Assimilation and the Double-Bind of Respectability

The story of my hair is very long. Emotional, and not exactly complete. Here and there, I would seek out information online about what to do with my hair, only really diving in lately once I got past a jargon wall and product idolatry. I realized how a facet of fashion and beauty from the 90s, particularly beloved R&B women, grew out of maintenance practices for coarser hair. As I twisted my hair into bantu knots and wrapped a scarf around my head before bed, I felt a fashion flashback that isn’t getting as much coverage as boho chic, feeling an undeniable connection to a time when black and brown artists elbowed their way into pop culture and have stayed ever since. Despite this being appropriate for my hair texture and exactly what I should be doing to hair, I feel a bit of a sham. I didn’t grow up surrounded by friends and family members in twists and wraps enough to associate with it, and I’m aware of the continued exploitation of black culture by people in places of privilege. On top of increased vigilance of people wrongly claiming to be black, I am often exasperated when I need to talk about race, or specifically, my race. Am I black? Am I black enough? These kinds of questions are very familiar to me.

My relationship with race and class stem from biological family, now estranged but the first influence every therapist asks for. They are both from the Caribbean, having moved to the US in the 80s and relying on my father going through college to turn up something for them. My parents a multi-racial themselves, which isn’t really remarkable in the Caribbean, but it made things confusing for me here. Enough people bothered me enough that my lineages became a chant of sorts: “Jamaican, Indian, German, Trinidadian, Palestinian, and Venezuelan.” Did I really feel like I was from any of these countries? No, not really, I described myself as distinctly American, which I didn’t understand meant assimilating with a particular white, middle class-ness. Immigrant parents have a way of goading their children into the assimilation vs roots dynamic, and mine, well-intentioned, took it as far as they could. I rarely went to schools in my neighborhood, often the least well-off person in a group of friends, yet a ‘spoiled American’ to my parents. I became ‘not one of those people,’ groups of black and latin@ kids who strongly identified with their or their parents’ country or neighborhood of origin, to my school friends. I internalized that, spurned by frequent calls of oreo and taking to faux-intellectual punk and/or queer kids as an outlet of not fitting in. But because those spaces remained populated by mostly white people, my role in resistance was being the exotic, the other in service of white people’s fantasies. I’m held to a high standard of respectability as someone who is both not white nor cisgender. I can see my stock go up and down depending on how I wear my hair, what clothes I wear, and how much makeup I have on.

Upon learning more about activism and the many methods of resistance, I know there are parts of me that come up against and even alienate people of certain radical politics. I don’t think that I’ve done, or am doing, anything wrong; I would go as far as saying I don’t have a larger than typical amount of internalized racism, classism, and other harmful systems. Rather, I am responding to my circumstance in the best way possible, and any critique of complicity, which indeed has come my way, is ignorant of the context in which my behavior exists in. I’m pretty self conscious about my love for fashion, a love that came as a coping mechanism for a very real dress well or die pressure. I’ve walked in an interview that was over in 3 minutes, a man looking me up and down and clearly not liking what he saw. I got a job when I straightened my hair, wore makeup, and got clothes that I needed to own for years in order to not be a complete splurge. Of course, one of the first things my coworkers said to me was that I looked like I spent too much time on beauty.

People today say I have an inaccessible beauty, I’m too academic, I’m too professional. I have internalized classism. Of course, the people who say this are typically white, queer people who come from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds and had the confidence to leave that and get by on lower amounts of income, because their backgrounds will always be with them. I don’t get to be trash queer, I don’t get to be anarcho artist love pile in the woods. When I first moved to San Francisco, I stayed in a hostel downtown while looking for a room to live. Within two weeks I was stopped four times in public, in broad daylight, by men assuming I was a sex worker, bringing along the usual shitty attitudes people have towards them. When I dated a man who worked in the Financial District, I could feel all those eyes as I waited for him on the side walk. I don’t get to be anything less than respectable on other people’s terms, there is no enlightenment for me to throw it off, because I’m not throwing off middle class life, just a desperate mirage. When I look around and the women who are supported, who get’s who’s dollars, who is in who’s book, I can tell that I never fully integrated into any community around here. I’m trans for black people, and brown for the queers, the kitchen sink for everyone else, when they want me. It’s not uncomplicated, I try to find the joy in the position I’m stuck. You see, this respectability thing, it goes two ways. From the people who aren’t like you, and from those who are.

Blackness, queerness, these things are summed up to be monolithic experience, something that you need to be close enough to in order to qualify. If you don’t look or speak enough of the part, people question your authenticity. I think it’s a mistake, especially with blackness, to not see the identity itself in a diaspora, spread far and integrated, surviving, in different ways. That everything about me is black at the same time that it is every other race in my blood. Making assimilation the opposite of progress goes the same way of the alternative becoming mainstream, being another list of customs one must ascribe to in order to ‘authentic.’ I’ve been thinking of this word a lot lately, authentic, what is authentically me. And as I started to dig, I found parts of me buried under this double-bind, too different from the norm, not flagging enough for the rebels. A part of me is sad that it won’t be contributing to one community or another, but I think it’s time I did something for myself, despite what others say.

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