Browse Tag: people of color

Queer Christmas Ad: "Someone Please Save Me."

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. 

Spectra for Spirit Day

On Anti-Bullying Campaigns, LGBT Youth of Color Suicide, and Why I Never Supported Spirit Day

I didn’t sign into Facebook that morning. I knew what I’d see; a timeline of status updates and cropped purple photos for Spirit Day; a timely performance of empathy. I knew, too, that my Facebook feed, practically segmented into Lists, including one for “Nigerian”, “College” and “Queer” would vary in hue, with barely any purple love coming from the Nigerian feed, and my white, queer, progressive community in Boston leading the way. I wanted to have nothing to do with it. And I needed to clear my head. So, I got dressed, grabbed my gym bag and headed out.

The train ride on the way to the gym was the worst. I remember being sandwiched between two white women, both wearing varying shades of purple; one, a neck scarf, the other a hat. As I sat squished between them, one fiddled away with her smartphone while the other scanned the Metro paper, her nose slightly tilted upwards as she peered at the headlines through her glasses. I wondered how I could sit so uncomfortably between symbols of awareness and still feel so invisible. I wondered if they could tell from my baggy jeans, hoodie, and messy frohawk that I used to be one of the kids they were supposed to be supporting that day; that I still remembered the night I tried to take my own life like it was yesterday; that, even as an adult, it was still hard to talk about bullying, both aggressive and the silent kind from my family, without crying.

My eyes glided along the line of people sitting in front of me: purple, no purple, no purple, purple, purple. Which of the purples would look up and notice me? I lowered my head, and turned up the volume of my ipod. I remember the song: “Wavin’ Flag” by K’Naan. “When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag.” I shut my eyes and counted the number of times the train doors opened as I anticipated my stop.

When I stepped in the gym, I sighed a breath of relief. No signs of purple. Just the same older white lady walking steeply up a treadmill, swinging ponytails on the elliptical machines, and a muscular black guy getting in his warm-up run before hitting the weights. I headed downstairs to the basement–the unspoken “men’s area” of the gym– where grunting and clanking bar weights replaced the soundtrack of the morning TV upstairs. I preferred this part of the gym; the men didn’t stare at me for quite as long as the white women did upstairs; muscular black girl, or something. Maybe she’s an athlete. Why aren’t her legs shaved?

During my workout, I’d tried to drown out thoughts about my time at school with angst-filled music (Linkin Park, Eminem, Kelis), but my mind had kept going back to the sensationalism of Spirit Day, how futile it was that everyone would be wearing purple. How would any of this support young people? What would any of this have meant for me when I felt judged and ostracized in school.

I’d been the only girl in my computer science class; no one had reached out to me when they picked group members to tackle problem sets with; the black women’s student group hosted more discussions about “Black Men Dating White Women” and “How to Date Like a Good Christian” than they did anything else; and when I sought support, my racist academic adviser told me she felt I was using my “status as a minority student” and “gay issues” to avoid admitting that I wasn’t smart enough to be at MIT; meanwhile the GSA was filled with queer white students from the theater department, who didn’t understand I had to work on weekends. What good would a campus of purple outfits have done for me then? It was I who had felt invisible, then, and today.

I felt the strain of the weights and my memories weighing me down as I finished my last set, and decided to call it quits for the morning. I grabbed a towel and headed for the locker room, not the men’s one this time. I could never get away with that, not yet. By the lockers, I braced myself for the eyes that would question my presence until they noticed my breasts. Then decided to change in the furthest corner of the room, away from the possibility of interacting with anyone.

As I untied my shoelaces, two white women chatted about an upcoming second date after work. “We probably won’t spend too long at dinner, I told him we had to meet up with the party at 9 for the surprise.” Life for others always seemed so easy, so straight-forward. Even though I’d been living with my girlfriend of two years, she still hadn’t met all of my friends, especially the black girls who claimed to be “cool with it” but never asked about our relationship, or pried too deeply into any part of my personal life for fear of having to feign acceptance via nodding vigorously to everything I said, never uttering a word until I changed the subject. My parents were really good at this. I dreaded pleasant phone calls, intimate conversations filled with sharp silences that pierced my resolve.

The locker room had gone quiet, save for another black girl with shoulder-length pressed hair getting dressed across the room. As I jammed sweaty clothes into my gym bag, my chest tightened with anxiety at heading back out into the world, purple reminders of the silences that had left me feeling ashamed, invisible, and one night, without any hope that I thought it would be easier if I swallowed some pills and left my journals behind for solace, that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but mine; that it had become too hard to persist through the world surrounded by so much silence.

