AT THE CROSSROADS: BLACK WOMEN REFLECT





Samantha Gamble, Sidwell '17 Sofia Thompson, Sidwell '17, Yalemwork Teferra, Sidwell '17, and Marly Lake, Sidwell ‘17



A self interview.





How do your race and gender (and the intersections of both) shape your experience at Sidwell? How have they impacted your experience in society at large?


SG: My race and gender have molded my experience at Sidwell every step of the way since I got to high school. In every classroom, every advisory, every Collection, every MFW, I am a black woman and I am vulnerable because of it. I am unprotected, and what I do and say is continually under scrutiny. Consequently, like many black women at this school, I proceed with a caution that many of my classmates and peers do not-- the Caution of the Black Woman. Because if I’m seen getting into a heated argument with someone in the hallway, I’m stereotyped as just another Angry Black Girl. Because if I wear a skirt that’s a little shorter than it “should” be or a top that’s a little lower-cut than it “should” be, given that it’s on my black woman body, I’m hypersexualized and criticized.


ST: I agree with Sam in that both my gender and my race have shaped every interaction I have had since I came to high school. It is funny that I have been at Sidwell since I was four, but only at 14 did I start to notice how large of an impact my identifiers have on my experiences in the community. I do not see my blackness as guiding the formation of my friendships, most of which were made over 10 years ago. However, I do not know if I would still have the respect of my opinions had I made these friendships later on. When you are younger, I think, a friendship is formed, then the blackness is realized. Once in high school, it is impossible to put the former before the latter.


ML: Although our school does not have a significantly higher proportion of boys than girls, Sidwell is a hyper-masculine space. Being black presents a whole other host of experiences in our beloved institution. It seems as though there can only be two types of black people; one being the black person who is on financial aid and has an exclusively black friend group with an overt resentment of rich white people, or the black person who lives such a life of luxury and privilege that their blackness is immediately rendered “digestible” and ultimately forgotten (on the condition that they do not begin to demonstrate characteristics of “indigestible blackness”). Despite this unfortunate paradigm, being a black girl at Sidwell has greatly empowered me. Black girls at our school constantly and consistency challenge the rhetoric of this binary and shatter expectations of our close-minded peers. The greatest challenge, however, is trying to articulate the plight of black girls at our school. Any math or English wiz may think that black + female = black female; meaning that the combination of the plights of black Americans and black females equals the black female struggle. This is vastly incorrect. We have our own personal struggles and we deserve specificity.


Does identifying as a black woman ever negatively affect your life? Your behavior?

YT: Being a black woman is more than having two systems of oppression weighing you down. It’s looking into the mirror and not feeling worthy. Leaving your house and entering the world feeling unworthy. It’s having to work twice as hard to get half as much but then getting questioned about it. It’s being hypersexualized or desexualized and knowing you will never reach the standard of beauty because your kinks and curls are seen as “unprofessional,” which is just an-other way of society telling you that YOU’RE unprofessional, and don’t belong. It’s black men not wanting to aid you when


"IT’S ALSO BEAUTY. IT’S BEAUTY IN YOUR CULTURE AND THE DARKNESS IN YOUR SKIN. IT’S POWER AND STRENGTH."


it comes to sexism, and white women not listening to your struggles regarding race. It’s feeling crippled and used, and never receiving recognition for what you offer. It’s being repeatedly questioned and

challenged because everyone thinks they can walk all over you... which in turn makes you angry and defensive, but there we go--now you’re just another angry black girl. But it’s also beauty. It’s beauty in your culture and the darkness in your skin. It’s power and strength, and lifting up other black women, and quite frankly the entire world, because you’re more empathetic to others due to the lens you see the world through. It’s learning to love yourself even though some people really might not. It’s having such a strong sense of self and purpose that you use to lift your other sisters in the struggle. It’s realizing who you are, and using it to become greater and make a difference. And that’s why no matter the racism and sexism I face, I could not be prouder to be a black woman.


SG: All the time. Being a black woman is hard, in a way that others might not fully comprehend because they have never set foot in the unique space that a black woman occupies. To be a black woman is to be “less than” before someone even knows your name. To have your every word,

thought, idea, and opinion challenged because your ownership of it is not enough to legitimize it. To have your delivery torn to shreds with little to no regard of the content of your speech. To have your sexuality controlled by everyone else except for you. To have your struggle defined by black men, your beauty appropriated by white women, and your safety in the hands of white men.


