Guest opinion: Boxes for a born-free

By Mathabo Priscilla Sekhonyana @MathaboPris

These are the words, the boxes that people have tried to put me in my whole life. The words that they have spat at me and challenged me with as though they knew what they meant. In my last relationship, my ex-boyfriend said to me that I was too ‘opinionated’ and that I was not vulnerable enough and to be with a man I had to be ‘more of a woman’. It unsettled me that being opinionated and not ‘vulnerable’ somehow negated my being a woman, and further that he was the one who was to decide what my being a woman meant.

I am a black, light skinned girl who speaks well and was raised by her traditional grandmother- those are my boxes. Each one of those things defines and complicates every area of my life as a so called ‘bornfree’.

Black.  That word can be so ugly. It can be used as a weapon against you, a sign that you are inferior, that you got that job based on your skin colour, not your merit and why John likes you but is dating Amanda.

Light skinned. Lucky, right? Lucky because we tell dark skinned women that they are below us somehow, lucky because he will always talk to you before he speaks to her. Children can be so cruel; so can adults. Pretty hurts.

Well spoken. That points out that this ‘former model c’ girl is ‘not like the other blacks’, asks, “where did you learn to speak like that?” and labels you a ‘coconut’.

Grandmother. Where was my mother? Why does it seem that black fathers are always absent? I obviously have daddy issues.

These are the words, the boxes that people have tried to put me in my whole life. The words that they have spat at me and challenged me with as though they knew what they meant. In my last relationship, my ex- boyfriend said to me that I was too ‘opinionated’ and that I was not vulnerable enough and to be with a man I had to be ‘more of a woman’. It unsettled me that being opinionated and not ‘vulnerable’ somehow negated my being a woman, and further that he was the one who was to decide what my being a woman meant.

As I stumbled my way through university and relationships it started to feel like the world was urging me to be quieter, softer, less somehow. That by being more than society wanted from a woman, that by being strong or fearless I was somehow betraying my femininity. More than that, I started to feel, in every area, that people had an idea of who I should be and perhaps for the first time, I wasn’t sure whether to change or to force the world to adapt.

While often the people around us help us to see the light, sometimes it takes a stranger who has walked the same path to revive you. I was lucky at that time, to come across a breathtaking poet, Warsan Shire (@warsan_shire). She writes “You want me to be the dark sky so you can be the moon – I’ll swallow you whole”. Perhaps that is exactly it; perhaps it is just when the world wants us to shrink that we should be even more of who we are.

I decided that day to redefine who I am and what that means and I suspect that is what every young person is trying to do. When our freedom was won for us, it was not just the rights we hear about, it was the right to decide for ourselves how we fit into our new society. Have we used those opportunities?

Black. That is a beautiful word. That is a word that pays homage to centuries of struggle, to people who were impossibly strong, to the promise that I can be strong too.

Light-skinned. Beautiful? Yes; but no more beautiful than the next person. A word that does not define, limit or exclude.

Well spoken. Not worn as a badge of honour or a way of separating ourselves from those with different backgrounds to ours, or making ourselves more like others. A statement of fact but not a scarlet A that says we will never be quite white or quite black.

Grandmother. She taught me that a parent’s love and support comes from more than just the title of ‘mother’ or ‘father’ but from any person who loves you like their very own. She shows me every day that to be raised by a village is not somehow less than to be raised by your mom and dad.

We define who we are. We decide the words and what they mean. That is the pleasure of being young; we still have time to decide.  Perhaps we should focus on defining for ourselves what our personal struggles are and overcoming them. Perhaps we should finally decide.

42 Comments
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