I’d been drowning in my thoughts, fighting with the tension I felt between wanting to have a normal day and not focusing so much on the emotions triggered by what the day meant. But then, something special happened. As I began to make my way towards the entrance, I noticed the black girl was now fully dressed, in black pants, a gray jacket, and underneath, a bright purple sweater. She’d caught my gaze, but before I could awkwardly take my eyes away – an instinctive reaction I’d developed after hearing one too many black women profess being uncomfortable around “women like me” (especially in locker rooms), she did something completely unexpected, she smiled at me.

She smiled at me. Me with my awkward, scruffy masculinity in the locker room. Me who’d never imagined that the weight I carried in silences from the diaspora communities I’d once called “home” could be lifted in a simple gesture; a smile that meant I’d been seen.

I smiled back, shyly. Perhaps a tad too widely, as her warmth had caught me off guard, before leaving the locker room. When I stepped outside, I saw purple everywhere, and realized that I was still smiling. All of a sudden, it made sense. What I’d needed during all those times I’d felt bullied and ostracized, wasn’t just a campaign against bullying, but a group of people saying out loud that it was okay to be me; what I needed to believe the night I tried to take my own life, was that it was possible for the communities I loved to see me, and still extend love.

Now, standing under the sun, searching for purple in strangers, the tension I’d been carrying all day melted away. And, in its place, came hope. I thought about the thousands of young people walking through hallways, their heads down out of habit, only to look up and see someone smiling at them. I thought about the assumptions I’d made about the men at the gym, grunting and puffing as they curled 50 pound dumbbells; perhaps they felt invisible as well. I hoped they’d be comforted by the smiles around them. I thought about how much just one smile had meant to me that morning, and how much more it would mean to youth of color all across the country, if they saw so many other older people of color proudly wearing purple as a stand against anti-LGBT bullying, as a stand for Love. I thought of myself, as a masculine of center woman of color, and what my wearing purple could mean to the younger, awkward, lonely version of me.

When GLAAD announced their campaign for Spirit Day that first year, I admit it; I was a cynic. I was part of the group of people that dismissed it as a bandwagon campaign run by white people that didn’t get the complexities faced by LGBT people of color shouldering multiple burdens—as a person of color facing racism from the gay community, and homophobia from our own families and communities. But after my experience at the gym that day; I see both the importance of being seen and being visible.

If you’re anything like me, a campaign to stand against anti-LGBT bullying may not resonate as deeply with you, but I’m hoping that a day dedicated to making sure LGBT youth from all cultural backgrounds know that they have allies in their own community will.

As an attempted suicide survivor, I don’t need a campaign to remind me to fight every day for queer youth. LGBTI Africa, Queer Diaspora, I shine so that you can. Even when you are most doubtful, when you cannot see the light ahead, remember this: You are never alone. Never. I made it. You will too. Stay believing. I love you. Happy Spirit Day. ~Spectra



Not (Just) Another Queer Movie: My Afrofeminist Review of Pariah

Originally published at

Wait a minute, not all lesbians in movies are white, rich or middle-class with no bills to pay? You mean “life” doesn’t get put on pause so that all gay people can experience the thrill of coming out at summer camp? And, there are other LGBT issues worth talking about besides marriage? Gasp! And Hallelujah for Spike Lee protégé Dee Rees’ Pariaha film women of color (and other marginalized groups) can truly relate to.

On the surface, Pariah is a coming of age story about an African-American lesbian, Alike (pronounced “Ah-LEE-kay”) in Brooklyn. But dig deeper, and you’ll see a smart and layered tackling of gender, sexuality, religion, and even class — an essential layer of complexity needed to accurately portray the diverse experiences of queer people of color, long been absent from mainstream LGBT films. Rather than depicting homophobia as the only kind of oppression experienced by the LGBT community, Pariah’s world is a varied socio-cultural landscape in motion featuring an all-POC cast, led by Nigerian actress Adepero Oduye’s performance as 17-year old Alike.

Pariah’s urban setting almost eliminates the need to discuss race at all (or, as in popular case of experiencing race through white characters, explain it). The audience is plopped, un-apologetically, right in the middle of a story filled with black characters, making way for intersectional observations about class and gender roles within the story’s cultural context.


