Browse Tag: afrofeminism

Love As A Revolution Sucks

Love as a Revolution Totally Sucks

Dear Reader,

I’ve missed this space. But I hope it hasn’t been too long since we last connected. The piece below came to me during a morning reflection earlier this week. I’d been experiencing interpersonal issues with someone very close to me and was wrestling with myself as to the best way through to the other side.

I’m not sure why I’m sharing it… I guess I’m hoping that others who’ve experienced deep feelings of frustration, with their beliefs or themselves, will reach out so we can at least give each other a virtual hug.

Here it goes,
Spectra

 

Love as a Revolution Totally Sucks

Leading with Love, especially when you’re hurt, angry, wounded etc, is so difficult, mainly because it’s… well, just plain unfair.

You will not explode, you will not explode, you will not explode...Really, to repeatedly “rise above” the most frustrating, painful, or otherwise emotionally debilitating situations due to racism, sexism, homophobia, other power struggles, or even our personal relationships, practically demands we deny our human instincts: to flee, to defend, to scream in the face of violence.

And all for what? For the sake of “elevating ourselves”, and in so doing, others, to a lighter, healthier place? Why should I have to bear the burden of elevating so many other assholes to a lighter place?? Why should people who continue to wreak havoc upon those with less power benefit from the rest of us trying to be our “best selves”?

On days like these – when I can feel my blood about to boil over, and I have no patience to teach others how to treat me better, and would rather just open my mouth and use my literary talents for revenge, I have to remind myself that the alternative is much worse.

Succumbing to my emotions, placing my own needs above everyone else’s, reacting from a place of anger, pain, and whatever else – especially against people who I do not understand, and I feel so strongly have wronged me in some way – doesn’t make me any better, or different; it just makes me a hypocrite.

And I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I want to use as many tough moments (as I have capacity) to practice re-centering myself in compassion. I want to nurture my curiosity about others feelings and emotional contexts so diligently that it eventually begins to kick in more often than my survivalist instinct to fight or flee.

I want to walk the talk, practice what I preach, be able to look others and myself in the face, and do much better than say “do better”, but “well done.”

That said, I’m human. So, on some days, my emotions do get the best of me, and I clam up, retreat, raise my voice, say mean things, and I let myself down.

Rather than beat myself up, I need to remember that this is okay, too. Because it reminds me that I’m no better than the folks I’m trying to “rise above.” That personal growth is one half perspective, and one half harsh truths. And that the most important thing to remember isn’t the person you are, or even the person you’re striving to be, but the journey that exists between the two.

Don’t ever stop trying.

Love As a Revolution Always Wins

"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.

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?

Caribbean Jamaican Feminists

Celebrating Audre Lorde with Jamaican Feminists: Activism, Self Care, and Virtual Sisterhood

Caribbean Jamaican Feminists“What specific things do you do for self-care? What does your routine look like?”

I was asked this question today while participating as a virtual guest at an Audre Lorde appreciation event just outside of Kingston, Jamaica. The event was hosted by SO(UL) HQ, a collective which creates alternative community spaces for discussion and exploration of the arts, culture, spirituality, and social justice.

Each month, SO(UL) HQ invites community members to an informal social activity in physical and/or virtual spaces called HQs–e.g. for film viewings, discussions, creative workshops, etc–then the organizers facilitate a cross-movement conversation with contributions from international guests, who can participate virtually via Skype.

In celebration of Audre Lorde, black lesbian activist, writer, poet and historical icon, who wrote about writing and self-care (including one of my favorite poems, “A Litany for Survival”), I’d been invited–along with Kim Katrin Crosby (activist and co-founder of the People Project)–to speak about my work as a writer and media activist, as well as elaborate on my ideas about using Love and Afrofeminism as a framework for social justice.

From Attempted Suicide Survivor to Media Activist

For my opening remarks, I shared the story about my struggle to come to terms with my sexuality as a Nigerian woman on a very white, American campus. I spoke of the severe depression I experienced as I continually failed at locating any support systems, individuals or information to accept my wholly, as an African women who loved other women. I spoke of the hopelessness I felt when I couldn’t find a single book, or movie, with queer characters or stories that could convince me (and my family) that I wasn’t the “abomination” all the Nigerian/African online forums made me out to be. I spoke of the simple, yet deeply-rooted desire to see myself reflected as a part of society–to feel that I was, in fact, normal, and how that seeming impossibility prompted me to attempt to take my own life, for relief. 

