Spectra Speaks on White Allies Racism Fergueson

Dear White Allies: Stop Unfriending Other White People Over Ferguson

Earlier today, as I was scrolling through my news feed, I noticed  declarative statement after declarative statement from a number of my white friends either threatening to, or professing that they’d just unfriended several of their white friends based on “wrong,” “terrible,” “racist,” (read: conflicting) views about the grand jury’s decision to not indict the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown – an unarmed Black teenager – in Ferguson.

If you haven’t been following the story, start with this Jon Stewart recap here.

With each “unfriend” post, I felt myself getting angrier and angrier, wondering how on earth white people (who understand racism) disconnecting from white people (who don’t) was supposed to help anyone.

As a Black person enraged by the blatant racism in Ferguson, I felt involuntarily benched by my emotions; I was too angry, sad, etc to engage on the subject period, let alone with white people who felt differently and required that I engage “objectively.” This stood out to me as a moment in which white allies could come in really handy. So, I shared the post below on my Spectra Speaks page in an attempt to articulate my thoughts and propose an alternative to disconnection: empathic engagement with the “other side” on my behalf.

The post was well received and felt too important not to share on my blog, so here it goes…  After reading I encourage you to share your thoughts — on being  a good ally, on facilitating critical conversations, on connecting with unlike minds — by commenting below.


Dear white allies, this is not the time to “unfriend.” This is the time to “engage.”

This is the time to remember that the outrage you feel can in no way match my own and therefore you have way more emotional capacity than I do to talk some sense into the “other side.”

This is the time to remember that your “solidarity” does not render you powerless; in fact, the entire point of your solidarity is to lend the power you DO have to folks who do not.

And by the way, this is the time to remember that you do have power.

It may not feel like much – your empathy may temporarily make you forget that you’re not like Brown, you’re not “one of us” and that in fact you are still one of “them” – but please try and remember how USEFUL you could be should you decide to be brave enough to speak up to the folks more likely to hear YOU than me.

I’m seeing one too many white people bragging about defriending other white people. I don’t need your condolences. I don’t need rash actions that absolve you of the responsibility of facilitating hard conversations with folks I will never be able to reach.

I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion. Because I will not do this. I cannot do this.

My rage as a black person witnessing yet another moment in the endless cycle of racism in the US prevents me from engaging in “level headed” conversations with people who see this terribly unjust Ferguson ruling as just another news story to banter about at the water cooler.

But you, don’t do me any further injustice by claiming to stand in solidarity with me while really (really) excusing yourself of the hard work that is engaging with fellow white people on this issue. Don’t hide behind “being a good ally” without actually doing any work beyond merely echoing my cries of pain, anger, and soul wrenching disappointment.

You’re a socially conscious white person? You don’t share *their* views? It’s disappointing to hear your friends say racist things? You don’t wanna talk to them? I hear you. I really do. But if you don’t speak to “them” who will?

Who will?

(Hint: Not me.)

So before you squander the opportunity before you in an attempt to demonstrate your solidarity, ask yourself which choice would be easier: unfriending the guy who attended your birthday party last year because he posted support of the non indictment OR responding to his post with an open ended question to begin a (likely long and strenuous) conversation?

What would a good… actually, forget good… What would a useful, valuable, effective ally do?

We need you to be brave, now more than ever. Stop with the Unfriending. Speak up.

And to those of you doing this already, thank you thank you thank you.

"This is me not caring."

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)

“You only know my name. You don’t know my story…” 

Afrofeminism: The What vs. The How

I’m often asked to elaborate (and in some cases, “define”) afrofeminism. I’ve spoken about how afrofeminism informs my work, explored themes about Love and Afrofeminism series on this blog, and I regularly share afrofeminist perspectives on current affairs and pop culture with my fans on Facebook.

From the work that I do and from the things that I say, I’ve seen quite a number of people over the past year or so been calling themselves Afrofeminists. In fact, just very recently, someone sent me a letter thanking me for offering her a new way to think about her own identity. She asked permission to call herself an afrofeminist because she dug my approach and could relate to most of my commentary, even though she actually had no idea what it meant! It turns out that connecting with people — or even inspiring them — doesn’t start and end with what you are but who you are.

So have I put forth a single definition? No. A single definition (of a single label, among many others I might add) wouldn’t actually help anyone get to know me. I rarely introduce myself using labels; I tell stories, instead… about growing up in Nigeria, about the first time I fell in love, and about the friendships my coming out broke then repaired. I’m so much richer experienced as a complex, whole being than as a cluster of politically correct, ideologically pure sentiments.

“Hi, my name is Spectra, and I’m an afrofeminist”? It would almost feel like cheating: here’s this cute little label that sounds like an amalgamation of afro and feminist, meaning she must have an afro and she must be feminist, and somehow that’s supposed to serve as a shortcut for people to actually get to know who I am. And then, I‘m supposed to gather in large numbers with people who dig the afro and/or the “feminist” and because we totally understand each other, we’ll be better equipped to change the world. Ha! That almost always backfires.

(Don’t believe me? Ask the white “women’s” movement. They still can’t seem to agree on what being a woman means, and are constantly up in arms about which women are being represented, silenced, side-lined etc. Meanwhile, non-women/everybody else is getting away with murder while women are figuring this out).