The film opens with an unfocused, low-level street shot of baggy jeans, dangling belt chains, hard-soled shoes, and the dirty pavements of Brooklyn. We hear the sound of women socializing, and then some unexpected song lyrics:All you ladies pop your p-ssy like this. We’re immediately placed in the scene of a nightclub, in front of a stripper who is somehow managing to slide up the pole, and slapped in the face by Rees’ over-the-top interpretation of coming of age as a young lesbian of color: loud club music, a hyper-sexualized social environment, a group of tomboys (“studs”, “butches”, “aggressives”) throwing money at a stripper in a bothersome (yet, admittedly, amusing) re-enactment of heterosexual masculinity, while a small voice in our heads may be wondering if we’re supposed to be down with all of this.

But just as we are beginning to question what we’re doing in the theater, we meet Alike and see that her world is upside down, too, literally. The frame is rotated upright to reveal a slender Alike, dressed awkwardly in a wide-striped, oversized polo, black do-rag, and fitted lid, staring at the pulsating pelvis of the stripper, and doing so with a confused, yet curious expression on her face.

Her discomfort is made even more apparent when we meet her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), a huskier and much more aggressive tomboy (who claims to “get more p-ssy than yo’ daddy”), acting as Alike’s enthusiastic chaperone in this bizarre rite of passage. Dressed in a red lid and popped-collar track jacket, Laura embodies masculinity more confidently; after she finally gives up trying to get Alike to “get that punani“, she proceeds to grind with a heteronormatively feminine (“high femme”) black lesbian in a gender-polarized mating dance.

Conversely, as Alike heads home on the bus alone, we see her vulnerability exposed under fluorescent lights: she begins to slowly strip herself of the masculine lesbian identity she’s hiding from her family. She reluctantly slides the lid and do-rag off her head to put her natural hair (twisties) in a ponytail, pulls off the over-sized polo to reveal a fitted tank top hidden underneath, and finally, puts a pair of earrings back on her ears in a heart-breaking act of gender conformity.

Despite the nuanced depiction of gender and class, Pariah doesn’t hit us over the head with analysis: the characters don’t explain why they each dress differently (urban streetwear to preppy to chic, and more), why they are of different financial circumstances, or why their accents are different; they just are. Alike, for instance, is evidently a “softer” tomboy as described by some girls at her high school. She’s also an aspiring writer, and (most likely due to the part of the city in which she was raised) has very different diction from Laura, whose vernacular is filled with slang, curse words, and the N-word as a term of endearment. In turn, Laura’s friends behave in a manner that’s very similar to cisgendered masculinity: they wear all men’s clothing, drink beer, play poker, and (of course) have beautiful girls sit on their laps as trophies. Yes, lesbians can be sexist too, but Dee Rees’ thoughtful character development steers the screenplay away from the danger of telling a single story.

In the past, the dominant movie narrative that existed for lesbians on screen, for many, depicted an unrealistic social context: all lesbians are white and heteronormatively feminine (AKA “lipstick lesbians” like Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound), they have sex by making a performance of moaning the same way the women in straight porno films do (too many to name, but the most annoying sex scene for me comes from indie flick Chloe — an extended makeout session, really?). Meanwhile, no one seems to have any money problems as they can throw huge weddings they don’t even show up to (Imagine Me and Youthe infamous L Word non-wedding) and 2-dimensional side characters with no real lives of their own, exist simply to react (whether negatively or positively) to the “lesbian” issue (a la the saintly and unfortunate husband archetype in The Hours).

In many of these films, homophobia (besides the expected relationship drama) was often presented as the singular obstacle to the main characters’ happiness. Thus, the combination of the afore-mentioned archetypal elements and the perpetuation of single-issue hurdles for LGBT characters, for me, wove together a series of feel-good lezzie flicks that all said the same thing: “Please leave these two pretty and privileged white girls who just want to fall in love and live happily ever after in their color-blind world (which, by the way, contains no people of color) alone, okay?”

Considering what the film industry was like even just a decade ago, most people would concede that in the face of Hollywood’s focus on hegemonic straight relationships, movies that featured gay or lesbian characters at all were pushing the envelope. Indeed, many of us queer women were thrilled when The L Word came out. After all, it was on Showtime — widely accessible to our straight friends, who we eagerly organized viewing parties with so we could watch them experience what our lives as lesbians were like, sort of.

