identity

Creation in the Time of Death

“They ain’t tryna’ to see me shine, shine
Bullet on my time, time
But fuck it, I’ll live forever…” -NoName, Telefone, Track: Forever

One of the hardest questions I’m asked is, “What is your creative process?” It’s even more difficult to answer from where I’m sitting in history today.

At this moment, I’m alive in a nation of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. At this moment, #BlackLivesMatter is the rallying cry – the reality that we deserve to live and to thrive. This cry has consistently been met with the pithy and subversively racist #AllLivesMatter cry – diverting focus from those whose Black bodies are being ripped from our Black souls in these United States of America.

At this moment, I’m alive but grieving the death of Korryn Gaines – a 23 year old mother whose home was broken into by the police – after her on some bullshit traffic violations. This encounter ended with her murder, the wounding of her son, and her story obscured and picked apart.

At this moment, I’m alive but grieving the deaths of Joyce Queweay, who passed because her boyfriend and his friend thought they would teach her a lesson about “submission” to male authority. She was murdered. And at this moment, I’m grieving the death of Skye Mockabee, a transwoman, murdered and left in a parking lot.

My sisters are being murdered. My brothers are being murdered, too. And everyone’s fighting about the fucking details.

And someone’s asking me about what my creative process is. Now.

I’ve never been more sure of the importance of writing, rapping, singing, sharing personal and cultural pain, joy, healing, lament, and strategy. I’ve never been more convinced that the writers of color are called to be the griots, healers, and purveyors of cultural / ancestral knowledge. There is necessity of creation in the time of death.There is something healing about the practice of wrangling cohesion from chaos – even if the healing happens only in the Self.

But this shit is heavy. It gets heavy. And it BEEN heavy.

“What’s your creative process?”

These days? Cry a bit. Write. Wipe tears. Cry a lot. Stop crying. Feel numb. Writers aren’t made of numbness. Stare out the window, and look at what is alive. Trees. Birds. The moth that just settled on the window. Write a bit. Stop writing. Allow my sisters to sing and speak to me…

“And I’m afraid of the dark
Blue and the white
Badges and pistols rejoice in the night
And we watch the news
And we see him die tonight” -Noname, Telefone, Track: Casket Pretty

Allow my sisters to write me through:

Erica Thurman’s, Black Folks Are Dying and I Just Keep Buying Lipstick. And Crying: On the Emotional and Economic Expense of Existing Through Trauma
The Churched Feminist’s, Litany For Black Children Who Became Collateral Damage
Brittney Cooper’s, Connect The Dots: For Korryn Gaines, Skye Mockabee and Joyce Quaweay
Nicole JhanRhea’s, Korryn Gaines I Speak Your Name

Try really hard not to play the videos or recount the events. End up doing both of those things anyway. Hoping that somehow they could live forever. Knowing that they will, somewhere, even if in the Remembrances of their Stories and the Saying of their Names. Lavishing sisterly love on them, carefully listening for the lessons they want to teach me, and wishing them well from the other side – from this fucked up plane of reality.

 

Eating Alone

I’ve recently discovered the work of writer, Vanessa Martir a few days ago, and deeply appreciate her thoughts on what she calls ‘story block’. (It’s WELL worth the read, especially if you’re a writer). Reading her work has prompted me to think about what gets my stories ‘stuck’. In my case, that has everything to do with being called to deeper vulnerability in my writing.

I started off in Creative Writing, and deeply excavating self was inescapable. However, in this “think-piece-and-click” era, it’s become a subtle expectation that writing worth reading always pieces together a logical “argument”. Let me be clear, it takes DEPTH of thought and SKILL to write in this particular format. I know this intimately. Yet at this point in my journey, I know that was me story-blocked is not a lack of things to write or to think about. So, I’m slightly pivoting for a bit. I hope you’ll be able to trek with me! Today, I was inspired by author Nike Marshall, and will share from the prompt: Eating Alone.


I. Someone close to me should have told me that I was losing too much weight, too fast. Perhaps they did. Perhaps I couldn’t hear them. I was exercising for at least two hours a day, but hadn’t coupled it with the intentionality of eating regularly. It was 2011 – 2012: the year that I faced a long season of unemployment, a crisis of faith, and love lost due to emotional abuse.

JP Skinny

II. The most vivid thing I can remember about my initial drive to Chicago were all the corn fields we drove through to get there.

My graduate program required that we finish an internship at two separate sites. So, in the summer of 2012, I packed my bags, ended my lease, drove to IL, and moved into a dorm room to work at a religious college.

I was constantly surrounded by religious iconography: a cross in each room, nuns and friars walking around the campus ground. There was one particular picture that haunted me. It was a portrait of The Last Supper. The figures ate their meals with solemnity. Judas looked as if he was on the verge of a panic attack. His face haunted me because I was on the verge of one too.

III. The college gave me a stipend to have meals on campus. Those meals were restricted by the summer schedule. If you missed 9 am breakfast then you’d either have to wait or buy a cold sandwich from the downstairs food bar. The sandwiches made me sick. Or perhaps it was just profound grief.

Each day, I’d get off at 3 p.m., take a long nap (catching up on all the naps I missed during my course schedule periods), and wake up again around 5 p.m. One day, during my nap-routine, I woke up ravenous.

It was a type of hunger that I had not felt in a very long time.