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists, Blablabla

Now don’t get me wrong; labels can be very useful in facilitating initial connections. But people get so hung up on them, activists especially. And as a society, we’ve become so narrowly focused on the theoretical “what” at the expense of the practical “how” of creating change, we’ve forgotten that change happens primarily through our personal relationships, not just passionate rhetoric.

The use of identity labels (the “what”) to build unity and shared understanding often sidelines the need to actually explore complexities and difference i.e. just “how” said identities intersect and manifest in different contexts; since a single word can carry so many subjective meanings for different people, movements are often stumped or stunted the minute they realise that not everyone’s “how” is the same or — even worse — not even functioning.

The Curious Case of “Allies” In General

If my detest for words and definition stems from anything at all it’s the “allies” I’ve experienced in both my personal life and my work as an activist. I’ve met hundreds of “white allies,” for instance, many of who profess their “consciousness” via some digital channel (e.g. an overly serious twitter bio or utopia-inspired vision statement) or, in person, via some self-congratulatory speech masquerading as a relevant anecdote… especially when surrounded by women of color.

“We white allies have so much work to do,” they’d go. “Women of color shouldn’t always have to be our teachers.” When I first heard this tune, it was music to my ears, and oh boy did I fall for it. It worked every. single. time.

“Oh my god, yes!” I’d exclaim, “Wow – truth! You’re seriously my favorite person right now!” (‘Cause it was my turn to offer music to their ears.) In retrospect, I realize that many of my initial responses to white allies were pre-programmed — a socialised reaction to ensuring that white women never lingered too long in their vulnerability without affirming their “goodness.” I resisted any responses that would risk making white people feel wrong–or exposed–in their self-righteousness. In fact, making them feel like they needed to *do* anything at all to earn my trust and respect as a woman of color always felt more like a risk than an opportunity. So I’d find myself dishing out exaggerated, empty, endorsements, couching my emotions in the elation I felt at even just the idea that a segment of white people had taken it upon themselves to give a damn about me.

But, here’s the thing: half the time, I never ever remembered their names, or remembered any of our conversations moving beyond the scope of the burden of racial consciousness they had taken up for themselves as “the good white people.” In fact, it took me quite a while to figure out that most of the “white allies” I’d meet in social change spaces (never – NEVER – at work, or at the grocery store, or in my regular every day life) were only ever “white allies” around women of color, and mainly to seek my/our approval.

I’ll never forget this one time a “white ally” had offered to volunteer at a professional networking event I was hosting for women of color a few years back; she’d insisted that she wanted to “do her part in supporting queer women of color community” by showing up and offering her help. She justified this act of good will with all the right rhetoric too: women of color rarely get this space, as a white ally I’m happy to do labor etc. Honestly, I felt so relieved and grateful for her support. I had no idea that her “help” would become my burden for the entire duration of the event.

It’s as though the minute she walked in, all eager and ready to be put to work, she realised that there’d actually be no more than a handful of white people at the event, and became really uncomfortable. “Oh wow, I’m one of the few white people, here…,” she said awkwardly, as she set down her bag and coat, “So cool.” [Replace with “Fuck! I’m not ready for this.”] So what did she do? This seemingly racially-conscious, well-meaning white ally followed me around like a nervous baby duckling for the entire event.  Yup, the entire event. She was so nervous about being left on her own to mingle and – god forbid – socialize with any of the women of color at the event, that she didn’t give me a single moment to have conversations with anyone else but her. Over 100 women of color attended my event that evening, and I don’t think I was able to really connect with any one of them because I had an over-eager, jittery, nervous white girl all up in my business every single minute.

I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered. Shoot, it was in a conference room of “white allies” that I found myself on the verge of tears (of anger and frustration), my voice shaking as I tried to explain to a privileged white gay dude that doing community outreach to people of color for a program that claimed to be advocating for diversity wasn’t a “distraction.” The “white allies” in the room sat back and watched the carnage as I pushed, and I fought, and I fell back, defeated. Then the “white allies” came to me after the meeting was over and denounced their brethren — “privileged white guy, he needs to do a lot of work on himself.” Apparently, being a white ally meant reminding women of color that they weren’t “those kinds” of white people, that they had our backs, just only ever in private, conveniently away from any of the actual emotional work involved in standing up to racism.

But here’s an afrofeminist principle for ya… “Relationships Over Rhetoric”

Don’t get me wrong — not all people who identify as “allies” do such a terrible job. I know dozens of self-identifying “allies” who hold themselves to a much higher standard, and actually practice their values. (Stay tuned, I’m running a series of interviews with them in June!). That said, terming oneself an ally doesn’t necessarily imply this standard. Some of my closest friends and family are the fiercest “allies” I have, but they’d never call themselves that. They’d insist, instead, that they’re being considerate, trying to get to know me better, or, as one of my best white guy friends says, “resisting against the default of being an asshole.” And you know what? I prefer it that way.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’d rather experience people–and their politics–through unlikely, awkward, strained, challenging, beautiful relationships built over time. That way, when we do clash or differ, we love each other enough to express the full range of our raw emotions – cry, yell, storm out – and always return to build the deeper, more intimate connections we need to take on the world together, truly united.

When someone fights for me, I want them to do so because they care about me as an individual – or as someone who reminds them of someone else that they care about – not just as some abstract theoretical concept. I’d rather that the “white allies”, the “straight allies”, the “male feminists” of the world do the work to build authentic relationships based on real love and respect, not just politically correct lexicon and rhetoric.