We didn’t all wear high heels and runway dresses; the lesbians at the clubs I went to certainly didn’t sport that level of Hollywood glam. Many of us were puzzled by the main characters’ financial means to spend lavish amounts of money eating out at fancy restaurants, throwing parties in LA mansions, and getting married, but we tuned in every week to follow the lives of a group of rich white feminine lesbians, because there weren’t any alternatives. Plus, sitting through a film with gay characters was a sure way to test a reaction from your friends before you came out. The show’s false sense of reality gave us hope that if we were to come out to our friends and decided to live our lives openly as gay people, life would remain relatively normal; we’d have girlfriends, get married (that’s what all gay people want to do, right?), adopt children, experience the occasional awkward family dinner, but ultimately, live happily ever after.

This is what sets Pariah apart from (white) singular-narrative LGBT films; it debunks the myth that life begins and ends between the point of self-acceptance… and a wedding.

The movie’s skillful orchestration of empathic story-telling and strong performances enables us to move beyond the scope of Gay and Lesbian 101 to tackle other kinds of oppression, including the further marginalization of LGBT people of color. Alike’s family lives comfortably, allowing her to spend most of her time socializing and pursuing her interest in the arts. But Laura, who is the same age as Alike, was forced to drop out of high school when her mother kicked her out, and works overtime to help her sister (who she lives with) pay the bills while studying for her GED. Through Laura’s narrative, the audience is given a glimpse into the experience of many LGBT youth, who are forced to seek refuge and community outside of their families, risk being homeless for being themselves, yet, must keep on.

It’s a sad observation, but then again isn’t it high time that gay films which grab major distributor attention do more than just perpetuate extremely tragic or fairytale conclusions to a now-engaged and curious public, and present LGBT stories in all their diverse manifestations, which does include the narratives of people of color, working class people, homeless youth, and sometimes, people who are all of the above? It’s no wonder thatPariah — along with peer releases Circumstance and Gunhill Road — has received critical acclaim for its much-needed exploration of LGBT people of color living life at the intersection of many types of societal challenges.

But don’t get it twisted. Pariah is definitely not a sob story. In fact, the movie is filled with timely and endearing moments of humor and awkwardness that make the hold-no-punches backdrop easier to swallow; the familiar sibling banter that ensues when Alike’s younger (and brattier) sister threatens to tell on her for having a “gross” flesh-colored dildo, a cringe-ful dinner table scene during which her parents describe how they “hung out on prom night”, and Alike’s frequent and ill-timed giggle spells whenever she’s around the girl she likes. The film’s strong undercurrent of family and relationships guarantees that there is something in it for everyone (no need to fear the discomfort of watching a lesbian sex scene with your parents either — Dee Rees keeps it PG).

Dee Rees has created a motion picture that the larger LGBT community can be proud of, and in which people of color can see themselves carefully and sensitively projected. She may be the black lesbian Tyler Perry (in a good way). Let’s hope we see more of her.

Transgender Does Not Always Equal Transitioning copy

PSA For Transgender Awareness Week: Transgender Doesn’t (Always) Equal Transitioning

About a month ago, I wrote a write on my tumblr account in response to numerous inquiries from people right after I disclosed that I was gradually accepting a shift in my gender identity (i.e. feeling way more masculine than I do feminine) about when I would be transitioning. Na wa oh.

So here it is for those of you who didn’t get to read my Rant — Transgender Doesn’t Always Equal Transitioning:

I don’t even feel like I have to explain myself further than this. If I do, I’m talking to you, and I leave you to google, wikipedia, investigate, get some god damn perspective on class privilege.

Not everyone has the means to transition — that includes dollars, family support, community etc. And even beyond means, not every transgender person wants to medically transition.

No one’s trans* identity should be called into question simply because the path laid before them has been dominated and dictated by white trans male coddling media.

Just like not all people of color, lesbians, muslims, immigrants, women etc look the same, not all transgender people look the same.

And just so I’m clear, not every transgender person looks like Chaz Bono.

If one more person asks me ‘when’ I plan to transition, or asks me how I can affirm my gender without having transitioned, or suggests that I’m confused simply because I don’t go by ‘he’ pronouns all the time (as if femininity hasn’t always been badass enough to hold and birth masculinity in the first place), I will explode / burst into flames.

How’s that for hormonal.

I was obviously feeling quite angry and frustrated when I wrote that post. It lasted only a while, and have since then been replaced by a nagging obsession to answer the question: what would transitioning look like for me — a queer Nigerian (who still has fantasies of moving back home permanently)? I promise to attempt to address this more fully in a blog post very soon.

To be continued…

Feeling Like an Immigrant on Halloween?