I needed thriving food, which is very different from “It’s-six-o’clock-and-you-should-eat-something” food. So, I got in my car and drove a while…

IV. I have a tendency to move to places without knowing a soul there. I knew (and loved) my coworkers at that time, but there wasn’t anyone I’d felt particularly close enough to to share a meal with. Especially not a meal this important.  In order to get what I needed, I knew I’d need to venture out alone.

I chose a place that was only 7 minutes away from me, because I knew that if I drove too much, I’d think too much, and likely talk myself back into the all-too-familiar dining hall line. I was seated by a man who (perhaps unknowingly) looked around for ‘the rest of my party’. I half-whispered, “It’s just me”.

“Would you like to sit at the bar?”
“No. I want to have an entire table”

It was the first time, in a long time, that I’d allow myself to take up that much space.

I ordered a wood fired flatbread pizza and watched them knead the dough at my seat. I ordered a glass of sangria (red), a pot of loose Jasmine tea, a lemon gelato, and a mini cheesecake. And something in my soul shifted.

V. There are a couple of places, moments, persons, and things that have saved my life. Learning how to eat alone in Chicago is included in that. Since that day, I’ve explored countless restaurants, both alone and with company. I’ve gained weight. Lost it. Gained it. Took my ‘demons’ out for nice meals. Until they and I could get ourselves together. Then, I recovered my appetite.

Image Credits:
Featured Image – Createherstock.com
Additional Images from personal collection

 

 

Non-Traditional New Year’s Manifesto

I appreciate that for many, New Year’s Eve / Day signals a reset in some ways: new goals, fresh starts, upcoming excitement. However, it is my least favorite holiday. The hands of New Year’s Eve clock often feel heavy with promises we don’t keep, breakthroughs that may or may not come, and changes we could have made the year before. In past years, I got around this heaviness by surrounding myself with positive distractions: people at church who might be able to help me believe that THIS year was MY year, friends whose optimism might rub off on me, confetti, glitter… the works.

But this New Year’s Eve, my original plans included baking a cake and enjoying close relationships. On a deeper level, I knew that in order to progress successfully into 2016, I had to get quiet and look back… which is counter-intuitive to SO many notions we have about what a NEW year represents. On the second day of the new year, I had the chance to do just that.

Those who know me well, know that I’ve kept a journal from ages  9 to 22. In the years that followed, my journaling practice has been on and off, so I bought a new book and purposed to get back on track. However, since I was back in my hometown, I pulled my high school and college years down from the shelves and re-read. (No journals from grad school or after because… #life).

I smiled (laughed occasionally). I cringed (a lot). I analyzed. I empathized. But most importantly, I meditated on loving the “me” in those pages.  That was radical and life-changing for me.

I allowed the “Me” of today to grieve the heartbreaks of the “Me” of then. I got honest with the “Me” of then… there were so many things I was not willing to admit to myself. I cheered myself on when I proactively made good choices and even when I stumbled upon good choices after-the-fact.

The “Me” of today was able to discern that, in many ways, I spent a great deal of my past in fear.

Fear of messing up.
Fear of doing things ‘wrong’.
Fear of not being heard.
Fear of being unloved.
Fear of being unworthy.

So, my past coping responses were geared toward achievement. Go. Do. Prove. Learn the terms. Play by the rules.

I discerned what I needed to do in 2016 by looking back, and purposefully accepting myself & my evolution. I needed / need to embrace my own terms.

While I don’t have the details of how this will play out, I have identified a few key areas that I’d like to work on. These include:

  1. Refining, embracing, and articulating my own voice through my art & professional endeavors. I am a blend of analysis, story sharing, advocacy… and sheer, friggin, shenanigans. It’s okay to reflect all of that. Those are my terms.
  2. Communicating my terms in regards to wealth & profit from my creativity. Rihanna put it this way, “Pay me what you owe me. Don’t act like you forgot”. My terms.
  3. Making room to add or subtract relationships, projects, and professional goals. Shame and fear can keep you playing solely by other people’s terms. I’ve learned that is just not an efficient or peaceful way to live.
  4. Committing to explore what my terms are for engaging God and people, for creating art… for living.

I’ve lived rubric-style for long enough. It’s time to begin using the resources I have to create my authentic curricula.

Image Credit: Createherstock.com

“Sensitive About My Shhhh…”: Communication & Critique in a Digital Age

One of my favorite quotes from Erykah Badu is from the beginning of her song, Tyrone, where she explains, “Keep in mind that I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my sh!t…” It was the first time I’d heard someone acknowledge the connection between our art and our heart, so explicitly. In that way, this simple declaration affirmed me as a sensitive soul, as well.

I was a bright, loud, but sensitive child. At the time, I thought that sensitivity was a detriment. As I grew into womanhood, I learned to be responsible with my emotions and learned that fierceness and sensitivity aren’t always dichotomous. But I knew that I’d still have to work through being “sensitive about my sh*t” in an age where our thoughts, art, and work exists on public spaces… or can easily BECOME public through shares and screenshots.

You should know (especially if you’re a new reader) that I’m no stranger to critique. I started in Theater (*flashbacks to training that included 30 seconds to convey a convincing character and 2 minutes of critique if your character choices were whack or nonexistent). Then, I got a B.A. in Integrative Arts (no one knew what that meant – it involved Writing, Communications, Theater, Theater Makeup, Sociolinguistics, some other random things, conversations with the Dean about how should explore without pressuring myself to do it all, a balance of support and concern from my folks, and a lot of asinine questions about what the degree equipped me to do. To which I answered, “Integrate some art”).

