Browse Category: The Political, Personalized

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.

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!)

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?

Open Letter to Africans for Africa Supporters: Love Is My Revolution

Dear Love Warriors,

I’ve been back in the states for almost two weeks, struggling with what words to send you in closing of my Africans for Africa new media training project. I’ve started about a dozen posts and letters, and have scrapped them each time. I’ve been crouched under the weight of so many emotions from this trip: gratitude, humility, pride, reflection, exhaustion, relief.

So where do I begin?

No words can amply describe what my #africansforafrica project has meant to me; no report could show you just how much *your* support of my –one single person’s — work has impacted so many others. But here’s an attempt to give you at least a glimpse:

A group of South African lesbians, who were virtually invisible online are *thriving* after my visioning, organizational development, and content strategy session with them. As a direct result of one of our discussions, they even changed their name to better reflect their philosophy and target audience. I’m in awe of their hard work and dedication to create a space for African Lesbians. Check out HOLAA (Hub of Lesbian Loving Action Africa) at

Sister Namibia (one of three Namibian feminist organizations I worked with), whose challenge was nurturing a wider audience for their magazine is now in the process of going digital and sharing some of their print articles online in order to engage an international audience. Check out Sister Namibia on Facebook:

A gender justice activist and educator in Jamaica, who’s been following my #africansforafrica updates, reached out to me to help plan a media and gender conference for women of African descent, a project that will no doubt reach hundreds more women’s rights individuals and organizations, but also create a visible pan-africanist network of social media experts.

In addition to a number of small towns and villages, I visited 7 major African cities — Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Johannesburg, Windhoek, Gaborone, and Accra; I trained over 60 different organizations working on a wide range of issues, including women’s rights, LGBT advocacy, youth empowerment, media and the arts for civic engagement; and, I trained ~400 activists, artists, and non-profit professionals in new media communications, including branding, blogging, and online fundraising.

On top of all this, I’ve spoken at schools, colleges, youth programs, and community events about the empowerment of marginalized communities via new media, afrofeminism — my spiritual approach to social justice,  the ethics of philanthropy, and, of course, the power of storytelling, re-writing history in our own voices.

Despite all of this, I’ve been waking up every day since my return, wondering how the hell this happened, and then recalling, almost instantly, that I didn’t do this; we did. In fact, you did. You helped me prove to the world that anything is possible with Love on your side, with Community on your side. And, I am humbled to have discovered, this year, that I’d earned both.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you all so much, for giving me one of the best years of my life, for trusting me with our collective mission to empower communities through media, for your continued support and solidarity of my work, and of course, for your Love.

Happy New Year.


ps — some of you should have already received postcards, T-shirts arriving in January! :)

Africans for Africa -- Spectra Speaks

Surviving the Holidays as Queer People of Color: Give the Gift of Media

I Don’t Know about You, But Responding to LGBT 101 Questions Over the Holidays Isn’t My Cup of Eggnog 

Queer Christmas Ad: "Someone Please Save Me."As a group that is routinely judged, shunned, and fighting for acceptance, we as LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) people are often pigeon-holed into playing the role of educator to the people that inflict the most pain on us, however inadvertently by our friends and family members (who some, or even most of the time really do mean well).

Given how heavily politicized LGBTI identities are (ie: constantly in the news as an issue for political debate) it’s challenging for our loved ones to get to know us as individual people versus some issue they’re not well-versed on or quite sure when and how to speak about.

They say the wrong things, often. So who’s the man in the relationship?” They believe and perpetuate stereotypes even when they mean to be supportive. You’re not a typical gay, flaunting your sexuality all over the place. They fear we’ll end up as the caricatures the media sometimes makes us out to be. I didn’t pay all your school fees for you to spend your time protesting half-naked in the street in glitter. And, unfortunately, given how much pain we’ve experienced at their words and their silence, we aren’t that great at helping them broaden their understanding of who we really are.

Our suffering decreases our emotional capacity to offer straight people the space and time through which they can explore their own feelings, and get their questions answered, a stalemate. But it doesn’t always have to be that way.

When I first started dating women, and came out to my siblings, first my sister, then my brother, I too was unsure of how to facilitate conversations about who I was, that is, without getting angry when they made callous statements that showed their lack of understanding, and, in defense, sound like a textbook e.g. (read in valley girl accent): “gender identity is separate from sexual orientation but heteronormativity causes society to conflate the two, which is totally problematic.” Goodness, who talks like that to their mother??

Teach Me How to Be an Ally

Moreover, it had taken me 20+ years to finally accept that I preferred to date women, and after this realization, I was still figuring out exactly what that meant. How could I have expected friends and family members to get on board immediately after I told them? Or even within a matter of weeks, or months? Shoot, less than five years ago, I was still wearing dresses until I realized that I felt more comfortable presenting as a more masculine person (much to the dismay of my poor mother, who dreamed of me in a beautiful, white wedding gown, and “well done-up” face she could boast came from her lineage on my wedding day — sigh).