So, despite starting off as an activist who was really excited about the concept of “allies”, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found less use for words and definitions in social justice; labels like feminists, anti-sexists, radicals, allies etc simply don’t mean much to me anymore. Though I certainly see these ideas/concepts as a way of connecting with others initially, ultimately, relationships that last aren’t sustained by what you are to each other, but  how you treat each other.

Falling back on words and phrases that are intended to convey some sort of ideological purity won’t ever trump the transformation you’ll  experience within yourself (and others) if you truly put yourself out there — if you dare to be vulnerable, admit wrongs, take responsibility for your blind spots, hold your damn self accountable, an not for show, but for real.

So, screw the definitions; experience the ideas and world views through the relationships we build with people. Let’s commit to living in principle, and remain mindful of the core values that help us navigate our lives in the gray. Let’s embrace ambiguity, and its potential for unearthing surprise and disappointment in equal measure, because only through the natural bombardment that arises when we converse with strangers, can we learn more about the world, and about each other.

African Languages Spectra Speaks

What Kind of African Doesn’t Speak Any African Languages? Me.

AfropolitansLast year, I attended a conference that brought together African thought leaders. In a session about African identity, we explored the question of whether one could claim to be African without being fluent in any African languages. A passionate, and near disruptive debate ensued almost instantly.

What Language Do You Speak? (aka Do You Speak “Us”?)
I’ve had this conversation about language and identity time and again with Africans I meet on my travels. My afropolitan (i.e. world citizen) accent throws them off – a mix of American, Nigerian, and what’s often mistaken for British diction, simply because I enunciate my Ts.  (Perhaps it’s the remnants of attending a British-run primary school; not likely though.). Bread-breaking usually comes to a halt until the matter of my accent (origin) is cleared up. They simply must know which language I speak so that they can place me in one of two boxes: one of us, or one of them.

When I tell the cultural gatekeepers that I’m from Nigeria, and my accent is the result of living in the states for the past 12 years, they’re still not satisfied. “Are you sure you weren’t just born there?” they ask, “You don’t sound like you grew up in Nigeria.” I usually respond by asking them what a Nigerian who grew up in Nigeria sounds like, then hear some variation of “Like the people in Nollywood movies.” And when I tell them, I’m sorry to disappoint, I’m not an actress but an activist, I’m Nigerian through and through–I just went to the states for university, they deliver the kicker, “Well, prove it. What language do you speak?” The minute I respond with English (“Oh…”), it’s all downhill from there.

To Speak or Not to Speak: Assimilation vs. Accents
African ImmigrantsFrom tensions in Spain over mandating Spanish (versus indigenous languages like Catalan) to U.S. debates over bilingual education and attempts to ban speaking Spanish at school, the issue of language is a sore spot for many communities. Such language restrictions are often seen as direct attacks on minority cultures, especially for black immigrants who struggle to affirm their cultural heritage in the absence of their native language. Yet, ironically, immigrant parents in the U.S. are less likely to teach their children their native languages, for the purpose – or rather, the sake – of easing their assimilation into English-speaking culture.

The latter scenario resonates deeply with me. I grew up with a father who wasn’t fluent in his mother tongue, Agbor (a region-specific dialect of Ika), because his father had outlawed the language being spoken in the house. My grandfather–who worked as a civil servant during Nigeria’s colonial era–had valid reasons for doing so. In those days, speaking “proper” English meant you got the “good jobs,” which meant increased access to resources, and an improved livelihood for one’s family. Sadly, even though my father openly resents never having learned his family’s language, his wife–my mother–refused to teach me her native tongue, Igbo, for a similar reason.

nigeria educationColonialism did a number on Nigeria’s education system; as I was growing up, public schools were plagued with lack of resources, frequent strikes, cult violence, sexual harassment, and prostitution. Hence, my mother’s desire to see me succeed meant equipping me with tools to ensure I could thrive outside of the country I called my home. For instance, I would attend an international British-run private school, where white teachers would single out the only other black kid in the class for not pronouncing “stomach” correctly ( “stuh-muck”, not “stoh-mack” apparently); only an American or British university would do; I would not learn my native tongue until I spoke English “perfectly” and no longer risked picking up a “bad, Nigerian accent” that would make it harder for me “over there.”

You see, both my parents studied in Los Angeles in the 70s; on top of the (incomprehensible to me) racism of the time, they also faced American imperialist views and discrimination against “foreigners.” My mother was repeatedly rejected by employers for speaking too “harshly”, eventually forcing her to give up pursuing her dream career in television. It’s no wonder that every morning in my early childhood, my parents would wake up at 5 am to tape Satellite episodes of Sesame Street…They believed (or hoped) that watching British and American English programming would teach their children to speak “properly,” so they wouldn’t have to give up on their dreams.

The Blame Game: Colonialism, Forced Migration, and “Bad African Parents”
The Warmth of Other Suns - Black MigrationFor a long time, I resented my parents for robbing me of learning both my native languages. Later, I resented Nigeria for being so poorly-run that my parents couldn’t see me thriving anywhere but outside of it. Now, as I think about the players who created the environment I was raised to escape–who concocted a system so cruel it culturally orphans children for its own purposes, it’s become much harder to keep directing anger at my own family, and my own people.