The side-eyes grew ever-increasing when I graduated in the midst of a recession with my newly minted degree, created a fledgling independent project that involved painting art onto shirts & apparel…

Betty Boop Shirt

… did Background Vocals, volunteered in campus ministry (diversity initiatives), worked for a data entry company (because …credit card interest), and started writing for a magazine start-up. I knew my path included getting an M. Ed to work in the field of College Student Affairs (not many people outside of the field knew what that meant either! And when I had to shift from creative writing to academic writing… the word ‘critique’ won’t even begin to tell it all. That first paper feedback sent me to bed at 6 pm).

I became passionate about identity conscious initiatives in Higher Ed, started 5 blogs, got scared or complacent, shut them down, started a 6th one, and began to contribute to more public platforms. I was finally putting my words into the world with some measure of consistency. Along the way to balancing life as an aspiring scholar – practitioner – creative soul, I fell into the wormholes of comments sections. Every artist that’s ‘sensitive about their shhh’ needs a plan for what to do with critique, comment sections, and general communication in a digital age.

So, this post is for those who put art, scholarship, practice, and work out into the world. This post is for anyone who is navigating communication in a digital age. In many senses, this post is for me… and if you are helped along the way, we should grab coffee and encourage each other more often!

A Working Draft for Sensitive Souls Navigating Communication in a Digital Age

    1. Be clear that things shared in a public sphere are up for critique.
      I know you may have intended an outcome with your art or work… but it won’t always be received it that way. Embrace the fact that work is up for critique the moment you push ‘Publish’. It’s a part of the package. Embracing this empowers you because you aren’t side-swept and surprised every time you experience critique and you can learn what feedback is useful and what is trolling.
    2. Understand that a critique and a clap back aren’t the same thing.
      In a status to my Facebook-cousins-and-friends, I noted something that I knew I needed to share here:
      “Every critique is not a clapback. Both can sting. But you will know which is which by its ‘fruit’.You can take critique and grow. You can inquire about the person who gave the critique and when it’s healthy, they can and will offer expertise and wisdom. You can even discard critique when necessary (critiques vary in usefulness, based on many factors).If there’s anything I’ve learned from grad school and writing in public forums, it’s that critique and clapback aren’t always the same thing”.I’ll add here that clapbacks are fiery rebuttals. Critique can be multifaceted. Critique can follow a clap-back (ask me how I know :)), so it’s important to discern when there are differences between the two.
    3. Get feedback from people who know a great deal about the topic you are writing about.
      Since 2015, I’ve been sharing more of my writing in spaces where there are women of color who are a great deal more established than I am. We are from all walks of life, span multiple fields, and hold the knowledge of quite a few generations. Words cannot describe the joy I feel when someone who knows a great deal about what I’ve written, affirms my work. Yet it is also VERY valuable, when they give me the…giphy
      They care enough about me to not have me ‘in these streets’ looking a fool. And for that, I’m grateful.
    4. Get feedback from people who know you personally!
      They are your cheerleaders and advocates. They can help you to ensure that the voice you’ve presented in your work, art, etc. really sounds like you. And if it’s a really good friend, they can also help you to…
    5. Check your intentions for creating.
      Sometimes, I have small moments of clarity after a long night’s drive. On one such occasion, I micro-journaled, “Many times, we have already set a conscious or unconscious intention when we communicate i.e. to share information, to express a question, to inspire, to posture, to manage perceptions, etc. It’s okay to check in with and explore those intentions. Because if, at any point, our great, DEEP need is to be lauded as ‘right’ then we’ve likely shut ourselves off from transformative dialogue and a possible learning experience”. Understanding why you’ve created or proposed a work in the first place helps.
    6. Finally, understand that some people just won’t understand or appreciate your work and that doesn’t mean you should stop working. (Or as my Mother would say, “Toughen up and carry on”).
      Learn how to filter all of the external feedback that you get. Some of it is useful. Some of it is not. Some of it you probably shouldn’t have read in the first place (ask me how I feel about most comment sections). There is great temptation to hide when we feel our work is misunderstood. However, there is also the opportunity to hone our craft a bit more, learn from others, to exhibit resiliency in moving forward, and most of all… to reap the internal benefits that come from creating.

Since this is a working draft, let me know what you would add to this list! How do you navigate communication & critique?

Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org, Post inspired by Ms. Badu

3 Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church… (and Why They’re Important to Name)

Let me give some context straight-from-the-gate:

I was raised in an Evangelical church setting. The doctrine taught there was very theologically eclectic and there was heavy emphasis on the charismatic, on the supernatural, and on an assurance of faith / church doctrinal statements. As I grew older, I began a very intense and intentional process of rethinking my faith, spirituality, and what being a (progressive) Christian looked like for me. Although the process was initially terrifying, the way faith looks now for me has both expanded and deepened.

This means that I’ve given a lot of thought to both the positive things I learned from my faith background (care for others, belief and ease with the Unknown, attention to / care for those who are systemically marginalized, the concept of beloved community). Yet I’ve also given a lot of thought to some of the more toxic things I’ve learned along the way. I’ve given space for unlearning some things. SO, if you aren’t comfortable with the dissonance that comes from learning, unlearning, and critique (even of the things we hold dear to our hearts or that are a part of our spiritual / cultural DNA)… then this post isn’t for you. I promise this post isn’t as troll-y as the title may suggest. These things are named to foster inquiry and perhaps, in some cases, further contemplation and freedom. So, before you are tempted to tell me HOW and WHY this post isn’t for you, take a moment of self assessment and reflection. Always remember that you can read another post if this feels deeply uncomfortable for you.