ST: Being a black woman is like a college interview that never ends. When communicating with people,

you must always be your best self, smile and look put together, sit up straight, do not come across too aggressive, but make sure that they can sense your intelligence. It feels like you are never afforded a moment to make a mistake, for fear of automatic invalidation. Being a black woman is hard work, having to constantly prove yourself, especially at Sidwell. I work to get good grades for my parents and for myself, but also to push away from the stereotype of “the lazy black person” or “the unintelligent woman.” At the same time, I feel that I have to prove my “blackness” to stay validated. It is like being caught between two opposing forces, unsure of which will win, and hoping that you will not lose yourself along the way.


ML: Being a black girl has often made me question the true intention, and some nature, of my

encounters and relationships with many people not only within our Sidwell community, but in my life as

a whole. Whether or not people are intentionally treating me differently because of my race and gender, the question also lingers. It is this state of wondering limbo that I find the hardest to battle. Additionally, living in a metropolis with a constant spew of media being thrown at me, none of the advertisements for girls have ever been applicable to me; therefore, especially as a millennial, I’ve felt a very palpable disconnect between myself and white girls at Sidwell. All of the fashion, hair, and makeup trends aren’t talking to me; which is fine for me as someone who does concern herself much with those things anyway, but my impression is that white girls seem to believe that their direct pipeline to mainstream media means they are the ones who are allowed, or at least expected, to express the modern urban culture.


Where do you find inspiration in your identity? Are there certain figures you look to or are there life examples that connect to you?


YT: I identify as a black woman, and I am Ethiopian American. For a long time, I felt like I couldn’t claim the title of being a “black woman” because what society portrayed that to be wasn’t who I was, nor quite frankly who I wanted to be. Mainstream media often portrays black women as loud, angry, uneducated and “ghetto.” Growing up with these images made me unintentionally distance myself from my blackness, causing me to remove myself from my identity, never having a strong sense of self until recently. When I was 8, I felt inspired seeing Michelle Obama be the amazing, graceful, incredibly intelligent black woman she is. She was the first role model I had, besides my mother, that taught me that being a black woman doesn’t mean what society tells me that I am, but what I want to be. We are all different and complex, from different walks of life and subsets of our identities, but what unites us more than our struggle is our passion to strengthen ourselves and each other. Recently, seeing prominent black female figures rise both in mainstream media, popular culture, and the political realm has been incredibly motivating and inspiring for me. Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Shonda Rhimes, Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Michelle Obama, Amandla Stenberg, and so many more prominent black women challenge and shape the narrative of the strong, beautiful, educated, and powerful black woman that I have the honor of looking up to. Black women were called the most educated group in America last year (The Independent, 2016), and that gave me more than just hope, it inspired me to continue fighting and working hard.


What are tangible steps you think other students could take to become better allies and thus create a more truly united school community?


SG: Sidwell students could learn that the personal is political, a concept which emphasizes that personal experiences and narratives pertain to structural and political institutions. (In other words, something like a personal account of getting catcalled feeds into a larger systemic issue of men feeling ownership of women’s bodies.) When someone is speaking from a place of personal experience, what they’re saying is just as important and valid as numerical data or political analysis is. When someone is speaking with emotion, their words are not automatically negated by their passion or anger. The content of their words is more important than the delivery. Learn to listen to the voices of the oppressed, regardless of if they speak with scholarly knowledge or personal knowledge. Recognize

situations in which your voice matters less, and try to be okay with that. Lift up the voices of those to whom a political matter is more personal than it is for you. Walk into an affinity club meeting of a club that you’ve never been to before or that doesn’t cater to your identity and just sit down and lis-
ten. Use your privilege to become
a better ally. Use your privilege as a shield for others if they ask for it,

or offer it to them if you think they could use it.


ST: If you go to Sidwell, take Gender Studies. Take Black Liberation. We spent the first 14 years of our

education learning about your history, you can take a semester to try to understand ours.


YT: Retweet Sofi a and Sam! And, PLEASE PLEASE stop countering other people’s stories they share

about their race, and LISTEN. Engage in conversations, and learn to understand when your voice is just not as important and knowledgeable about the topic of someone’s identity.


ML: I feel as though many people (white and non-whites) at Sidwell consider white people to be “raceless”; white girls and boys are only ever girls and boys, while the nominative label “black” is inescapable for me; I will always and forever be a black girl, never just a girl. First, students need to stop thinking of white as neutral. Just as black is race, so is white, therefore there are intersectional approaches to whiteness; the only difference is that they typically connote privilege; at least inside the Sidwell community. In the manner of Audre Lorde, people must first identify, acknowledge, and appreciate our differences and our subsequent personal and lived experiences. Only at this point can we truly create effective and diverse coalition, otherwise we are stuck where we are: falsely promoting sameness and homogeny under the guise of liberation and equality.