I am Black, gay, woman, marching through the world wearing Black on my skin, but little do those who label me know, I identify as French before anything else. Labelling oneself is constructive, eye-opening even, but labelling others, is simply destructive.
“Can I touch your hair?” She asked, or was it a he? It doesn’t matter anyway. I cannot count the number of times a person, man or woman, young or old, white or not, sober, drunk, high… it. does. not. matter. has asked ever so nonchalantly, “can I touch your hair?” To some, for a reason I find complicated to pin down, my head is a petting zoo. As though they were entitled to their fingertips sinking into my luscious kinky complex head of hair, some don’t even ask. No—they think they might as well just dig right in. It does not matter if it’s 7 AM on the M15 bus or 1 AM standing outside the club, cigarette or street food in hand. Does my hair look like your napkin? “I am soooo obsessed with your hair, it’s so soft, it’s so like…um…different!” one will say, as though discovering some well-concealed secret. Indeed, my hair is different, well it’s different from… yours. But here’s the thing: as much as I’d like to run my fingertips through your luscious shiny straight hair, I don’t, nor do I ask, because I recognize you as a human being, one entitled to their space. Didn’t you learn to “keep your hands to yourself?”
Note my aggravated tone? I would apologize but the daily “can I touch your hair”s and the “I’m sorry but it’s just so…”s is, frankly aggravating. Further, the sheer volume of “I love your hair”s, although useful in filling my ego’s well, are usually followed by “can I touch it,” turning my already fake head-tilted-smile and “thank you,” into forced politeness and lack of interest in shared uncomfortability, “sure, why not,” I sigh. Believe me, I would much prefer to say “no,” but it’s not as easy as it sounds. They always look at you, or more so it—the hair—with wide sparkly-eyed eager excitement, making it harder. Though I did wish I knew how to say no. I wonder if I don’t because it would make me more uncomfortable or, perhaps because it’s simply more work? Maybe, after being used to something for so long, I’ve become complacent and rather resort to my fake head-tilted-smile and “thank you,” than to challenge my norm, dive into the unknown, and risk offending them despite them offending me. I’ve learned to place intent above consequence in these instances; however, it may simply be that I’ve been taught that it. does. not. matter. how it makes me feel, it. just. is.
Maybe I should resort to being flattered. Compliments are ever-so-nicer than a blonde girl starting a petition, as a joke, to get you to sit at the back of the class in middle school, as to avoid your hair blocking the board, obviously. Or boys making a game out of throwing little paper balls in your hair as they sit behind you in class in high school.
Or maybe I should just accept that it’s also because I’m a woman, and a young one at that, that people find it okay to treat me as an object of interest rather than a human just like them, right?
The good news is, I am not alone. Walking by a fellow Black woman leaving her kinky curls to feel the breeze fills me with infinite joy and gratefulness, as we nod, smile, sometimes even compliment each other. Her “I love you hair” means something, it says: you are part of this sense of community, you are part of the unseen community of Black women who wear their hair as is.
When it comes to being gay, as a Black woman, I wonder if the fact that I am a Black woman plays into men’s oblivion as they comment on us (us being whoever I may be showing public affection towards, and myself). I wonder if they, supposedly jokingly, allow themselves the “can you kiss again”s and “can I watch”s simply because we are two women and they are men: notoriously known for being higher on the social totem pole. They spit their insults as though I were sitting behind a screen on their lap: object of their desire.
Rarely, but sometimes, I envy the straight ones… Imagine happily strolling down the street hand-in-hand with your significant other and being promptly interrupted by an angry and confused elderly man saying, “you can’t do that,” as he begins walking backward on Fulton street in Brooklyn with the two of you, switching his gaze from clasped hands to nervous pairs of eyes. Or imagine kissing your significant other goodbye at the train station’s entrance only to be insulted by another ederly man, closely yelling in your faces: “y’all make me sick!” Using your gayness as means to deter male suitors is… a hit or miss situation. Once, I was met with “oh that’s okay, my baby mama’s gay,” another time, aggresively, “okay so you’re a dyke” paired with a prompt stomping off, you may even encounter one looking for tips as to how to get around what we all came out of. I make no distinction between the repulsive comments disguised as positive ones and the obviously hate-driven ones: they warrant the same disgust-driven rage.