With that context, we press forward. Here are 3 toxic concepts I learned from church:

  1.  Always… in every case… wait for supernatural signs that God has spiritually released you from something… before you leave it.
    There’s been a few posts making the social media rounds that talk about God not releasing you from absolutely problematic situations… toxic relationships of all kinds, toxic environments, problematic churches, etc. I can remember the days of waiting for signs, signals, wonders, etc. that God had released me from a certain situation… and then I realized… this is what wisdom is for. I’m not Bible scholar but if there is an entire Biblical book in praise of wisdom then… I have questions about why we don’t feel free to use it when the situation calls for it. Especially for and in situations that suggest that leaving is our best course of action, health, and well being.I unlearned this particular messaging a) as I grew older and learned the story of my mother, and b) as I got in tune with my own heart, wants, desires, and needs.Anyone who knows my mother, knows that she is absolutely pragmatic. One of my favorite stories from her is about her first time doing a surgical procedure in PA school. In that moment, she remembers being very hesitant… but in the medical profession, time is precious and essential. Her supervising doctor leaned over to her and said, ‘Make a decision. If it goes well, you may have saved a life. If it doesn’t, we can triage and fix it. But if you do nothing, then we really can’t help you’.When she told me this story, I immediately thought about my spiritual development. There were SO. MANY. DECISIONS I’d put off because I didn’t see the writing in the sky that God was ‘releasing’ me. When I began talking to mentors and working with my therapist, I realized that we have been equipped with wisdom, emotion, and intuition to discern when we need to leave a situation. For too long, I ignored the signs of my own body including a tight stomach, a rapid heartbeat, constant anxiety or sadness, waiting to be ‘released’. I suppressed thought processes about why a church was problematic, ignored stagnant spirituality, waiting to be ‘released’. Now, I know better. When my body tells me it’s time to leave a situation… I leave it. When wisdom tells me it’s time to leave a situation… I leave it. I trust that I’ve been equipped with all I need to live an authentic and purposeful life, and that I know when it’s time to move on. I trust that in you, too.
  2. “God told me…” trumps all.
    The work of spiritual development and formation is important for many reasons. However, one of the reasons I’ve found to be most salient in my life is because without doing that work (and finding mentors to guide and encourage you in that work), you are susceptible to believe all the things that folk say… God said. I didn’t learn this lesson until I was involved in a very toxic dating situation. At the time, my partner was taking steps to pursue full time ministry and trying to make sense of all of the things involved in his own spiritual formation process. However, the way this was expressed was through directives in our relationship that began with, “God told me…”. Once I realized that the ‘God told me’s’ did not line up with my personal truth of God… nor what I’d been learning in my faith development process (which, in all transparency, included sitting with / contemplating womanist / liberationist theology) I realized that far too many times ‘God told me’ is used as a tool of silencing and / or perpetuating faulty theology under the guise of supernaturalism.
  3.  Hegemonic masculinity is God’s design. First, I will preface this concept with a few connections to other pieces. #Bearwithme 🙂 Scholars R.W. Connell & Messerschmidt defined and re-defined hegemonic masculinity as “the pattern of practice (i.e., things done, not just a set of role expectations or an identity) that allowed men’s dominance over women” (2005, p. 832). Hegemonic masculinity happens in cycles and it represents societal and cultural practices men’s dominance and subsequently, women’s subordination, is normalized. In an article that rethinks this term, they explain:

    “Consider how an idealized definition of masculinity is constituted in social process. At a society-wide level… there is a circulation of models of admired masculine conduct, which may be exalted by churches, narrated by mass media, or celebrated by the state. Such models refer to, but also in various ways distort, the everyday realities of social practice….Hegemonic masculinities can be constructed that do not correspond closely to the lives of any actual men. Yet these models do, in various ways, express widespread ideals, fantasies, and desires. They provide models of relations with women and solutions to problems of gender relations. Furthermore, they articulate loosely with the practical constitution of masculinities as ways of living in everyday local circumstances. To the extent they do this, they contribute to hegemony in the society-wide gender order as a whole”. (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 838, emphasis mine for the interpretation of text)

    Earlier this month, writer Libby Anne, wrote about The ‘Real Men’ of Evangelical Christianity for Patheos.com (this article was so well crafted and interesting to read). Libby Anne broke down the ways in which memes, such as the one below, further codify and normalize hegemonic masculinity. I’ll add here that not only do they normalize men’s dominance and women’s subordination but they do it under the guise of true spirituality, faith, and Christian faithfulness. Here is an example of one of the memes she referred to in the text:


    To be clear, what happens on the Internet in this regard mirrors what can and what has happened in various churches as well. However, since I count it bad practice to speak for every church space, I will illustrate the concepts already fleshed out by Connell, Messerschmidt, & Libby Anne with my previous lived experiences.

    When I think about my years spent in 2 nondenominational Evangelical churches and one urban-focused Reformed Theological church, I also think about the ways that I dated and the functions I did while there. I was taught, from these perspectives, that women could only have certain roles within the church (recall R.W. Connell’s words: “models of relations with women”, p. 838)I was taught that the answer to issues related to gender / gender expression lay in a) conforming to a certain Biblical interpretation of gender being man or woman, b) submitting to a male partner in dating, courting, and marriage, and c) submitting to male leadership and pastoral care. This type of hegemonic masculinity was also seen as God-designed. So, the “widespread ideal or fantasy” included waiting for a man of faith to choose you, remaining abstinent, marrying, submitting to that man, and teaching your children to do the same… (thus perpetuating hegemonic masculinity but no one explicitly says this. In a lot of scenarios, this connection is denied or spiritualized).