My parents shouldn’t be crucified for acting in full awareness of the unjust systems that police indigenous cultures: the colonialist rubble left behind in Nigeria by the British Empire, and the resentment of Britain’s imperialist younger brother, the US of A, towards foreigners. Their fears were rational. Even today, my Puerto Rican partner, who manages a Spanish-speaking client support team at work, comes home at least once a week to vent about some caller’s rude reaction to a supervisee’s accent, dismissing them as un-educated, or ill-equipped to perform their jobs because they perceivably don’t speak “proper English.”

Still, while many immigrants are forced to sacrifice native language fluency, it’s important to note that similar negotiations around language, identity, and yes, accents, don’t just play out within the context of the migrant Diaspora. Many Africans living on the continent don’t speak their native languages, either. And, their reasons aren’t so different from their estranged brethren.

Black Immigrants in the US | Source: AP

In Nigeria, for instance, as a Delta-Igbo person living in a state dominated by Yorubas, I experienced much discrimination at school: regular tribalist diatribes from Social Studies teachers, punctuated by stereotypical Igbo impersonations from classmates.

The ethnic tensions that permeated my school dated back to when Igbo people had attempted to gain independence from the political mess the British left in Nigeria post-independence. These attempts, the result of colonial powers leaving certain ethnic groups in power over others, led to the Biafran war and genocide. The war had a lasting legacy: many Igbo students at my school didn’t speak their language (openly) for fear of being socially ostracized. Speaking, or at least understanding even broken Yoruba was a way of appearing more socially acceptable, to assimilate and survive.

Policing Africanness: Language, Globalization, and Cultural Access
African Colonialism

As is the case with many other colonized African countries, in South Africa, for example, the 12 official languages are the result of white men sitting down at a table, drawing squiggly lines around the region they wished to claim. They didn’t care about the diversity of peoples living there: not when they declared Afrikaans the official language of schools during apartheid, and not now when discussing the “under-achievement” of black youth while ignoring the impact apartheid’s indifference to Africa’s diverse cultures and languages has had on the struggle to reform education.

By the way: Afrikaans is not an indigenous African language, its origins date back to Europe settlers who spoke Dutch. Yet, there are South Africans (coloreds and blacks) who only speak Afrikaans or English due to similar circumstance e.g. migration, globalization, interracial adoption, etc.  Are they “less African” than the Black South Africans who speak indigenous languages such as Xhosa? Or Zulu? What about white people who migrate to Africa and learn to speak local languages? Are they now “more African” than Africans who do not, yet have been living in Africa  since birth?

Chill Out: Language is Just One Aspect of Culture

Contemporary Africans and African Diaspora in Design and Culture

My purpose isn’t to debate who is more African than whom based on language fluency (or even geopolitical circumstance). On the contrary: I don’t understand how anyone can cherry pick a single aspect of our culture as the arbiter of “authentic” African identity: Language. For sure, it’s important. But so is indigenous spirituality, traditional garb, family values, the arts. Culture comprises many elements, thus it makes no sense to police cultural belonging– cling to such a divisive hierarchy, based on the single factor of language, especially considering the lasting effects of our colonial history, and the impact of globalization on contemporary African culture.

I am also not using colonialism as an excuse to lessen the importance of learning our native tongues; language offers us a very obvious, easily detectable signal that someone is either part of our community, or not. You know this if you’ve ever walked into a Dominican bodega and had to ask for something in English, then watched as the eyes computed, instantly: “not one of us.” Furthermore, in many African cultures, the parts of our history that haven’t yet been erased or revised are passed down to younger generations, orally. In political protest, Fela Kuti, father of “Afrobeat”, and one of Africa’s most celebrated music icons, wrote most of his songs in pidgin in order to connect with the lay man who didn’t speak “proper English.” His son, Femi Kuti, has carried that tradition forward, and with that, Fela Kuti’s legacyIndigenous languages safeguard our stories in their hidden meanings and subtext, so much so that the mis-translation of a single word can create a completely different interpretation of history as we know it, and we’d literally lose ourselves.

Rise of the Afropolitans: NNEKA

Perhaps that’s why we stubbornly stick to fluency in “our mother tongues” as the yardstick for measuring “Africanness,” “our-ness,” “us-ness.” Perhaps the tune about real Africans being able to speak their mother tongues is only sung in protest against the hegemony of our colonizers’ languages. But is spiting them reason enough to spite each other? By perpetuating the use of a single cultural marker to create an hierarchy of Africanness, aren’t we simply deploying the same tools colonizers used to divide and conquer? Aren’t we essentially continuing the work the British Empire started?

We can do better.

There are a myriad of other identity markers that reveal the extent of both our sameness and uniqueness and make up the diverse African cultures that span the globe. Africa is complex–Africans, even moreso. Let’s not trade in our shared heritage for the exclusivity of an unjust social hierarchy. Let’s not , as our colonizers did, draw borders around poorly constructed monoliths. Our just protest for an Africa with linguistic agency must not turn us into the same masters of imperialist dogma we’re still yet to hold accountable.


Update: Line which initially said there exist South Africans who only speak English or Afrikaans has been updated to contextualize loss of indigenous/mother tongue language fluency happening due to globalization, migration, cross-cultural adoption, and other factors so as not to perpetuate that as the norm. (Thanks MR for helping me clarify!)

Masculinity and Sisterhood

Losing Access to Sisterhood: Tomboys, Masculinity, and the Unmaking of a Girl

When I woke up to International Women’s Day celebrations, the first thing on my mind wasn’t politics, but the personal connections I didn’t know I would forfeit the minute I stopped wearing skirts, traded in my long hair for a frohawk, and fell in love with a woman. 

