I was in primary school when I first started using the phrase “I’m not like other girls”. I was on holidays in Germany when I was first told “you have no [ethnical] identity”. I was sitting down eating when I was first referred to as “a feminist who is probably a lesbian”. I remember these three occurrences very clearly because each of them added more burden and confusion to my on-going identity crisis. Moreover, these aren’t isolated cases. My race, sexuality and gender are social constructions I have been struggling with since I was a kid, due to discrimination, stereotypes and society’s expectations.
I’m not classy, I’m not submissive, and I’m not feminine. I don’t care much about gossip, fashion, make up or dating. My appearance, my clothes and my face are not something I’m constantly worried about: in fact, I barely care. Boys rarely impress me, physically and emotionally: I always see them as potential friends more than anything. I’m not interested anymore in dating, having kids and marrying. I know all these things are stereotypes and conventional social norms, but they are still real labels that girls have to bear since they are born till the die. I’m not saying these labels are negative by the way, there is nothing wrong with them. I’m just not like this and I wish people understood it and accepted it.
Being “different” is hard. You don’t fit in the femininity norm and you are suddenly excluded from all sisterhoods during school breaks. You don’t follow the stereotypes and you are suddenly not invited at all to birthdays or parties. You don’t act feminine or classy and you are suddenly “one of the boys”.
I still remember when one of my female classmates cried in a rhythmic gymnastics lesson because she had to do with me the end-of-year exhibition in front of everyone. She didn’t cry because I wasn’t a good gymnast, there were other girls in the group who weren’t great neither. She cried because she didn’t want to do the exhibition with one of the “uncool” girls (she was a “popular” girl). People in school often said I was nice and sweet, but when the moment of doing something with me came, they turned their head away, except my best friend. Even some of my other friends did it. It wasn’t because of my personality: it was because of my appearance and behaviour. Not girly, not classy, not pretty: not good enough. All this used to hurt me a lot, and I would try hard to be loved, unsuccessfully.
In spite of this, it was easy ignoring people’s annoying comments and actions in school, but it wasn’t that easy with my relatives. My mum comes from a very traditional African family that was once middle-high class. I have various brothers, but due to some sexist reason, house chores seemed to be an important task for me and only me. I still remember the time I realised of this: I was thirteen, our house was messy, and my mum was ranting and yelling at me. “Emily, you are the girl of the house, you have to clean!”: this was one of the phrases she was shouting. My brothers were also told to do house chores and they were also yelled at, but not in the same level and with the same pressure I had.
In 2012, I moved to England to live with my aunt from mum’s side and things definitely got worse. My issues with my gender become more confusing and racial identity conflicts came into place too. My aunt is more conventional than my mum: she works but is a housewife, she has a partner and she is attached to her African roots, even if she grew up in Europe. When I moved to her house, her partner and she had patriarchal expectations for me that I was clueless about till much later. Adapting to live with them is one of the worst experiences I have ever had.
In the last year I have argued a lot with people. The latest argument was with my uncle. Apparently, my way of walking makes our carpet dirty so he told to me change it. Despite being dazzled by that claim and finding it stupid (the carpet is cream colour, everyone walks over it, and it hasn’t been cleaned in at least three years; I don’t even step on it with shoes I use outside) I played along with it and said I would try my best. A week or two later, I was walking upstairs and he stopped me and asked me why I hadn’t change my way of walking. I had actually changed it but it was late at night, I was tired and I was barely conscious of my actions. Moreover, I have orthopaedic issues and I had invasive surgery in my hip a few years ago: my control over my legs and feet becomes irregular now and then, and more at the end of the day. Obviously, I defended myself, alleging “I was trying my best and I was gradually changing my way of walking”. And even if he was the one that asked for an explanation, he got angry and annoyed with my reply, so we started arguing till my aunt came downstairs to stop us. I probably shouldn’t have started arguing with him, that was my biggest fault and I regret it.
The rest of the story is irrelevant, except for the part in which my aunt told my uncle “we know you are the man of the house and you want things done your way”. In that moment I realised that my uncle’s desires were above my physical health and abilities, just because he is a man. Afterwards, my aunt spoke to me about how my uncle has a very “African man mind-set” and I have to accept it.
A few weeks ago I was in Spain, spending time at my father’s house and while having a conversation about my life in England with him, he said something that distraught me: apparently, when I had just moved back in 2012, my aunt wouldn’t stop complaining to him about how I was trying to “act like a white European girl” because I was not interested in house chores, I wasn’t good at them and I never tried to please my uncle by doing things like serving him food in the morning before he went to work or cleaning everything he got dirty and messy. For some reason, this annoyed me. I had always suspected my aunt thought like that about me, but I don’t think I was ready for the confirmation. My first instinct was defending myself, but then I stayed quiet and reflective, while a feeling of guilt and shame filled my heart.