    So, it was a game-changing moment when I began to integrate knowledge of Biblical text with historical context, gender studies classes, and the scholarship and Biblical interpretations of folk who were NOT White, Evangelical, male pastors (refer to Mujerista Theology, Womanist Theology, etc). I found that there were many people and many sacred spaces who were / are challenging these notions. I was able to find mentors, women of color in ministry, and other Christians that were along the journey of deconstructing and decolonializing our minds, hearts, and spirits. These things encouraged me, empowered me, and emboldened me (…. #churchyalliteration… some things you just keep) on my own journey.

    I don’t name this toxic concept to call forth debate on what others beliefs are. I name it to say that what I’m clear on is that hegemonic masculinity does not equate to God’s design. I’m clear that it speaks more to codifying women’s subordination. Since I’ve moved from that place… since I’ve allowed myself the space to believe that God. is. for. women in ways that don’t feel like spiritual reduction or through patronizing methods… my own spiritual life has deepened. I clearly see the Image of God in relationships and gender dynamics across the spectrum and no longer feel constricted or confined in what ‘ministry’ can look like for me as a woman of color and as a woman of faith.

There were quite a few more that I may introduce in a Pt. 2 or Addendum post, but I’ll stop here for now because I want to make my parting thought clear. Naming these concepts is important. It is important because these toxic concepts can be quite insidious and can seem very benign. But (pardon my colloquialism), these jawns can have you bound. They can foster deep doubt about your own thought processes, your faith development in light of your sociocultural identities, and the ways in which you experience God.

Questioning these concepts can feel risky when you’re working through your own spiritual identity development processes and if you’re being taught that faith always looks like being ‘right’. So naming these concepts is something I find value in, because I know there are folks who may be processing through these concepts as well and because I know that questioning, critiquing, reformulating your theology is an absolutely important and life-changing practice.

This post marked the beginning of a larger series, which can be read here.

RESOURCES For Further Reading & Inquiry!

Image Credit: Createherstock.com

JTP’S Side Eye Symposium: “Wait, How Old Are You”?

Yesterday, the Daily Post posed a question, “What question do you hate to be asked? Why?” It really wasn’t hard for me to access one… the question that grates my ears each time it passes: “Wait… how old are you? Can I ask how old you are?” I mean this question gets a “You just tried it but I still have to be composed”, First Lady Chantal Biya level side eye from me.


Image Credit: http://awesomelyluvvie.com

It’s not so much the question, per se. It’s how the question is asked, specifically because this question is asked in situations where I’m meeting someone new, and I’ve talked about where I’ve studied, or the work that I do, areas of interest, or really any other thing that they feel doesn’t match how old I look. I have been asked this question by professionals, pastors, artists, entertainers, parents, clients, students, strangers, and more. My usual response is, “I’m a busy millennial,” or, “I’m not as young as I look – I’m just youthfully effervescent”. Yet inside, you’d better believe I’m cringing.

In an article for the Student Affairs Collective, I talked about this question in depth, citing the ways that young professionals have to manage their image through the use of either verbal or nonverbal cues (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). Yet, to talk about image management without really unpacking the question doesn’t really gave the full picture. There are a lot of assumptions hiding behind questions about our age in the workplace, especially those asked in public settings. As stated in that article, they include:

  • Assumptions about how competent and capable younger professionals are or should be
  • Assumptions about work / life balance being easier to obtain, the younger that you look
  • Assumptions that age = experience, credentials, and / or lack thereof
  • Assumptions that you may be “out of your depth”

All in all, what lurks behind that question, in professional settings are the slight hints of ageism, based on someone’s perception of age. This is why the question makes me cringe. In my experience, more often than not, it is condescending. It shows that you assume credentials (or receipts as I like to call them) are directly tied to the perceived age of someone. This is problematic for me, specifically because, let’s be honest… I’ve looked about 17 for the past 10 years or so.

Oh, make no mistake, the question is nerve-sy (as my Gramma says). Because there is a certain age bracket when that question fades away, when it might seem incomprehensible to even ask. But it is one that many millennial professionals hear quite often.

My response to the question, “Wait…how old are you,” varies, considering who might be asking it, why, and when they might be asking. When I was asked at an important conference, I’ve simply responded with, “I’m not sure what makes that relevant to the presentation / session”. If it is a student, I simply pose more questions to try to clarify their purpose in asking. If it is relevant to something that we are discussing, then I share my age. But most times, I give a (slightly shade-filled) smile and speak my truth: “I don’t tell my age”.

Sure, there are ways that young professionals manage their professional image and identity, and this varies for each person. I always keep a resume on hand, along with a few business cards. I tend to dress a bit more formally on days where I’m meeting with important stakeholders or while attending conferences. Some would contend, “That’s just best practice,” and I would be inclined to agree with them. Yet there are also those who understand that some professional image management is going on at the same time.

One of the commenters asked a very interesting question under that initial article, stating:

…I struggle with the balance of appearing/ seeming older (either with props or just giving my confidence/ attitude a super boost), but also remaining authentically myself. Any suggestions as to how to manage those two things simultaneously?