I used to have a very close-knit circle of female friends; we defended each other from perverts at crowded bars, cried on each other’s shoulders, told each other we were beautiful whenever the world made us doubt that we were, and gave each other relationship advice, regardless of the gender of the person we loved.

We were sisters. It didn’t matter if we were tomboys or not. We were sisters. It didn’t matter that some of us wore skirts, and some of us wore shorts. We were sisters. That was all that mattered. Right?

Wrong. The second my gender presentation transitioned from straight girl femininity to queer masculine “inbetweener,” I lost most of my sisters. I’m a different kind of woman now. And all of a sudden women I used to call my sisters don’t know how to interact with me. I’m still a woman, but the reactions to my expression of womanhood have changed, drastically.

This is the kind of experience that informs my work as a media activist. I’m always thinking about which perspectives are missing from political conversations and representations in pop culture: who is being excluded? why? how can our political movements become more self-reflective so that we can identify who among us is being left behind, and become stronger advocates for the kind of progress that includes them. Incidentally, in the fight for women’s equality, the people most frequently excluded from consideration and celebration, often enough look just like me.

It’s been a few years since I wrote about the experience of being forced to wear a dress to my friend’s wedding (even though she knew I was tomboy). Yet, despite the political successes the women’s movement is celebrating today, not much has changed for me, professionally and personally.

Even within the open-minded, women’s activist spaces in which I find myself for work, I still have to endure not just the endless hours about boyfriend/husband talk (as though women can’t bond around any other topic), but also–after I attempt to contribute–the prolonged, awkward silences that follow once they realize my partner is a woman. 

My straight girlfriends–bless their hearts–enjoy inviting me to their favorite (straight)  nightclubs so they can maintain their perception of my being “normal”, but have no clue how uncomfortable it is to be a tomboy in a venue with a dress code policy that insists, “Ladies wear heels, Fellas button-downs and hard soles.” So, they’ll usually abandon me on the dancefloor to go to the ladies room for a “touch up”, or worse,  disappear into the post-nightclub meat market, leaving me exposed on a street curb as a prime target for drunk dudes to take out insecurities about their masculinity: “Was that your girlfriend? What, you think you’re a dude? You like pussy? I like it,too. I got a dick though.” 

Yup, that happened. I broke up with a friend over such an incident (and more since then).

I can’t tell you how many times my masculinity has been used to absolve other women (and men) of the responsibility of advocating for me; whether in the face of harassers on street corners, the gender-ed aisles of mainstream clothing stores, or even within the women’s movement itself, it’s as though people automatically assume I’m “stronger”, physically, mentally, and emotionally, just because I shop in the men’s department.

“Don’t worry about her. She can take care of herself.” 

But I have never experienced physical aggression from the world to the degree that I do now. From constantly dodging men who take it upon themselves to “put me in my place” to being ignored by women who’ve subconsciously decided that I’ve chosen “the other side,” I’ve never felt less safe and more in need of protecting.

Hence, in light of international women’s day, I can’t help but note how often my masculinity is the unspoken reason I’m excluded  from women’s spaces, and denied access to the very same sisterhood that nurtured my unwavering dedication to every woman’s empowerment. 

Since losing access to “the sisterhood,” I’ve been rebuilding my support network from scratch, one in which the full spectrum of “womanhood” isn’t just acknowledged, but celebrated: African feminists committed to building cross-movement alliances, queer “brown bois” leading national conversations about healthy masculinity, and progressive women of all shades and stripes, interested in seeing gender justice done in the media.

I am fortunate. But today, I’m also aware of just how fortunate I am to have experienced even this yearning for a sisterhood that I did have–at least at some point. Even as a tomboy/woman whose gender presentation is more masculine, though inclusion in women’s spaces plays out in odd and hurtful ways, my identity as a woman has never been questioned. But some of my sisters have never known that privilege. I know transgender women (born male, now living as women), for instance, that have never known the comfort, loyalty, and power of a female friend circle.

But, we are still sisters. It shouldn’t matter that some of us were born male and some born female. We are sisters in blood and numbers, in shared missions and shared struggles. That’s all that matters. That’s all that should matter… Right?

I’ll end with an excerpt from my contribution to Ms. Afropolitan’s Women’s Day post: a roundup of comments from African women responding to the question, “What Does Women’s Day Mean to You?” 

When I remember how my mother celebrated International Women’s Day–as part of a community of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of African women, dressed in bright colors, often laughing and dancing, holding hands–I think about how many African lesbians have been evicted from their sister circles, how many transgender women have never experienced unguarded female friendship. Women’s Day inspires me to keep writing my story so that my African sisters can get to know me, and to keep advocating for queer Africans like me who are still fighting–not just for women’s “rights” but for women’s community, sisterhood, Love.

Women’s Day should be a reminder to all of us to keep advocating for every woman’s right to love and be loved, even long after we’ve found sisterhood for ourselves.

Have you experienced being excluded from women’s spaces due to not fitting in to a heterosexist idea of womanhood? If you’re someone who believes in the importance of women’s spaces and sisterhood, how do you make sure to enact that ideology in your personal life? I believe masculinity is suffering from an estranged relationship with womanhood. What do you think?

Writing Our Way to Revolution

For Women’s History Month: Writing Our Way Back into History

Happy Women’s History Month!

