When you’re brown, Latina, fat, a woman, and grew up lower-class you can’t speak. You can’t feel. Every instinct to express yourself is weighed against these questions:
What stereotype am I fueling? Will I “intimidate” myself out of a job? a friendship? a relationship? Will this prove I really am too much? Not enough?
Part of why I connected so deeply with Cardi B and her actions at New York Fashion Week this past week is that I saw a woman making choices that I hadn’t been brave enough to make.
The choice to bring all of who she is into every space. Respectability be damned.
All character judgments aside, the Cardi we are receiving is exactly who she told us she was. She is an AfroLatina from the Bronx and her entire life has told her to engage the world in a specific way. That that was how to get by. You can’t unlearn that overnight.
Should you? How far does that need to go?
I’ve never been one for physical altercations and so those incidents were few and far between in my childhood but I understood why so many around me chose that route. I connected with Cardi because I still have in me the same thing that made her actions at NYFW week possible.
You don’t grow up in the environment I grew up in and not have a quiet storm brewing in you at all times. I am more intimately familiar and comfortable with my anger than I am with any other emotion. From 9 to 17 years old I lived in NY group homes that sometimes boasted as many as 45 girls housed on the grounds. We all came from messed up situations and we brought that pain with us into our group home.
This means our houses were the site for endless verbal and physical altercations. I knew the cops in my neighborhood by name. I saw girls go out in handcuffs and I saw girls leave on stretchers. I reached the point where I barely flinched when two girls fought in my living room and the knife one of them was holding landed in the wall right next to my head. I went right back to reading my book without a thought. That was simply my normal. Living that day in and day out shapes the very core of who you are. It’s called survival.
Entering polite white Christian society doesn’t make all of that go away. Truthfully, I’d likely not have my career were it not for the fact that I could tell these “colorful“ stories. Stories that provide middle-upper class and/or white Christians with that warm fuzzy high they’re always chasing. They wouldn’t get to tell me how ‘proud’ they are of me, how articulately and eloquently I speak, or how I “broke their heart.”
And I wouldn’t get that check.
People only want these stories if it’s a story of triumph though. Only if the AnaYelsi they’re hearing about has been left behind. But she isn’t. She’s just subdued. It’s a twisted form of class/race tourism in their own backyard – where they want the illusion of something dangerous without the actual danger.How do I know this?
Because I can only maintain the facade for so long. When I finally get comfortable, when I think I can finally trust, I forget to code switch… I slip out of my professional costume… I let the smallest fraction of my emotions show. I let free the remnants of the old me that got me through so much. Because I dare to think she might be celebrated for getting me this far.
And I get smacked down.
This despite never yelling, Never raising my voice. Never showing more than the tiniest glimpse of me.
I get shown the door at an organization I’ve served for years. But only after they have built entire programs off of my experiences and knowledge, I get told I’m a negative energy. I’m “intimidating.” People are afraid to challenge me.
Cardi is allowed to sing “I’ma put a Louboutin where her neck at” and “If I see you and I don’t speak that means I don’t f*ck with you. […] I make bloody moves” and it’s a bop. People will devour her music but when she shows you she is the woman in her songs we recoil. She gets shown the door.
You don’t want us. You just want our stories.
I’m not out here physically fighting but that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I still see myself in Cardi. I have nearly perfected playing pretend. Sometimes I’m not even sure this new sanitized woman of God isn’t really me. But then something happens and my entire body responds the way I would have as an angry 15-year-old girl. The one who could scream someone down at the top of her lungs. The one that once popped off on a lady at Disney for muttering something rude under her breath.
When I go silent or seem dismissive or walk away or even cry it’s because it is taking every fiber of my being not to show people that part of who I am. Because I know how that will be received. Or more accurately how it won’t.
Because the church wants to hear about girls that escaped the system but it doesn’t want to witness what the system does to us. The church wants to celebrate our survival but not the parts of us that made it possible.
That part isn’t for church.
What place do people like myself have in the church other than as testimonial porn? Can I bring the parts of me that are like Cardi? Like Simon Peter even?
Here’s a disciple that grew up in certain context (working class fisherman), and had to be physically restrained, verbally rebuked, and even after all that was still an impulsive survivalist (chopping off ears and fighting about who gets to sit where)… and yet, he is the rock upon which the church was built.
If the early church needed its hotheaded Peter and I need my unrestrained Cardi perhaps there is someone waiting that needs overwhelming me.
*Originally published on Patheos