And I knew that I could communicate a more contextualized and nuanced answer in this space (cuz it’s mine. Ha)!

Yesterday, I was at brunch chatting with my friend T.J.* and we started talking about navigating the perceptions / stereotypes of young, professional women of color in professional spaces. She expounded on some of tools that she uses as a millenial woman of color, educator, & PhD candidate. For example, we talked about dressing more formally for business meetings and teaching sessions, bringing documentation or research that would assert our professional critiques, wearing a name badge that connected us to the institution,  etc. However, it was what she said at the end of our conversation that really stuck with me, “Other people may not have to use these same tools as me, and I usually encourage them to reflect in those instances to see if there is any type of (race, class, socioeconomic, age) privilege attached to that. But individually, I make sure to never compromise my soul. I can get dressed up to teach; that doesn’t compromise my soul. But there are other types of image management that I just won’t do – that compromise my soul. It’s different for everyone”. I think T.J.’s advice applies in these cases. It is the same advice that I give people who ask, “Should I change my hair for the interview space? Should I engage in a certain type of image management?” The answer to that lies in the question, “Does that compromise your soul?”

In addition, though I am not comfortable with someone asking me how old I am, I am also not interested in “looking older”, per se. I am interested in communicating my professional identity in a comprehensive way both verbally and nonverbally, as it is appropriate. This can be done with or (hopefully) without being asked how old I am. This is much like when I am attending an arts festival and I’m done up in all kinds of eclectic jewelry, accessories, hairstyles, etc. that communicate my artistic identity / expression. Neither one of these modes are inauthentic and neither one of them require me to compromise my soul.

So, to those ends, there are some image management practices that I’m just done with – they require too much shape-shifting and at the end of the process my authentic self feels hidden. There are some image management practices that I just refuse to engage in (like answering the question, “Wait, how old are you?). For each individual, figuring out whether to engage in image management or not is a process that requires you to remember your personal values. In addition, calling attention to problematic questions about identity and perception takes finesse, self awareness, and self advocacy. (Because there are those times where you have to say, “That question is neither relevant nor appropriate…” – and it makes all the difference if you know when).

Further Reading & Sources:
Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1990). Impression management: A literature review and two-component model. Psychological bulletin, 107(1), 34.

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JTP’S Side Eye Symposium: “Wait, How Old Are You”? by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Why Career?: Things I Wish I Knew the First Time Around

Serving as a diversity program coordinator & drop-in career counselor during my graduate program schooled me in innumerable ways. I learned how the search process worked, tools for career discernment, and had important conversations about identity & professionalism. I read & edited so many resumes, cover letters, and personal statements that I could probably write a few in my sleep. After completing my graduate program, it was time to put all of that into practice in my own search. I knew a lot of the formal information, but I was going into the field with both professional experience and my identities as a woman, a person of color, holistic educator, etc.

Navigating through these identities in the career development / job search process was also something that I had the joy of walking my students through. And what I found to be true, over and over again, is that:

“The career development of all women occurs in a specific cultural context… The larger culture operating as a macrosystem perpetuates career myths and stereotypes related to race and gender and, in fact, institutionalizes forms of race/gender discrimination. This macrosystem embodies such values as White male privilege, Eurocentric worldviews, race-/gender-appropriate ideologies, or race/gender typing of occupational choices. Macrosystem values may be internalized by the individual (e.g., internalized oppression) and, on the microsystem level, influence how others treat a woman because of her gender or ethnicity (Cook et al., 2005, p. 167).”

So, while I had done the work externally with my students to challenge hegemonic career myths, it was time for me to apply this (again) within my own life. Although I was entering a career field where women were well-represented, I had to be aware that the ideals and norms were still centered around a framework that catered to what Patricia Hill Collins (1999) calls the “mythical norm”: White, able-bodied, male, etc.

I knew I would have to apply the knowledge that I gave to my students on a range of questions: “What do I do with my natural hair?” How do I negotiate? As a woman, will they think that I am negotiating too fiercely? Does this interview outfit accentuate too many of my ‘assets’? As a new professional, woman of color, what do I value? Do I just need a job and need it right now? What does that mean for my search? What does that mean for my socioeconomic status & identity? Should I apply for a lower position and attempt to work my way up from there? And so on, and so forth.

And surprisingly, that was the easy part. The HARD part, the BIG question that I did not even know I was asking, was “Do I trust my own voice, professional & lived experience enough to make the best choice for myself?”
In the face of hegemony.
In the face of the “advice” I received that called for me to apply and function beneath my level of expertise.
In the face of systems that were not inherently and foundationally set up for the success of all people; systems that favored a mythical norm, accessed benefits & pay differences based on gender, allowed some a clear path in, and others a clear path out to the margins.

I wish I could say that I trusted my own voice expertly in my first search. I did all of the formal things with little trouble. But the “gut-level” stuff… working through my own journey of self-authorship and empowerment as a professional woman of color was entirely up to me… and was not always easy. I am grateful to the mentors, from various points in gender expression & spectrum, who walked me through it. Yet though things worked out for me on my first search, I knew that there were subtle ways in which I conceded to macro-level norms, myths, and culture. I straightened my naturally curly, voluminous hair. I took out my nose ring. I barely negotiated. I did not seek further information on the lack of representation of people of color. Though it worked out to some degree, it never quite “sat right” inside (as my Gramma says).

So, my second search post M. Ed looked drastically different from the first. I knew that I would have to re-imagine my answer to the question, “Do I trust my own voice, professional & lived experience enough to make the best choice for myself?”