An Immigrant’s Halloween: Blackface, Ghetto Parties, and Disney Princesses

Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make. But before I tell you my secret, you have to promise not to laugh at me. Okay? Alright, good. Here it goes:

I’m thirty years old and I’ve never once dressed up for Halloween.

There, I said it. Is that a big deal? Apparently, it is. I had someone go “Aww, you must have had a rough childhood!” and pout at me the other day. I felt so immigrant, in the way I’m sure many immigrants would understand. Kinda like the way you mispronounced words until someone finally corrected you, and you wondered how long you’d been mispronouncing them and why no one had ever said anything. Poor African. Funny accent. How unfortunate. Don’t laugh. Let her keep talking… and no Halloween? Oy. But I digress.

I’m from a place in the world (Nigeria) where black magic isn’t just found in the movies; stories of husbands attempting to poison their wives in order to sacrifice them to some Babalawo that promised riches in return aren’t told around a campfire; they’re relayed with the seriousness of a child kidnapping (which happened often for similar reasons) and a firm warning for everyone to keep praying for protection because you never know what spells, juju, or whatever else someone may be chanting about you.

Where I come from, Halloween only happened in the classrooms of white/foreign-run primary schools in which little white girls in swinging ponytails dressed up as sparkling fairies, bright-colored caterpillars, wealthy blond princesses, and an occasional culturally appropriated icon — Nefertiti, Cleopatra, a Geisha. Their mothers would sometimes bronze their faces with brown makeup — bought specially for the occasion? —  to make the costume appear more “authentic”. I remember wishing that I could be Nefertiti, or Cleopatra… they were beautiful African goddess, but usually portrayed as light-skinned (which both the cute mixed heritage boys and dark-skinned Nigerian boys at my primary school seemed to like).

I was one of the darkest skinned girls in my classroom, and though I had really long hair, I knew that I would never be able to get it to fall (or sway) like the swinging ponytail leads that dominated our school plays. I also knew that my parents would never have spent money on shiny gold material and Egyptian arm bracelets for a holiday they believed was just about “white people celebrating witchcraft”, so I looked forward to attending school in the United States, where I could fully immerse myself in Halloween, just like in the movies; I’d actually get to see, touch, and carve a real pumpkin, trick or treat without worrying about being kidnapped and sold for parts to juju people, and finally wear a witch costume — complete with a tall hat, green face, and yellow teeth — without teachers accusing me of selling my soul to the devil. I had such simple aspirations.

But during my first semester of prep school in the US, the costumes I saw were less childhood coloring book and a little more… R-Rated. My first Halloween weekend was freezing cold. Okay, it was just 60 degrees, but it felt like the Himalayas to me back then. So, there I was wrapped unfashionably and unfestively in heavy fleece layers of brown and black that resembled a moving laundry heap, while my classmates pranced around in adult-sized furry onesies and hormonal teenager garb. I remember the long line that stretched like a Noah’s arc procession of adult fairytale creatures from the the student assembly hall into the common grounds outside.

I recall the familiarity of the swinging blond ponytails — it seemed they ruled playgrounds even tens of thousands of miles away from my home across the Atlantic. I remember noting, however, that the innocence of their white privilege had re-branded itself post-puberty as intentionally provocative personas — naughty school girls, beauty queens, and virgin cheerleaders. The “pretty girls” of the world who once flit around small classrooms in bright pink Disney princess frocks, now strut down hallways in crimson lipstick and black fingernails, wearing ultra short booty shorts, pleated mini skirts that exposed un-aged butt cheeks, and baby Ts that said things like “Cherry Pop” and “Eat me, I’m Sweet”. Needless to say, to an African immigrant who was still trying to make sense of her surroundings, I was pretty sure that my parents would have placed Halloween on their Things That Will Destroy Us with Shame list, right at the top with drugs, prostitution, and MTV’s Spring Break.

So I searched to find space for myself on the flip-side of risque; the kids who fell outside the “cool” crowd — the politically inclined, the art geeks, the emo goths — all seemed to embrace Halloween as an excuse to make bold statements (usually against the dominant vanilla school culture) about who they were. I could have been down with this idea, but the only costume themes I surmised warranted presenting oneself as alien and/or depressed: dead presidents, political revolutionaries, witty takes on vegetables and/or fruit, and apathetic versions of “just myself since I’m always weird and scary anyway”. In college, however, costumes did more than make statements, they pushed buttons, and at times, caused so much controversy, the dean needed to send an email to quell the uprising of a student protest.

