The things that try to undo me

Ayanna Columbus

In recognition of Black History Month, the Record is inviting community members to write pieces of advocacy, celebration, grief, discussion, history, or personal experience. This is the first opinion piece in that series. Those interested in submitting an op-ed for our Black History Month column can contact Iman Shumburo ’24.  

This is not meant to be a guide to what it’s like being black, or being a black woman, because we aren’t a monolith. Every black person has different experiences which may or may not feel familiar to the ones I will talk about. Nonetheless, I wanted to provide a look at how my growing consciousness of race and gender impact how I think and visibly respond in real-world situations. I hope some of you can relate. 

I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended charter schools nearly my whole life. Charter schools are like private schools if they were nonprofit and mostly filled with students of color, so not at all like private schools. From first to fifth grade I had been presented with a very minimal knowledge of black history, which included people like Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver, who I loved because I had thought he invented peanut butter, which I also loved. 

My first real introduction to the black experience in America came in seventh grade, when we read a book named They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group. My English teacher wanted us to focus on the word choice and historical context, but the pictures were enough for us to understand what it should mean to us. Simultaneously, the Black Lives Matter movement was becoming ever more popular, and the media was flooded with graphic videos and images of tragic black deaths. It was overwhelming, and I was disheartened by the stories I was given, which convinced me that brutality and death were a characteristic part of the black experience, almost like it was a rite of passage. 

However, through my own experience I’ve come to realize that premature death isn’t every black person’s endgame. Because there are so many nuances to the black experience, I think it’s important to spend time observing events which are arguably small in comparison to death, but when condensed over years can emulate a bullet’s destructive power.

In using this month to reflect on my experiences through the lens of my various social identities, I’ve realized that a lot of the anxieties I have are ones that I’ve helped fuel by digesting people’s biased perceptions of me as genuine to my character. I’ve spent so much time in survival mode contemplating what-ifs and calling it self-preservation, or “preempting disaster” until I was spending the majority of my energy trying to avoid things I couldn’t even identify anymore. All I knew is that I was so, so tired.

Here are a few of the things that try to undo me:

1. Having to prove that I belong

I was raised on mantras like “no guts, no glory; no glory, no guts” and “if it’s hard, you gotta do it hard.” This, along with my natural competitiveness, fueled me when I was younger, and convinced me that I could have anything I wanted if I worked hard enough for it, and I wanted to be the best at everything. My dad would try and pacify me, saying, “Your biggest competition is yourself,” and I’d sigh and roll my eyes, but as I’ve learned how the stories we tell about race and gender affect one’s perception of self, I’ve realized that there was some truth to that.

Everyone reading this has probably heard the saying that black people have to work twice as hard to get half as much, and it’s true. 

In high school, I competed in public forum debate, but I never seriously got into it until my senior year. Though on the surface debate is a battle of wits, in reality, smarts are only half of what helps secure a win. The other half is appearance. Coaches train their debaters to look confident, even when they aren’t, and to speak sternly and swiftly, to psych opponents out. My coaches taught me the same things, so I knew how to handle dominant competitors. In the few scattered competitions I had done before, I had seen other white competitors, but never really got put in rounds with them. However, at this particular competition, there was a larger roster, so I was bound to face students that didn’t go to my school, or the sister school we shared a building with, which also had a predominantly black student population. I ended up competing solo after my partner stopped feeling well early on in the round. The two girls we were going against were white, and went to a well-known private high school in the city. As I sat there by myself, I realized that the intimidation tactics I was trained to spot somehow felt different this time. These girls carried themselves like they owned the place. They thought they were superior, and they weren’t acting. We had just started, but they had already decided that they had won. 

When the first speaker began, I couldn’t focus enough to write down her contentions. My mind and body felt as if it had been hijacked. I lost the feeling of the pen in my hand, and sounds became muffled in my ears, like I was underwater. In my head I kept thinking, “Who do you think you are? Stay in your place.” I thought it would be rude to challenge them. I lost the round. Did they know that they could make me feel this way? Did they consciously use their whiteness as a weapon against me? Did I really let it work?

2. Femininity and gender expression

With time, I’ve become more conscious of my body and what its language should say in different spaces. I was considered a tomboy growing up, and in church my mom would say, “Sit like a lady” when I had my legs too far apart, and outside of church my dad would say, “How about wear a dress sometimes? You can’t always look like you’re ready to shoot a jump shot,” which I must admit is not only funny, but an accurate analysis of how I dressed at the time. I think that the reason my family was so quick to denounce my frequent deviations from traditional gender expression was because they themselves were conscious of how I would be perceived based on my skin color. When you’re black in America, your race is treated as your first handicap, and any further deviations from what is considered “normal” only make living as a black person harder. Even though at the time I was just doing what felt natural to me, this cultural focus on seeming respectable to the white masses limited my exploration of femininity and the gender spectrum. 

Though these were small comments, other people made small comments too, which developed into insecurities that I used to dictate how I presented myself. When I wanted to go to the park, I wouldn’t leave the house without leggings under my basketball shorts, because I was frequently told that my knees were “too dark” from all the times I scraped them. Once I eventually learned to love my legs, I became obsessed with my arms, which I thought were too muscular, not ladylike, and therefore not attractive, so I wore long sleeves a lot. I would even go on walks with my sister, and whenever she’d get catcalled, I’d be so disgusted by the men who did it, but also wished I received the same treatment, because that meant that you were desirable. Though I talk about these feelings as if I’ve overcome them, I still sometimes feel compelled to present myself in a way that men would find appealing. When getting dressed I often think to myself, “Do you really want to wear this, or are you tricking yourself into thinking you want to, because you want to be desirable?” What parts of me are pure, and what parts are pure socialization?

These anxieties won’t disappear by next year, and realistically there will be more to consider by then. Rather than internalizing the not-so-little things and allowing them to form into bullets that penetrate and paralyze me, this month and onwards, I am working to develop a voice that is louder than the things that try to undo me. As I’ve done so, the anxieties have started to subside. Though it’s getting easier to drown out oppositional voices, the reality is that no matter how many bullets I disjoint, as a black woman in America, I will always have to bear a shield to survive.

Ayanna Columbus ’24 is from Brooklyn, N.Y.