There is a lot to say about women’s history. Yet, what is always at the forefront of my mind is that women’s history starts with me sharing my own story, contributing to the movement of millions of other women doing the same.

All morning I’ve been reading tweets about great women who inspired change — politically, socially, within the fields of science, music, the arts etc. It’s inspiring to see so much media that sheds light about amazing womens’ contributions to the history of the world, but let’s face it — not all of us are going to get interviewed on BBC, speak at a UN convention, amass the most followers on Twitter, or write a book that makes Oprah’s highly coveted reading list.

Does this reality make any of us less important? I don’t think so — but how many women from the everyday do? How many inspiring women — mothers, wives, teachers, students, scientists, artists etc — equate being a part of history with being a famous celebrity, or tech innovator, winning an election, or leading a political revolution? My guess is many. But, history doesn’t always have to be so dramatic to count — it just needs to be documented.

History, contrary to the popular misconception that the word is derived from “his” and “story” put together, actually has its roots in an ancient Greek word ἱστορία (hístōr), which can mean “inquiry,” “knowledge so obtained,” or — my favorite — “a written account of one’s inquiries, narrative, history.” Note that no part of the definition of history inherently suggests a limitation of “written accounts” to men, or white people, or any other marginalized group for that matter. So why have women’s stories been (and continue to be) left out of history?

Perhaps rehashing the etymological roots of a single word won’t change the  fact that history has long been recounted from the viewpoint of dominant society; Hollywood, arguably the world’s most influential movie industry is still run by white people, or men, or Americans (depending on which way you look at it); the op-ed pages of major news outlets — through which policy and thought leadership are driven — are also dominated by men who don’t understand women’s issues; and while stories of minority groups do make their way into history archives, the fact that they are often told from the point of view of the oppressor often leads to unrealistic, dehumanizing, biased portrayals of the people whose history is being documented for them. But, embracing the revelation that history is simply “a narrative accounted for” actually makes things less complicated:

In order to address the dearth of women’s histories — our stories, and voices being undocumented, under-valued, and falsely represented without reprimand — women must begin telling their own stories; we must essentially write our way back into history.

Incidentally, one doesn’t always have to “do” something huge to be someone important  — sometimes sharing the complex, intersecting pieces about ourselves (and inspiring others to do the same) can do just as much, if not more, to change the world.

For instance, I recently asked my straight, conservative, Christian brother — who does not consider himself a writer, by the way — to contribute a guest blog about his personal experience spending his first Christmas with me and my partner. At first he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hear from him; he even stated in the piece that he’s just “a regular guy from Nigeria.” Well, three months later, I still get emails from so many young people telling me that they used his piece to come out as gay to their families. Three months later, I still have African students walk up to me after I’ve given a talk to let me know that my brother’s piece changed their lives, that his “writing” gave them hope. I’m about to hire one of them as an intern this summer, an opportunity she describes as opening her world up to more African community than she’s ever been exposed to before.

And in case you’re tempted to point out that my brother’s a guy, it was no different when my younger sister contributed a similar piece, Confessions of a Straight Girl, two years ago; a high school teacher reached out to me then for permission to use her piece to lead a gender and sexuality studies class.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Well, even if I want to write, my life is not that interesting. I’m just a [insert perceived mundane role here that has everyone wondering why you’re being so self-deprecating] with nothing to say…” That is simply not true. Bertrand Russell (a man) once said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” When I think about how many boring history textbooks written by men are out there, it motivates me to keep writing, no matter how insignificant the voices in my head insist my perspective (on anything) is. And if positive-thinking doesn’t work for you, here are some other factors to consider:

  • Women are less likely to run for office in  part because they don’t feel “qualified enough”
  • “Mommy Blogging” has gotten the attention of a $750 million blog marketing industry; companies want to know what moms — not “experts” — think before they spend a dime developing new products
  • The It Gets Better campaign — videos created by regular people — has dramatically increased awareness of issues facing LGBT youth
  • There are too many men who really shouldn’t be talking (Rush Limbaugh and David Bahati come to mind) writing and saying all kinds of things, and even worse influencing millions of people with their biased point of view — shouldn’t we at least join them?

See, the problem with women not telling their stories isn’t just an issue of “balance” (i.e. we need men and women’s voices in equal measure), but an issue of “influence.” Thus, the reason I write as often as I do is not because I think I have more to say, but rather, there’s too much at stake in the world if I don’t say enough. So, in moments when I doubt my power to impact others, I’ve learned to tap into the deep dread I feel at the thought of someone else speaking for me, especially after I’m gone; someone giving my children their version of who I was instead of doing the work to make sure my children get to read my words. My writing ensures accountability to my voice, my perspective, my journey, my history, which is worth telling, and worth telling right.

So, for women’s history month, I challenge you to take charge of your own history, by writing it. Instead of passively sharing women’s history as recounted by others, how about you begin the process of formally documenting — journaling, blogging, creating art and media etc — about your own life? It’s simple enough these days: you could create your own blog using a free Blogger or WordPress account, sign up for Twitter and share snippets of your history using #myherstory.

Blogging and tweeting may seem trivial given the bigger picture of revolutionizing history, but tell that to the voters (29 and under) who  leveraged the power of social media to elect the first US Black president, or the people of the Arab Spring who tweeted, YouTubed and shared their revolution with the world, and in turn sparked many more revolutions — the occupy movements — worldwide. Yours truly will be participating in Gender Across Border’s Blog for International Women’s Day, thus joining thousands of women all over the world to celebrate this year’s theme, “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” Why not be one of them? Your words matter. Our words matter. Women’s words matter.