As a woman I get cat-called, and in New York, it is a widespread practice potentially aimed at reminding us of our place in society. As a Black woman, I get touched and prodded, as a gay one, sexually harassed: stared at like some sort of free show.
Surprisingly, comfort is found in the sense of community I share with women, Black women, and gay women. By sense of community, I describe the sensation of walking into a room filled with men and locking eyes with the only other woman, rendering her your instant new best friend, the sensation of walking past a fellow Black person, nodding in acknowledgment, the sensation of catching another gay woman’s look as we tilt our heads in initial inquiry quickly replaced by certainty, smiling in recognition.
Having multiple families has led me to grow up in NYC with a mother, a step-father, and two sisters, none of which share my Black identity. Being the only Black person in your family, especially within the American racial context, is quite confusing. I didn’t understand that I lacked a whole Black education until teenagehood. I attended the Well-Read Black Girl festival in efforts to connect to my own, only to find that yes I am Black, yes I am well-read, but I am a well-read French girl, not a Black one. This feeling of half-belonging is embedded in literature along with cinematography, music, practices, etc. Black people will bring up Black artists, writers, designers, movies, and I am overwhelmed with shame and an unbearable sense of ignorance.
Although I am Black, I am not American, I did not grow up Black and American, my Blackness is not the mainstream one. I endure the racism all Black people face, but am unable to grasp the culture, as much as I wish I could. This doesn’t stop people from treating me like their personal walking encyclopedia as they look up at me, about to read the N-word in Of Mice and Men, looking for some sort of approval, or as they search for validation when they detail their latest was-I-being-racist story. “Do Black people…” let me stop you right there! I am an individual and though you assume I have the power to speak on behalf of an entire race, I. do. not. When it comes to being gay, the “how do you guys even have sex” and “who’s the man in the relationship” comments are all too common. I am happy to educate others, but that isn’t my sole purpose, the purpose of being used as an object, a book, a dictionary. Do I look like a university course? Or even just, oh what’s it called again? Right—the internet!
You may read, not say, the N-word. You are not owed the details of my sex life. And there is no man, that’s the whole point!
Microaggressions are present even in your tightest circle: family. As the only Black woman under my roof, I am alone. When my family members question my bangs, for instance, I crumble in disbelief. The fact that they are unable to accept that I, indeed, have bangs, aka hair that sits on your forehead, framing your face, is simply insulting. This argument has led to explosive fights, less about the bangs, more about what fighting over whether they exist entails: the-white-man-knows-best-dispute. This extends to family friends, for instance, the need to defend a fellow woman of color as her experience of racism within her office is questioned by a white woman, saying that it’s because she is a woman, not because she is one of color.
The key problem here is questioning. Do. not. question. a person of color when they tell you that this is their experience. We all know mansplaining, this is whitesplaining, let’s not stand for it.
I am impressed by humans, not surprised, after all “takes one to know one.” Impressed by our ability to access infinite knowledge yet be plagued with bias, xenophobia, and general trouble fathoming what is not our own. Let’s look for some brilliant realization in the mixed bag that is my “identities.” Being the poster child for our century’s social justice movements, one would hope I’d come up with something, tout de même. Here’s what I do know for sure: the multicultural mix has made for an interesting combination of lenses through which to view the world, the feeling of belonging to a manifold sense of community has advised that there is fire through the magnifier. Before anything, I am, as we all are, a product of my environment, molded by experience; within the 21st Century, this means priding oneself on such identities…
I am Black, gay, woman.
Note: Painting in the top photograph by Brendan Higgins aka Chinatown Branch
About the Author
Iman M’Fah-Traoré is a French New Yorker. Originally born in Paris, she moved to New York in her young years and majored in Politics and Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto. She is now attending the New School in NYC for Global Studies. The Ivorian and Brazilian writer works with The Womanity Project, a non-profit that challenges gender equity with innovative workshops. Currently, she is working towards assembling her first poetry book. Her writing specializes in LGBTQ+, grief and trauma, and race and ethnicity poetry and essays.