Seen and Heard: Tell me about an experience that you’ve had that has the greatest impact on your feelings about being seen and heard.
NC: I’m struggling to find one particular moment because I think it was really a lot of little ones throughout my life. In one scenario, I was with a family member my age, and we were hanging out with a guy that she was dating and some of his friends. It’s funny because I remember wearing what I felt was the coolest outfit I owned, and I guess feeling — I can’t say that I remember exactly how I felt in the moment. After we hung out, she and I were on our way home and she mentioned to me, “Oh, one of the guys was talking about how you look like burnt chicken.”
After telling my Mom about it, she said, “Oh, you know, people talk about you being dark skinned. The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. Don’t go around saying that to everybody but…” It’s a saying that parents will use as a remedy for children. I don’t know, I just feel like that situation was really discouraging. It reinforced something that I was already feeling. It wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of my thoughts, but I was so willing to subscribe to it. I feel like it was already planted there, and this person watered it. Then I was willing to let it grow.
It affected the way I saw myself compared to other women of color. When I watched television as a kid, the prettier girls were always lighter skinned girls. I couldn’t verbalize, as a child, “I see all these girls that look like this, am I not pretty because I don’t look like them?” Hearing my family member say that just continued to reinforce what was already subconsciously affecting me.
Seen and Heard: How would you describe yourself as a communicator?
NC: In the work environment, I have challenges sometimes when it comes to speaking with higher-ups. I’m compliant more than anything else, at least in comparison to other people I’ve heard verbalize their discontent. I don’t think that I’m that person. My biggest fear of being seen and heard is making other people uncomfortable. I’ve seen women who are vivacious and very vocal and I admire them a lot. But there is also an envy there. I wish I could do those things, but they are also intimidating. It’s like, “Wow, a woman fully standing up for herself and being able to share how she feels even if it’s not the popular opinion.” Just being fully visible and attracting attention is intimidating. I’ve asked myself, “Why do I have an issue with it?” I have moments when I’m like, “Who does she think she is to be all of this?” But there is nothing wrong with that. Why does that make her susceptible to hate?
Seen and Heard: What do you fear will happen if you stand up for your opinions?
NC: I’ve always been a very likable person, and I feel like I would be less likable. I feel like I would make people uncomfortable. I would attract attention and not know what to do with it.
Seen and Heard: Have you ever had a lot of attention like that?
NC: If I’m talking to friends or meeting new people and we’re joking around, I feel comfortable and in control of the environment. I feel like I can always just say, “Oh, I’m kidding,” and retract what I said, opposed to, I guess, standing up for an unpopular opinion. Humorous situations are very different. I’m having a hard time verbalizing what the opposite would be, but it feels very different to receive attention for other things besides being playful.
Seen and Heard: What do you remember having a lot of attention for? Something other than humor. Positive or negative attention.
NC: I spoke at my graduation. That was a bit of positive attention.
Seen and Heard: Hearing you speak about your experiences is interesting. This idea of skin color, what the American beauty standard is and being called that name by that kid during such a formative time. It’s almost like the body that you’re in wasn’t supposed to be seen or acknowledged or special or beautiful because of other people’s ideas. I found it very interesting when you were talking about it at all and trying to pinpoint because it is so pervasive that we don’t see it happening.
I think that, and this isn’t part of the interview, this is something I want to share with you, there is a story that you believe about what will happen if you’re visible, and it may or may not be true. Sometimes we have to act to test whether our theories about ourselves are true.
Even if they are true, you’re now a woman with different skills and different understanding. Different tools than you might have had at fifteen or twenty or whenever. It’s really easy to walk around with this sense of fear of the unknown when sometimes what it takes to know it is to just do something about it, right? I would offer that it might be worthwhile to just to experiment with, “What would happen if I did express myself in this way to this person? Or if I got on stage? Or if I just jumped in?” Sometimes fear has to be tested.
NC: It’s interesting just listening to you talk. I have a hard time communicating in relationships. There is this fear of expecting too much. Of coming off crazy or coming off how other people would characterize as crazy. Because of that, I don’t express how I feel. I just kind of stay silent. I’ve built up this idea that if I don’t show someone how they’ve made me feel, I hold on to power. I don’t think it’s actually serving any beneficial purpose. All the time I’m thinking, “I would have said this if I’d actually said something.” That’s not useful.
Seen and Heard: I work with a lot of women who are like, “I’m afraid to ask for my raise.” And I’m like, “Do you think you deserve a raise? Really? Beyond, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve been in this role and I’m a VP.’ Do you think you deserve this raise? If you really thought that you’d be a little indignant right now versus apologizing for asking for it.”
“Do you really feel as a human being that you deserve to be compensated, acknowledged, and rewarded for your hard work, or do you feel like you are somehow obligated to sacrifice and struggle for other people?” A lot of us do, really, deep down. Deep, deep, deep down. My mother told me once that she would always take the worst piece of food. I can see doing that for my children. If it’s me and a husband, and I’m always taking the worst food, what the hell is that really about?
Am I doing it from a place of real graciousness, like, “You know what? it’s fine,” or am I like, “Nope, bad ones for me. There is a skimpy, little dried up piece. That’s what I’m going to get.” Am I coming from that place? Because that’s completely different. These things converge into this place where we don’t show up because we can’t. We haven’t really examined that for ourselves.
NC: Or, I feel like we may not necessarily see examples of people doing it in a way that feels healthy for ourselves. I’ve seen people stand up for themselves, but I know that I’m a different kind of communicator. Yelling at people, or having quick remarks, is not necessarily healthiest for me because I’m a very emotional communicator. I don’t communicate often; when I do it brings a lot out of me. There is this element of wondering, “Is the way I communicate wrong?”
Seen and Heard: Right.
NC: Because it doesn’t always necessarily meld with everyone else’s communication style.
Seen and Heard: What wisdom do you think a woman or a girl could take from your story?
NC: Knowing not to allow someone else’s opinions of you penetrate and overtake your own. What was especially difficult about my situation with my family member was that it was said by someone who looked like me. It wasn’t some white guy who said that about me, it was another person who was black.
I think it’s important to recognize that sometimes someone’s words, even if they’re directed at you, are not even about you. For all I know, that could have been a whole internal thing for that person and their struggle with how they look. It’s about not being so willing to subscribe to everyone else’s opinions and determining how you feel about yourself. I wish was able to see that in that moment.
Seen and Heard: How do you want to use your voice in the world right now?
NC: I want my voice to be my act of defiance against accepting beauty standards that are placed on me by the majority. I feel like women of color in general, not just women of darker skinned color, are so frequently told that everything we possess is wrong. Until it shows up on somebody else, and then it’s the new fad.
I also want my voice to show growth. I know that I have these limitations and fears, so the fact that I am willing to share my voice is a testament to moving past that fear. It’s something that even beginning to recognize in your life can allow you to speak up a little bit more, or just be seen for the authentic person that you are. The actual person that you are, not the facade that you might put on for the sake of being likable or for all these other reasons.