Whether you’re a teacher who educates young girls in a classroom, a mother of four who loves to write erotica, a hiphop artist who has a thing to say about gender discrimination in the music industry, a bus driver who bakes cupcakes, a sibling with an outspoken, queer, activist of a sister, please speak. Please say something. You have to — the world is counting on you.

Carol Film Review Spectra Speaks

CAROL Film Review

#RoadtoOscars… Reflections on CAROL.

I must confess — I have been avoiding this film. There was something about the wistful trailer overlaid with piano music that signaled the kind of drama I would resent for its resonance, particularly given all the crap I’ve had to deal with in Nigeria. It seems it doesn’t matter what time period or continent I escape to; girl meets girl can never just happen in peace.

In Carol, the film’s subtle narrative is sporadically interrupted by reality, be it sudden jolts back to the present from a female utopia with the intrusion of men’s voices; or stunning street scenes that the camera can’t seem to hold in focus. And while watching two women wade innocently towards their curiosities makes for good melodrama, the world all around them, made simple and nonsensical in juxtaposition, brought my own discouraging circumstance to the forefront.

I recall an evening my partner and I went out to dinner for a semi-business meeting. One of the men began to hit on me hard, and then put his hand on my thigh. I winced, and after a few minutes of my courage failing, asked him to remove it. I felt my partner freeze next to me, then reach for my glass of water, from which she took a long slip, most likely to keep from screaming. Loud music played in the background. The guy removed his hand laughing, then rubbed my shoulder in parting, almost the way you would pat a dog on the head for bringing back a ball. And our bond broke a little, in that moment, as we shared the dessert he had paid for, and then again, as the two girls who sat across from us chair-danced in sync. No one would know.

In Carol, much like being in love with another woman in Nigeria, the building and breaking of a forbidden intimacy in between the tiniest cracks of conversation, lingering moments, and the invisible parts of the mundane carry all the weight, and yet yield so little satisfaction. Girl meets girl and chases a happily ever after that seems to be constantly around the bend, and yet somehow, always out of reach, or dangerous, or both.

Cate Blanchett gives an absolutely breathtaking performance (as always). And Mara Rooney, though I don’t quite get the Supporting Actress nomination (more on that later), captures the curious innocence that so many of us, now fully bloomed rogues, can recall from our early days awkwardly navigating the thick hegemony of heterosexuality all around us, burdened by a latent, yet gnawing dissatisfaction, and armed only with a gut feeling that we could be loving, laughing, and f**king so much harder. Incidentally, Cate and Mara’s on-screen chemistry is refreshingly convincing, a testament to the two actors, and delicate direction by Todd Hayes.

The Verdict: I’m not sure this film will stay with me the way the “Saving Face,” or “Pariah”, pioneers in queer POC cinema did — two white ladies trying to figure out their lives and damning everything in the process, though typical of mainstream lesbian dramas, ain’t all that relatable on the surface. Yet, it’s hard not to appreciate the deference the film grants so many of us, especially those like me, worlds away, who have had to conjure and re-conjure love for each other, and ourselves, within the confines of society’s outdated definition of “normal.” CAROL’s courage to imagine a world in which girl meets girl could end with a happily ever after, though predictable, is perhaps exactly what we need to keep fighting for the same in ours.

What is Your Real Name Define Real Name

The Politics (and Privilege) Behind “Real Names”

This news story about a woman who used pseudonyms to create a Facebook account in order to protect herself from online violence, and then was ‘outed’ via their perfectly legal but aloof “real name” policy really got to me today.

Perhaps it’s because for some reason this week, so many people have been asking – often in rude, dismissive, invalidating ways – what my “real name” is. Well, here’s my answer…


Message in a Bottle

Define Culture

So… despite my tumultuous relationship with poetry, I recently committed to participating in ‪#‎NaPoWriMo‬ (National Poetry Writing Month), during which the challenge is to write a poem a day. I wrote something earlier this week that I’d like to share.

I’ve been a recluse about my writing lately so posting this publicly is part of my attempt to get back into the practice of sharing (rather than spend so much time lamenting all my writing’s imperfections). I hope to return to the practice the self-love I preach so often, and more regularly celebrate even the smallest of victories, like the fact that this piece of work didn’t need to be perfect to be done.

Note: I’d like to say a special thank you to one of my favorite poets, Idalia, for gently yet firmly nudging me to finish it and to the amazing friends I have who sent me the affirmation I needed to amass the courage to share it. 

Define “Culture.”

Attempt #1:
a simple roll of the tongue;
salt in the wound of history’s affair
with Spanish conquerors
that didn’t burn fast enough in the sun
to save nations from genocide,
or mothers from marrying
their daughters to the wrong ones;
if we define culture to be
a simple roll of the tongue
then I guess the murder of
a millenia of bloodlines
is justified as language preservation.

Attempt #2:
Culture is a cautionary tale;
If superstition were a weapon
then Africa would be considered
a nuclear bomb;
we would never have welcomed strangers
with cocoa beans and open arms
the way our government still does
to D-List celebrities and modern day missionaries, while
rich white housewives on the verge of a nervous breakdown
search for salvation in the smiles of orphans on sale.
If we defined culture as a cautionary tale
told by pale narrators who lack introspection,
perhaps we would have paid attention
when our grandmas told us
they could feel their left eyelids twitching
at the expectation of visitors upon our shores;
perhaps we never would have wished the mermen
who called us moors, “safe passage”
in our native tongues
as they staked their claim
and carved their names
into our homes.

