black or brown face for miles around that Yorkshire landscape — with the exception of Jack Ross, whose forbidden affair with Cousin Rose was quickly extinguished. But I don’t care. I could watch all six seasons again and again — and have done, three times — simply because the show has the power to transport me far away from the place where I’m required to be, day in and day out: a woman of color.
Zora Neale Hurston also tired of the suffering protest narratives. “Can the black poet sing a song to the morning?” she asked in a 1938 essay. No. We can’t, she answered. Because “the one subject for a Negro is the Race and its sufferings and so the song of the morning must be choked back. I will write of a lynching instead.”
Of course, we’re so much more than the struggles and challenges we face as women of color. The phrase “women of color” can feel so confining in the larger scheme of things: in our work, our creativity and art, and in our intimate friendships and relationships. And yet, how many of us really give ourselves permission to explore those other public and private landscapes? Those corners of our being.
We’re theologians. And masseuses. And architects. And scientists.
Once, I read a book that changed my life: God and the New Physics. I picked it up one New Year’s Eve, got into bed, and didn’t put it down until I’d finished. Its conversation about science, quantum physics, and religion spoke deeply to those parts of me that exist beyond race and color. It reminded me that what we really are is vibrating patterns of light; complex rainbow constructions of sound and energy.
We’re also readers, of all kinds of books.
“Occasionally I’ll teach a class on Jane Austen,” said Nicole N. Aljoe, director of the African and African American Studies Program and an associate professor of English at Northeastern University. “And sometimes, I just want to teach the class. But students tend to think that the only way I’m going to be reading Austen is through a ‘black lens.’”
On the other hand, is it a good thing that we should ever want to stop seeing through our own unique black or brown “lens”?
Nanci Luna Jimenez is founder of the Luna Jimenez Institute for Social Transformation and a dear friend of mine since graduate school. She’s made it her life’s work to coach and mentor men and women of color and to provide training for organizations around racism and sexism. “In one of my seminars, I used to tell clients to try to imagine living a day as if there was no oppression. No racism or sexism. What would you think about? How would you organize your time?” It’s a good exercise, she says.
But instead, so many women of color check out in unhealthy ways, says Jimenez, including her. After long days of traveling she says, “I find that I do the things that will numb me out.” Like buying a Pop-Tart or M&M’s and I “literally… have a sugar crash. I’ve talked to so many women of color… they’ll have a glass of wine, or Netflix binge. But I know it won’t make me feel better.”
She says listening to our feelings and processing them in order to heal is a better option than simply checking out. “I see a lot of women of color get burned out.” They may have a health crisis, or change careers. They remove themselves so that “they’re not on the front lines anymore.”
“We’re almost all of us on the tipping point on any given day. I can’t tell you how many women of color I’ve coached that say they’ve been waiting all week for the call to help them hold on. The exhaustion of racism and sexism makes it challenging to not downward cycle into the oppression, where we all just go into the hole together… So part of my process is constructive listening. Hopefully, that’s a healthier choice than Rice Krispie Treats.”
But is there anything really wrong with wanting to “escape” from our identity as women of color, at least every once in a while?
“I think it’s important for us to do that,” says Aljoe. “That’s the great thing about reading. It allows you to see another perspective. That’s why I love Zadie Smith,” she added, referring to the author of White Teeth. “She was a biracial person in her mid-twenties, and she felt comfortable to write as an old British guy, and an old Indian guy.”
“Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is another example,” continued Aljoe. “She has a short story called the ‘Two Offers.’ She never comes out and says what race the characters are. I think she’s basically saying it doesn’t matter.”
Women of color are creators and entrepreneurs, too. Often, we discover possibilities that others overlook. Eight out of ten women-owned businesses launched between 2007 and 2018 were started by a woman of color. Years ago, I was one of them. My company, Zook & Associates, employed about a dozen freelance interpreters (Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Armenian, and so on) to translate for patients and doctors in medical offices across Los Angeles. It was an amazing side gig that helped to pay the bills for graduate school while I wrote my dissertation about black television.
All across the country, women of color create marketing strategies, and product designs, and calculate profit margins that have little or nothing to do with race. Because we understand that the world is bigger than our own narrow bird’s-eye view.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the Kim Kardashian fantasy of a “color-blind” world. That’s a silly, nonsense phrase. Color “blindness” isn’t even physiologically possible. Everyone who sees properly, sees skin color. Even babies. As we should. What I am talking about is creating spaces, in our private musings and in public forums like this one, to allow for the full expression of our multifaceted selves.
Looking back at my own journals, I once found myself lamenting the loss of environmental protection for the sage grouse, for example, a ground-dwelling bird with the most intriguing mating dance you’ve ever seen. The BBC has a video. Check it out.
It’s okay, in other words, to yearn for a time when, instead of tracking the latest affront to our humanity, we might just be able to paint the jacaranda trees at sunset, and to explore the full range of our potential human consciousness.
That day is coming. That freedom. That oxygen.