The second time around (*cue the music) I learned to give myself the pep-talks I needed to show up in a culturally authentic way, regardless of the setting. I learned to embrace the unknown that is inevitable in any job search process. I got REALLY good at giving myself pep-talks, that would later help my students. And here is what I tell them:

Show up with your authentic self.

Organizations are not just assessing your qualifications and skills. Employers are also looking for “fit”: the ways in which you will be able to transition into the norms, values, and practices of the office space. When you don’t show up as your authentic self, your employer can’t fully discern whether that opportunity is for you, and you can’t discern whether you will be fully accepted within that space. It’s a lose / lose. My authentic self includes my naturally curly hair. It includes my bent toward social justice, educational access, equity, and inclusion. It includes my background in the creative arts, and how that informs my educational practice. Reflect on your professional identity: what is important to you? What has shaped your views on professionalism? What do you value in a workspace? Bring those things with you into the interview process, and you just might be surprised at the type of opportunities that open up for you.

Ask about organizational structure in specific ways.

This is a lesson worth learning. At the start of my process, I knew that I needed to do some research on the organization structure (i.e. who was in leadership, what was their background, etc). However, I did not know that I needed to ask questions about the overall health and functionality of that organizational structure. This cost me dearly in the past.

I learned that you should never wait until after receiving an employment opportunity, to be privy to the health of the organization structure. Ask questions about how the organizational structure promotes growth for the staff. Ask about how it might limit the work of the staff, if at all. Ask what they would change about the organizational structure, if anything. Ask about the history of the position. All of these things will help you to take the temperature of the health of an organizational structure, and allow you the chance to see if you can picture yourself in that structure.

Go with your gut. If it feels wrong, get more information so that you can access the site of the intuitive feeling.

I remember arriving on site to my institution & thinking, “This is it!” The mission, the colleagues, the timing… my gut (or intuition, if you prefer that term) was clear on it. Different factors go into creating that “gut feeling” in the career process. These factors have a lot to do with what you value as a professional. Personally, I value inclusion, professional development, and supportive relationships with colleagues to name a few. Throughout an interview process, your gut processes cues that create your understanding or intuition about a place.

For example, I still remember particular cues from various interview sites: being asked my preferred gender pronouns, speaking with leadership who openly described the nature of their leadership style, hospitality in the process, opportunities to speak with student leaders, etc. These things helped me in the career discernment process in regards to where I should land.

Career searching is NOT just about having the perfect resume, cover letter, application materials, interview suits. Although this is a part of it, there is much more. The process requires you to think through your identities and the values that you hold, in regard to those identities. It is understanding that the career search process is both external AND internal. The career search process requires being wise enough to notice hegemony even when you see it in the workplace (which many believe is a neutral space). It is making decisions that are healthy for you as a professional, which allow you to contribute even more to your field. And perhaps, most of all, it is choosing to be brave.

Image credit:
deathtostockphoto.com

Resources
Cook, Ellen P. Heppner, M.J., O’Brien, K. M. (2005). “Multicultural and Gender Influences in Women’s Career Development: An Ecological Perspective”. Journal of multicultural counseling and development (0883-8534), 33 (3), p. 165.

Collins, P. H. (1999). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

Pants in the Pulpit Pt. I: A Mother’s Act of Resistance

There weren’t too many things my mother hid from me. From a very early age, I knew her views on the world, modern medicine, faith, and more. My mother played the congas in our nondenominational Christian church each Sunday, serving in music ministry. In many ways, she was an extension of “the pulpit.”

The pulpit, in many such traditions, is an honored and sacred space. It is the site through which revelatory words flow for the healing of the people. One Sunday, our pastor pulled my mother aside: “He told me it’s not proper for women to wear pants in the pulpit.”

Our pastor was loving, intense, and well-meaning, but like many, had not escaped implicit & problematic ideologies. From that Sunday forward, the expectation was set: no pants (for women) in the pulpit. I was a child at this time, around 7 years old, and what would follow after that Sunday was a lesson I could never forget.

Scholar, Rose Weitz (2001) breaks it down like this:

“As Michel Foucault (1979, 1980) described, to carry out the tasks of modern economic and social life, societies require “docile bodies,” such as regimented soldiers, factory workers who perform their tasks mechanically, and students who sit quietly. To create such bodies, “disciplinary practices” have evolved through which individuals both internalize and act on the ideologies that underlie their own subordination. In turn, these disciplinary practices have made the body a site for power struggles and, potentially, for resistance, as individual choices about the body become laden with political meanings.

For millennia, women’s subordinate position has been justified by an ideology that labeled their bodies and brains as inferior (Weitz 1998) and has been reinforced by a unique set of disciplinary practices aimed at creating a submissive and “feminine” body…” p. 668

What women do with their bodies in sacred spaces, the ways they conform, their choices to resist, holds weight and has a ripple effect from one generation to the next.

My mother is a very practical woman. She isn’t one for navel-gazing and she prefers action to ideas. For her, wearing pants in the pulpit was simply the most logical thing to do. “I’m playing the congas, and that involves my whole body. I need to feel free while I’m playing. So that means I’m wearing pants.” Each week, I watched her wear pants. Each week, for about a month, she got pulled to the side. Until one day, no one said anything.

Shortly after, I noticed that more women were beginning to wear pants. In my mind’s eye, I remember the conversations happening in hushed corners – the realization that they could choose what they wore. They could reject the assertion that proper women did not wear pants in the pulpit… without saying a word. 

