What Shaped You?

I spent most of my adolescence and adult years surrounded by men. Yes I had female friends but I guess I was a bit of a so-called tomboy. In truth I didn’t feel stimulated by the female company around me. Their lives seemed centred around all things seemingly feminine and trivial. Clothes, hair, that sort of thing. If I needed a serious conversation of any depth I would always find myself amongst males. We’d talk about politics, identity, culture; history and my gender never seemed to enter that space. Neither as a barrier or something to celebrate. I was raised to become a person – not a woman. I was however raised to be more conscious of my blackness.  The home messages were never about ‘As a girl you need to do this or that or can’t go here or there.’ I was told however, that as a Black person I’d need to be twice as good as my white counterparts to even stand a chance of acquiring an equal opportunity. The messages were always about what I’d need to do because I’m Black rather than why. The why I had to work out for myself and there were countless examples that really brought home to me that this was not a fair and equal society. Particular groups were disliked whether they did anything to warrant it. Anyway I digress…..well just a little because I think what I felt I needed to be ‘twice as good’ at and the stimulation I needed to strengthen my racial identity, was going to come from men. I was not thinking this consciously in my teens and twenties but as I write it’s a conclusion I’ve arrived at. I worked for two and a half years in an all female team – all white except me. What made that interesting was the whole political nature of the work. These women in the main were staunch feminists and the work of the organisation was tackling domestic violence as it was called then (just out of the ‘battered wives’ era). It wasn’t just about refuges and rehousing. It was about lobbying and campaigning to change policy and law as well as attitudes. Strangely it didn’t make me consider my womanliness  or femininity any more than when I was a teenager, probably because it was not on top for these women of which many would be described as ‘butch’ or labeled as feminist or lesbian – terms used virtually interchangeably back then in the mid 80’s. Try as might, they could never get me to sign up to the ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign. My parents hailed from the Caribbean. Housework is something you did because you respected the place you lived in and had to do your share to keep it tidy. I did get pocket money but this was not related to the satisfactory completion of any chore. Wages for housework? Not part of my value base or that of my children. Back then, the lovers rock reggae music genre I considered to be airy fairy, make up unnecessary and shopping for clothes a right chore. Two out of 3 of those I still hold dear now as I’ve hit quarter century. Anyway…. Going into my thirties is when the bonding process with other women really began as my first child started school. My engrossment into the world of feminism was halted by his premature arrival at 31-33 weeks. I had to cancel a few meetings in my diary never to be rescheduled! The school run was the time to build friendships. It was a female dominated but not exclusively. Friendships developed over shared childcare needs and through growing awareness borne out of Afrocentrism which was an ideological and philosophical gateway for ordinary people of Afrikan Heritage to rediscover their identity, history and heritage.  The 90’s were an Afrikan Diaspora peak renaissance period which caught the attention of the Black community beyond those who were Rastafarian. Rastafari was a rite of passage for me but that’s another blog for another day! All I’ll say about that now is that from a gender stereotype point of view I wasn’t much use. Gender roles were defined in such a way that it was not a place that brought out the best in me. I do realise that I’m taking a few detours on this journey. Would you believe I started out with the title ‘Reflections on Sisterhood’? It was during this Afrocentric renaissance that I became close to some sisters….. who were close to some brothers…There was a group of 3 sisters who tried their best to make a demure woman of me – with limited success. I still dislike make up and shopping with other women. I do however paint my toe nails now and love a pedicure. Lover’s Rock I’ve warmed to but my spirit is still moved by roots reggae, the sound of protest, rebellion and revolution. The music that taught me who I was and where I came from and equally importantly it told me where I needed to go and what I needed to do. I considered myself fortunate to not be raised in a religious household, it meant that other influences apart from the fear of going to hell, were allowed into my life.  Many of my peers, I later discovered were barred from listening to reggae music in their homes and attendance at church was compulsory – at least once a week.  No pictures of the last supper or crucifixes hung from my homely walls as they did for my peers. Before I was even a teenager I had developed a strong sense of racial pride and less known to me at that time, a sense of purpose. I recall I certainly understood something about race dynamics. When my father once asked me if I would rather be black or white, I didn’t hesitate to say ‘White’ not because I thought white people were better than Black people but I thought then, that being white was advantageous and easier to be.  Now,  I can describe that as white privilege, but as an eight year old thereabouts, it was not part of my vocabulary. I think the title of this piece definitely needs to change! Did I mention I used to be in a theatre company?

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