I was born in Spain, Europe, were multiculturalism and diversity are not promoted at all. I went to a school for 13 years in which my brothers and I were the only black Africans. I didn’t grow up with my family other than my siblings. My knowledge of my parents’ cultures is very small, I just know a little bit about some traditions, cuisines and spiritual rites. I always thought when I grew up, I would learn more and embrace my roots. But now, I don’t have it so clear. My family killed any curiosity I had because they never talk about our background except to support their sexist and patriarchal values which I don’t want to live under. I have no desire to marry, have kids, be a housewife and serve a man for the rest of my life. I don’t like house chores, being feminine or acting classy and submissive. I don’t like being in charge, I don’t like managing and I cry under pressure because I get frustrated. And due to all this, I act like a “white girl”.
I never knew you had to be a certain way to be part of a race and ethnicity. I can accept that I’m clueless about my roots and I need to change that, but I have never hated being black African. I always defend and support my race and my ethnicity. I used to try and show interest in learning more about my background. I’m fine with who I am. But it isn’t enough, at least for my family. Either I am conceited or whitewashed, just because I don’t follow the values of the black African patriarchy they love and praise. So lately, every time I think about researching or reading a book about my parents’ cultures, I get dizzy and angry, and I decide not to do it. I know this attitude is bad and quite arrogant: my family’s ideology is not a reflection of my whole African backgroundd. I have read and heard nice things about Equatorial Guinea and DR Congo (my parents’ countries): they are beautiful countries with interesting culture, and I would benefit from learning more about them. However, I won’t do it till I move away from my family, so I don’t have to remember their rants and claims every time I attempt to know about my roots.
As you may imagine from everything you have read so far, my relatives aren’t very keen on feminism, which is why I avoid saying that I’m a feminist and avoid gender equality discussions at home. However, one of my brother knows it and he thinks that I’m going to end up being lesbian one of these days because “most feminists are lesbians”. After he said this, my aunt started repeating hundreds of times that there is nothing wrong with being a lesbian, and I just removed myself from the conservation. I have always thought of myself as heterosexual, but I have never confirmed or denied my sexuality with anyone. People just have this wrong habit of assuming everyone is heterosexual till they say or prove otherwise, or till they see them “acting gay” (something that I find absurd to be honest).
While I don’t see anything negative about being labelled as a “lesbian”, because it is just a sexuality and I’m a supporter of LGBT+ rights, my brother hasn’t been the first person referring to me as such. Back in school days, there were similar rumours involving my best friend and me. Since I don’t fit in the femininity box, I probably don’t fit in the female heterosexuality box neither, since these two are always linked by mainstream society. Furthermore, I have never had a serious romantic or/and sexual relationship nor I share my romantic/sexual interests in boys with people other than with my close friends.
In the last months, I have been very involved with LGBT+ movements and campaigns because one of my favourite celebrities, Miley Cyrus, has been running campaigns and projects to support LGBT+ individuals. I have read a lot of articles and many of her interviews related to the topic. Her Paper Magazine interview attracted my attention especially, mainly this part:
“She (Miley) says she has come to consider her own sexuality — even her own gender identification — fluid. “I am literally open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age. Everything that’s legal, I’m down with. Yo, I’m down with any adult — anyone over the age of 18 who is down to love me,” she says. “I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.””
After reading this, for the first time in my life, I felt understood when comes to my sexuality. The comment is very relatable. As much as I do it, I don’t like labelling myself as heterosexual because it often implies I would only date heterosexual boys. And it isn’t true. As Miley, I’m open to everyone regardless of their gender and sexuality. While all my “romantic” interests (mere crushes) have always being men (only two), nobody has ever shown love or attraction towards me. Currently, I’m not interested in dating at all, but generally talking, I’m down to date anyone that will be good for me and will love me, regardless of their sexuality and gender. I don’t think that we can control love or our emotions, so I can’t assure I will never have strong romantic feelings or sexual attraction towards anyone but heterosexual boys. I just can’t assure it.
Sexuality to me is more than a label: it is a deep subject that can be fluid and every human is entitled to explore it and discover their own one, while being respected and being respectful to others. We are all unique and I think sexuality is a personal identity rather than just a social label: I find it hard to put it inside a box and I realised other people find it hard too. Furthermore, I sometimes wonder if I only have attraction towards boys because that’s how I really feel or because I have been conditioned to feel like that by the heteronormative world we live in. This is just one of the few questions I have about my sexuality and I rarely discuss them with anyone, because it is difficult to explain and I fear that I will be misunderstood if I open up about them.
On conclusion: race, sexuality and gender are aspects about myself that tend to get questioned too often. Not “acting as a black African person” is an issue that I have been presented with recently, causing me a lot of guilt and anger. Not following the stereotype of femininity, not dating or showing public romantic or sexual interest in boys, and being a feminist makes people think that I’m a lesbian. Not being feminine or not caring about so called “girly” topics has excluded me from sisterhoods and the box of womanhood since I was a child. Either you fit into the stereotypes of your social constructions or you are a misfit, and people start to mislabel you. That has been life for me till now.
I’m hoping things will change as soon as I move to university and start my independent life, since my family are the main people questioning these three things about myself. At the moment, I just act with them as they want me to act, because I don’t like conflicts and I know I can never win with them. I don’t show them the real me and I no longer seek their acceptance. But as soon as my freedom comes, I will be able to start my journey to solve my identity questions at peace and on my own, without toxic people hurting me. And I can’t wait.
Sharing my thoughts,
Emilie. H. Featherington