Words are not necessarily my mother’s “thing”. They are mine. What she has done with her body, I now do with my pen. At an early age, I saw that there was a middle – a gray area – a space that would be uniquely mine to navigate as a woman of color in a sacred space. The choices of how I would navigate that would be up to me… and it wouldn’t always be easy…

Resources
WEITZ, R. (10/2001). “WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: Seeking Power through Resistance and Accommodation”. Gender & society (0891-2432), 15 (5), p. 667 – 686.

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Pants in the Pulpit Pt. I: A Mother’s Act of Resistance by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

The Edited “About Me” – in Poetry

I am from a legacy of displacement
That found strength to put roots
Down in Philadelphia.
I am from the house in the suburbs,
And some thought, “They made it!”
And others thought, “What was it like
Growing up in the inner city?”
I am from the exasperated explanation,
“I am from over-the-bridge-
But-in-her-city-too”
I am from the dissonance
The in and not of
The close but not quite
The soon and not yet
I am from, “Only Brown dolls, love;
She’s got to have a positive image
Of herself
Somewhere.”
I am from “Whatchu’ say?”
And “What did you say?”
I am from Langston Hughes
And Hathaway
I am from literature, and Broadway plays
I am from summer gym camps
And Sunday services
I am from balance and bi-cultural navigations
I am from then and from now.

This work was inspired by Allison Vesterfelt’s “Discover the Power of Your Voice” Course.

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The Edited “About Me” – In Poetry by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Unbought & Unbossed: Writing to Self-Author

5 – 7 MINUTE READ

Writing is a hard and valuable practice. At the end of the day, what makes it so hard is not the exercises in grammar, the content creation, or the edits. The hardest part is learning to actually own your thoughts. Author & blogger, Allison Vesterfelt, constantly address writing as a practice that is internally healing & challenging. The arts (creative, written, or performance) has a way of exposing our deepest thoughts and truths; in these ways we can physically see our thoughts exposed ‘on paper’. It is about naming and claiming: writing down thoughts and saying, “Yes… I take responsibility. Those are mine.”

Often times, it’s a lot easier to let someone else speak for us. We can hide behind their words, choose the bits we agree with, and criticize / deconstruct the bits that we don’t. But when it’s our work, there is a sense of stepping up to the plate… “Here I am… with my words.”

If you watch Scandal, you’ll remember a particular scene between Papa Pope & Olivia Pope, as he tries to convince her to leave D.C. He spoke the sentiments and realities of many people within marginalized communities: you’ve got to do twice as much, you’ve got to be twice as good… to get half the credit. Papa Pope’s advice was all too familiar. As a Black woman, growing up in Philadelphia, both parents taught me the same lesson, while insisting I master Standard American English and navigate the systems of academia with excellence. I thank them for that, because it’s real. In her book, Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay (2014) cites a similar message in her own upbringing. Research explains:

“Solorzano et al. (2002) found that one response of students who had their abilities doubted was to work doubly hard and show their peers and professors that they belonged. Successful Black students interviewed by Fries-Britt and Turner (2002) shared that they often encountered students who made comments based on stereotypical images of Blacks, and that they felt that they repeatedly engaged in a “proving process” to establish themselves as worthy and academically able both in and outside of the classroom.” (Fries Britt & Griffin, 2007, p. 511-512)

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This phenomena extends past the halls of colleges and universities institutions. It finds me when I sit down to write. There are the all too familiar, “clutch your pearls moment”:
Will what I write be brilliant enough to actually be cited and recognized, especially when a man is interpreting / presenting on my work?
Will what I write be brilliant enough to establish professional status, when I am marginalized by age?
Will what I write be so brilliant that I cannot be denied?
As someone who carries a few marginalized identities… this stuff can get complicated.

And then, dear Allison Vesterfelt tells me that “writing is not an exercise of the mind. It is an exercise of the heart.” (I believe her and I don’t believe her at the same time. I think she’d be alright with that).  In my experience, writing is an exercise in self-authorship. It’s a clarify my thoughts, understand what is important to me, and then stay true in owning that (Baxter-Magolda, 2008). Writing is an exercise that compels me, encourages me: Own your thoughts. Own their brilliance. Own their shadows. Own your story. Unbossed. Unbought. It requires me to be different from even the people that I look up to in a variety of fields. It requires me to be an active participate in my own process.

When I was in graduate school, my professors led me to a similar lesson: Own your work. Defend it. Protect it. Grow from it and grow through it. Learning to freelance is that Lesson 2.0.

Image courtesy of Paul at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Resources:
Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2008). Three elements of self-authorship. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 269-284. doi: 10.1353/csd.0.0016

Chisholm, S. (2010). Unbought and unbossed (Exp. 40th anniversary ed.). Washington, D.C.: Take Root Media.

Fries-Britt, Sharon, and Griffin, K. (2007). “The Black box: How high-achieving Blacks resist stereotypes about Black Americans.” Journal of College Student Development 48.5: 509-524.

Fries-Britt, S., & Turner, B. (2002). Uneven stories: Successful Black collegians at a Black and a White campus. The Review of Higher Education, 25(3), 315-330.

Solorzano, D. G., Allen, W. R., & Carroll, G. (2002). Keeping race in place: Racial microaggressions and campus racial climate at the University of California Berkeley. Chicano Latino Law Review, 23(Spring), 15-112.

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Unbossed & Unbought: Writing to Self Author by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.