Despite the pain of having to recount that memory often, I celebrate my survival and bold critique of the systems that still put the lives of young queer African girls in jeopardy. My attempted suicide may have been the event that sparked my journey towards becoming a media activist, but it’s done so much more; it’s the reason why mental health and self-care are prominent themes in my work, and my writing, and the reason I choose Love (for self, for others, for community) as my framework for social justice

Sustainable Activism: Self Care and Virtual Sisterhood

Your Silence Will Not Protect You During the event, this disclosure prompted more questions (and conversation) about what it means to build sustainable movements. After all, so many of us have  been spurred to action by painful and, at times, traumatic experiences: how do we continue to drawn from such turbulent beginnings without letting them weigh us down emotionally?

How do we find spaces to affirm that kind of pain–and its overcoming–as victory? How do we hold in our hearts, the stories of others, some similar, some way worse, and maintain principled temperance in our advocacy? And, since the work of an activist is social (especially for the many of us who work outside formal structures, and thus, don’t get to ‘shut down’ at the end of the day), how do we create a support network for ourselves, and for each other that we can access when we need to? 

After participating at SO(UL) HQ’s event today, I’m inspired to create more virtual social spaces for sharing and healing, for myself. I’d been fighting a winter slump for weeks–low energy, writers block, feeling moody and isolated from seasonal depression–thus I hadn’t expected that the experience of participating in a virtual event would end up feeling as rejuventing, as uplifting, and as warm as it did. But it did, and I’m much better for it.

The setup was simple enough: the event took place at a casual community space, where the group watched a short documentary about Audre Lorde, before Skype-ing in the guests. The room radiated the kind of intimacy associated with a sleepover, not a formal event; a few women sat cross-legged on the floor, while others sat in chairs (one with a really cute baby). 

African Caribbean Feminists

It’s no wonder I felt completely at ease chatting about my life and work; I could have been right there with my Caribbean sisters, sitting cross-legged on the floor, or lying stomach-down, propped up by my elbows. Thirty minutes later, I ended my session with the women at SO(UL) HQ feeling so nourished, so joyful, and so inspired that I’ve since been reflecting on the plethora of ways activists can use video conferencing and other tools to more intentionally create on-going support networks for themselves.

As a media activist, I often write about how social media can be used to amplify the voices of marginalized people, combat lack of diversity in media, and offer a means through which people with shared experiences and values can connect. For sure, regularly connecting with others with who we share affinity and can lean on for support (as part of our self-care practice) is included in this, but chances are that if even I–Ms. Self Care Evangelist–forgot, perhaps we all need more regular reminders.

Sharing is Caring: Nurturing Intentional Community–Online or Offline–is Self Care 

I’m grateful for having such a positive experience connecting virtually with Caribbean feminists today–so grateful that I’m newly inspired to rehash my goals for facilitating regular discussions about self-care in my online spaces. I don’t have all the answers, not by a stretch. Still, after today, I’m relishing the comfort of knowing that I’m connected to a number of inspiring activists–online and offline–who are just as committed to practicing self care and sustainable activism as I am. 

This blog, my Facebook Page, and Twitter @spectraspeaks, are part of my virtual self-care support network. A place where I do feel relatively safe sharing my story, my struggle, and my successes. Your readership is a part of that, so thank you for continually encouraging my efforts to foster more dialogue around mental health in our communities. 

Stay tuned for my next post, “7 Everyday Self-Care Principles All Activists Should Follow”, in which I’ll be sharing lessons I’ve learned from my own personal journey. We may not all be in physical space together, but–as my Jamaican feminist sisters at SO(UL) HQ reminded me today–we don’t need to be in order to reach out and support each other.

Do you have a strong support network? Is it offline, virtual, or both? What tips would you give others seeking supportive community online? Have you experienced virtual sisterhood? In what ways does it compare to sister-friend circles offline? 

 

Africans for Africa -- Spectra Speaks

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 http://holaafrica.org/

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: http://www.facebook.com/sisternamibia

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.

Love,
Spectra

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

Africans for Africa -- Spectra Speaks


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