For instance, in my freshman year of college, a group of white (and queer) kids thought it would be funny to throw a “ghetto” party for Halloween, for which people were required to dress up as pimps, hos, drug dealers, and crackheads. Even “gangstuh” rap music was promised (by a white hipster DJ no less — Boston, don’t you dare act surprised).

That same weekend, a white friend of mine turned heads when he dressed up as Bob Marley, in full on brown body paint. I looked up the meaning of “blackface” after being the only person of color at the party in which he debuted the outfit, and having to smile as white people kept stealing glances at me for a reaction. But that experience doesn’t even compare to the party I attended the following day (80s themed) that included a room full of tall white guys wearing black Afro with pick combs in them, an even more R-Rated version of the swinging ponytails (now barenaked playboy bunnies), and an obnoxious prick that kept following me around all evening, demanding to know what I was supposed to be and drunkenly proclaiming that his Afro was bigger than mine. That experience wasn’t awkward — it was downright infuriating.

So, I vowed to wash my hands of the political farce that had become Halloween, and avoid the entire fiasco like the plague each year, because quite frankly, I had plenty of opportunities to remain angry at the stupid shit that ignorant white people said to me throughout the year — whether about my accent, my blackness, my African-ness, etc.  Too much of the other 364 days of the year contained insensitive, xenophobic, culturally appropriating, and downright racist incidents; I deserved at least one day off.

Incidentally, whenever I did entertain the idea of venturing out on Halloween weekend, I would fantasize about being reverse-offensive, culturally subversive, and extremely political — the angry fucking black woman that showed up with a blond wig and all white body paint talking in a valley girl accent, chewing gum with my mouth open, and humping the bar stool for attention (cause that’s how offensive it becomes when Halloween costumes insult entire cultures). One year, I actually thought of a black T-shirt for myself that said, “All the Bob Marley Costumes Were Taken by White People.” But plotting my reverse-offensiveness tactics for Halloween weekend didn’t make dealing with it any easier — it just kept making me angry. And who wants to spend a weekend that is supposed to be fun, angry? I don’t know what’s gotten into me this year (oh right, I just turned thirty), but I find myself yearning for the experiences I almost had in my youth.

For the first time in my life, for Halloween, I want to dress up, go trick or treating, and pose with a wicked pumpkin. I want to buy a sword and defend my woman’s honor like the dashing prince I always pretended to be when I was a kid and my siblings were asleep; I’d beg my girl to dress up as Xena Warrior princess so she can continually reject my grandiose displays of machismo, but make out with me in the car train when no one is looking.

I want to be Elphaba from Wicked, and represent the experience of every black girl that was called ugly by their white school teachers, who felt green with envy over the fact that they weren’t pretty white princesses with glittered wings and minions, yet who discovered their inner magic, their inner will to defy gravity and lead uprisings that made the world better, and less vanilla. And goddamnit, I want to be Storm. Yes, Storm. I know ti’s cliche — a black girl wanting to be Storm, but I don’t care. Storm was the one African superhero I had as a child. I woke up every Saturday to watch her kick ass in the X-men cartoon series. I still pretend Angela Basset played her (and that Halle Berry didn’t completely destroy my favorite afrofeminist heroine with her weak ass performance — ugh, I can’t even talk about it). I should be able to want to be a black female character on Halloween without worrying that I’m being ‘typical’, because goddamnit, Storm kicks ass!

But now what? After thirty years of getting no practice being creative for Halloween, I am stumped for ideas for a costume. Moreover, I’m no longer limited to the middle class earnings of my parents, but to the emptiness of my do-gooder wallet; purchasing a costume isn’t an option. And even if it were, there’s no way I could pull off a costume a la carte e.g. the latest, Nathalie Portman’s Black Swan, the classic Marilyn Monroe, or sexy swinging ponytail school girl. And yes, yes, I know Disney finally gave us poor little black girls a princess (and a racially ambiguous frog, I mean prince), but I’m not twelve anymore so I’m not sure that’s going to work for me.

Am I the only person of color and/or immigrant in this predicament? I’m still doing some research, but in the meantime, I’d really like to know: What costume choices are available to people of color on Halloween (besides Barack and Michelle Obama)?

[box type=”shadow”]Is race still a hot button issue during Halloween? Or is everyone just being way too sensitive? I’d love to hear what you think. Meanwhile, I am thinking about compiling a list of Top 10 Halloween Costume Ideas for POC, so please comment with your suggestions, both for the post, and for me, ‘cause this immigrant African girl is on a mission to get some candy this year.


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