To define culture…

Attempt #3:
A synonym for “Home”
Neither a place or person,
these days, home is a political position
– the privilege of passing through
unrecognized as
an intruder on lands built on the backs of your forefathers.
But to the generation whose parents
cast us across the Atlantic,
raised captive in colonizer lands as cultural orphans
who never learned
to speak their native languages,
– home offers compromise
and forgiveness
to those with even less familiar roots.
A synonym for home…
only ever understood
in absence or disenfranchisement,
in dearth or gentrification,
in silence,
in loss,
in ostracization,
like a place that could never exist
for two queer brown women
and their extended family members
to settle down,
raise a kid,
or join a yacht club.

Attempt #4:
To claim culture
– to testify survival
of a massacre,
a genocide,
a raping of nations.
to dispute discontent,
or belonging
to feign knowing despite
the frenzy of stabilizing
a leaking boat
Culture is a usurper,
a lost turn
adrift from harbor
as fleeting as seagulls
in ocean light
and as slippery
as oysters
in search of
an anchor.

Do you know where you’ve come from?
Or how far you’ve sailed from harbor?
What glass containers of sea water keep your memories of belonging afloat?


African Women Entrepreneurs in Tech Lean in Social Media Week

African Women Entrepreneurs in Tech “Lean In” for Social Media Week

Last year, for Social Media Week in Lagos, I organized CODE RED, an event that convened African women entrepreneurs in tech and media. The experience of watching women connect across sectors, exchange ideas, share experiences, and swap business cards was magical, inspiring, fulfilling. For this year’s Social Media Week (themed “Upwardly Mobile”), I hoped for a similar space and, so far, the program does not disappoint.

The first panel I attended – Face the Facts: Lessons from Leading African Women Entrepreneurs in Tech – was described as “a discussion on practical strategies for women and tech companies seeking more women talent,” featured a refreshing mix of women tech professionals and entrepreneurs, including:

Though the panel was only an hour long — which definitely impeded a deeper (and, honestly, more authentic and vulnerable) conversation about key challenges faced by women in the tech industry in Nigeria (another post, another day) — each of the panelists managed to offer the audience at least one nugget of wisdom acquired from successfully (and unsuccessfully) navigating their careers as women in male-dominated spaces. I’ve shared a few of them below, with a few of my own… Enjoy.

1. Tech and “Masculine” Aren’t Synonyms, No Need to “Man Up”

The FutureSoft CEO’s accounts of having her interest in technology constantly questioned (and, at times, dismissed) due to her very feminine gender presentation was poignant, and refreshing; I’ve seen way too many women entrepreneurs dress more “masculine” in an attempt to dissociate themselves from femininity’s (ill)perception as frivolous, unsubstantive, and less intelligent, than stand up to this harmful stereotype. (Funny, since I am yet to hear about women with more masculine gender presentations enjoying sexism-free careers, but hey…). Fact: Whether in heels, power suits, gender masculine or gender non-conforming ensembles, African women founders and CEOs are on the rise all across the continent.

2. Succeeding in Tech Isn’t Just About Knowing How to Code

Of all the women on the panel, the co-owner of Tranzit Nigeria (a local taxi app) seemed to be the most tech savvy (to me at least). Perhaps that’s why most of her remarks focused on the importance of developing other non-tech skills necessary for business. She encouraged women interested in careers in technology to adopt the habit of constantly assessing and investing in the development of broader skill sets. Her comment underscored an oft overlooked fact about tech businesses, which is that they are still businesses; women in tech need to acquire – or at least familiarize themselves with a range of skills (such as people management, finance & accounting, marketing etc) to grow, and ultimately succeed.

3. Knowing (Enough Of) Your Shit Is Enough

African women entrepreneurs in tech should be wary of imposter syndrome (an irrational worry that they won’t measure up if they don’t credential-up). Every single one of the panelists mentioned developing deeper technical expertise as a necessary path to success. I don’t necessarily disagree, but, in my humble opinion, there was almost a little too much emphasis placed on education and credentials, and not enough on raw talent, or even experiential learning. It makes sense that in order to combat the gender discrimination rampant in the tech industry, many women place more emphasis on the acquisition of technical skills and credentials higher than their male counterparts, focusing mainly on their shortcomings over their accomplishments. “You need to know your shit to compete” is often the mantra, and justification for passing up valuable opportunities. I offer an alternate: “Know (enough of) your shit, then go for it.”

4. Create a Support Network

Almost all of the panelists shared their positive experiences reaching out to other women – and men! – for advice and/or ongoing mentorship. The founder of Women in Tech Ghana expressed deep appreciation for a prominent long-time mentor in her life, and both the CEO of FutureSoft and Founder of Ella.ng cosigned the importance of seeking both emotional and financial support from friends and family. But just as a strong inner circle can be crucial to staying motivated, so can colleagues and acquaintances be to staying grounded. The co-owner of Tranzit Nigeria reminded the audience that reaching out to peers for constructive criticism – even if they happened to be outside one’s industry – could lend invaluable perspective.

Check Out These Other Awesome Women-Friendly #SMWLagos Events: 

The full schedule is available on Social Media Week Lagos’ website here.

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