As much as I yearned to be embraced (not just accepted, embraced) by my loved ones, it didn’t seem fair to my family (or even to myself) to expect that they would come to an understanding of this new me more quickly than I did. Nevertheless, placing myself directly in the line of fire — insensitive, inappropriate questions fueled by their curiosity (or judgement) — wasn’t working.

I quickly learned that forcing people to confront the elephant in the room (and there were many — more masculine clothing, a crazy frohawk, new friends, a compulsive habit of pointing out which well-liked celebrities were gay/lesbian/bi) wasn’t going to bridge the divide I felt growing between me and my siblings, or my parents. I couldn’t sacrifice my mental health for their education about who I was; I needed someone or something else to do the job.

Media Can Help Us Tell Our Stories (Even When We’re Not In the Room)

Audre Lorde: The Berlin YearsHence, just as I had searched for information that I could relate to, articles, films, people, I needed to encourage my family to do the same. Also, my support of their own process of (re)relating to me was critical; since dragging them to “rainbow parties” or “queer womyn of color sister circles” felt too extreme at the time. I didn’t want to make them or my friends uncomfortable, but I also wanted to avoid having to be their sole resource on LGBTI issues. Media was the only other way I could think of to appeal to their hearts, and evoke enough empathy so that they would do the rest of the work to get to know me again.

Back then (early 2000s), I didn’t have much to work with; most of the LGBTI films on Netflix, including the L Word featured mainly white privileged characters. But then, I discovered Saving Face, a film drama-comedy about two lesbian Chinese-American girls navigating family expectations about career and marriage. That film was the closest I had to reflecting the complexities of my identity as a queer person of color who was also an immigrant — another narrative that is also missing from mainstream media.

I remember making my sister watch the film, and noticing afterwards–even though she may not have–how it changed our conversations and relationship for the better. She loved the film so much because she could relate to the immigrant-in-America theme, the plight of the main character, who was torn between following  family tradition and making her own choices. After watching the film, my sister saw my own circumstance in a new light, making her my biggest advocate and ally within my family.

I remember my brother and his best friend cringing at a scene in Trans America where a trans woman was forced into a masculine gender role by her mother when she visited; long after the film ended, they shook their heads at how “mean” society could be towards people they didn’t understand. I remember the first time my brother said out loud that he could never see me in a dress again, “that it wouldn’t be right,” and knowing that Trans America had created the first opening for me to share that I never quite felt like a “regular” girl.

Our Greatest Tool for Social Change is Empathy (Through Storytelling)


There’s something about media that lowers our defenses and makes it easier for us to learn, to accept, to connect. Yet, when we talk about “pushing for change”, we often leave out how much media and pop culture–and the narratives they depict we can relate to–humanize issues, and ultimately influence the people we love (and hope to be loved by).

But it’s time for a paradigm shift. Instead of arming yourselves with jargon infused rhetoric about “systemic oppression” and “gender binaries”, I’m going to go out on a limb here: To your parents who don’t quite get it, your siblings who do but don’t know how to help you, your apathetic cousin who is reluctant to get involved, or your baby niece who isn’t quite the homophobe yet but is on a steady media diet of prince-and-princess narratives courtesy of the Disney channel and Nickolodeon, I suggest that you give the gift of media.

Here’s why: In a recent study on the effects of fiction (storytelling), researchers assessed the mood and self-identification of readers before and after popular fiction novels, and found that the overall empathy i.e. ability to relate to (and, in fact, see themselves as) one of the characters, significantly increased.

In a paper published in a psychology journal, Gabriel and Young write:

“… books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment….reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education.”

What does this mean for queer people of color? Our friends and our families are more likely to relate to who we are through a novel, a film, a song than they are a blog post titled, “How to Be an LGBT Ally.” It doesn’t mean that non-fiction articles, political campaigns, blog post “call outs”, and legal advocacy, are less important strategies, but I dare say they may not be as relevant around the average holiday dinner table.

In the face of funding cuts for the arts, and the constant (and annoying) trivialization of media as a tool for advocacy by LGBTI activists, it’s easy to dismiss personal storytelling, fiction, film, even music as powerful tools to invoke empathy and not just “social change”, but the stronger, closer interpersonal relationships that bring about this change. Still, we owe it to ourselves to invest in the relationships that matter to us the most by daring to facilitate critical conversations (in plain language!) about who we really are. So why not give your relationships a fighting chance and give the gift of media this holiday season?

What do you think of using media as a strategy to come out to friends and family? Have you tried this in the past? What was your experience? Also, not all media is ideal for the “101” conversations; feel free to suggest any other films, books, or music by queer people of color and/or the African Diaspora that you feel would be a great addition to this list. 

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