I Didn’t Know How to Be Poor, Black, Biracial, AND Queer; So I Wasn’t

feature image photo credit Taylor Hatmaker

Many years ago I attended college, right here in the beautiful state of North Carolina, and I had a lot of close friends that were girls. My friends were smart girls, talented girls, beautiful girls who were charming and had great senses of humor. We would hang out together in our dorm rooms, giggling and telling secrets and eating cookies til late at night. I would paint their nails, braid their hair, spend hours getting ready with them before heading off to some campus party where we would stay for only twenty minutes before heading back to our dorms because it was more fun when it was just us. I felt jealous when these girls spent a lot of time with their boyfriends. I thought it was because their boyfriends were, more often than not, pieces of crap who treated my friends like doormats, but years later I would be able to look back on many of my relationships with girls and realize that I hated the way they were treated because I knew I could treat them better. Turns out, I was actually crazy about them.

Coming to grips with my various identities was a long, weird process. I grew up in Birmingham, AL as one of the only biracial kids in a predominantly white school. We were poor and my parents weren’t together any more, and nothing about me or my family fit in with the community in which I grew up. Everyone always looked at me like they felt pity for me; pity for the color of my skin, pity for our socio-economic status, pity that we weren’t active members of the Baptist church. So I made it my job to assimilate as much as possible. I refused to stand out for anything but excellence. I was always on the honor roll; I didn’t do drugs, drink alcohol, or have sex; I held a part time job; I made the cheerleading squad and the dance team; I straightened my hair so it looked more like the other girls’; I won state theatre competitions and I got all the solos in show choir. It was easy to immerse myself in school because I had no dating life — the guys who flirted with me did so mostly in secret, afraid of what others would think of their interest in a girl that looked like me. At the time I thought that my dedication to school was an effort to prove to people that I didn’t need any pity, that I was doing just fine, but as much as it pains me to say it now, I think there was a part of me that was trying to apologize for my blackness since everyone outside of my family seemed to dislike it so much.

As you can imagine, this was not a very nurturing environment in which to grow up, let alone come out. Once, and only once, did I ever let my brain consider the possibility that I might like girls in a way that was different than what was expected of me. I considered this thought, honestly and quietly, knowing that this had the potential to rip my world apart, and then I reminded myself that I barely knew how to survive with the identity I already had. I didn’t know how to be poor, and black, and biracial, AND queer. So I wasn’t. I shut it down. I quieted the voice inside of me, convincing it that this was not a world in which it could survive. I had seen no examples of anyone like me, not in my life, not on tv, not in books, so rather than be the first of my kind, I decided not to exist.

Do you know how traumatizing it is to live your life thinking that you don’t exist?

I couldn’t wait for high school to be over, and my only prerequisite for college was that it be far away from Alabama. My good grades landed me at a private school in Salisbury, NC, the majority of my four years of tuition paid for by scholarships, and, finally, several hundred miles away from everything I had ever known, I began the process of shedding the armor I had learned how to wear as a kid. It was scary. It was exhilarating. I learned what to keep and what to discard through a complicated process of trial and error. My college was more diverse than my high school, filled with people of all ethnicities from all over the country. They seemed to appreciate all the things that made me unique — my goofiness, my ability to break out in dance with absolutely no warning, my love of theatre, the color of my skin, the curls in my hair. I started to embrace my blackness in a way that I never had before. Even though my Mom and Dad raised us to feel proud of our brown skin and our biracial identity, the opinions of the rest of the world had a much bigger impact on how I felt about myself growing up. But in college, my community was suddenly a mirror; not only did I see aspects of myself reflected in others, I also felt love and acceptance and appreciation from people who were not like me at all. I had never experienced anything like it before.

And yet there I was, still unknowingly harboring crushes on the amazing women in my life, completely oblivious to the implications of my fierce loyalty to them. I wasn’t in denial, I had just become extremely successful at compartmentalizing difficult emotions that I had no idea what to do with. My college years concluded with a newfound pride for my beautiful skin but with no better understanding of what love was than when I had left Alabama. And that’s what is tricky about having and acknowledging one’s own intersecting identities — the rules for certain parts of your life don’t always apply to the others. I am a feminist and I am a woman of color and I am queer. None of these parts of me exists alone, yet the pace at which I was finally able to begin healing from the oppressive, racist environment that I grew up in is not the same pace at which I was able to recognize my sexuality, accept it, and live my life proudly and openly. The discrimination that I experience as a woman feels different from what I face as a member of the LGBTQIA community and still different from what I face as a biracial individual. The only thing that connects all the various ways in which I navigate this world is the pride I take in doing it.

Being proud of all our parts, from the ones that are easy to share to the ones that aren’t, takes tremendous courage and faith. And there might be times in life, because of who we are with or where we live or how we feel, where our own acceptance of ourselves may falter. But this doesn’t make us failures. Protecting ourselves doesn’t make us failures. Nothing can make us a failure as long as we are patient, as long as we treat ourselves with grace and kindness and allow ourselves the space to have a complex identity that can grow and change. We are allowed to have complex identities and not have to apologize for them. I know this now to be true.

When I finally came out to myself, it was peaceful. I was 25 years old. I was filming on location and wandering through a new city when I met a woman in a store who was beautiful and charming and had a nice sense of humor. I was very familiar with women like this — they had accompanied me through all my years of college. What I wasn’t familiar with was one of them asking for my number. Surprisingly, even with an imagination as adept as mine, I had never before actually considered that an impressive woman would be interested in me. The prospect did rip my world apart, in the best possible way.


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Jasika Nicole is an actor, illustrator and DIY enthusiast living in Los Angeles, CA with her wife, Claire, and their dog, Rosie. She finds it impossible to watch TV without simultaneously knitting and very much enjoys cooking with peanut butter.

Jasika has written 5 articles for us.

24 Comments

  1. “And that’s what is tricky about having and acknowledging one’s own intersecting identities — the rules for certain parts of your life don’t always apply to the others.”

    love this. love all of this, and especially that sentence. thank you!

  2. Thank you SO much for writing this. I have struggled with accepting my identity as a queer woman for a long time. I have hid behind boyfriends and overzealous family members while I crushed HARD on my roommate, my best friend, my lab partner–beautiful, strong, funny, intelligent women. Only now, at age 28, have I realized who I am. I think it will be a long journey before I come out, NC isn’t exactly a good place to be queer right now, but those that support me no matter what know who I am and how I love. Thank you again for writing this piece. It’s beautiful.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this- I’m just gonna gush for a minute, I love reading your try curious blog, its like, You are a fantastic writer, you are inspiring both as a person and as a maker of things, so just, thank you for existing.

  4. Thank you for sharing this beauty. It’s on my list of things that made me cry today (in the best sort of way) and that paragraph on “being proud of all our parts” is totally my new phone screen background.

    Sometimes we have to bury who we are to survive, and that’s okay.

  5. “Do you know how traumatizing it is to live your life thinking that you don’t exist?”

    Well put. I know that feeling all too well, having vehemently denied my sexuality (or any sexuality, really) for most of my life. I’m still dealing with the effects of that some 4 years after coming out.

  6. “Nothing can make us a failure as long as we are patient, as long as we treat ourselves with grace and kindness and allow ourselves the space to have a complex identity that can grow and change.” I need to write this down on a piece of paper and carry it with me always. Thank you for your wonderful words, Jasika!

  7. Jasika, this is beautiful. Thank you.

    “Protecting ourselves doesn’t make us failures. . . . We are allowed to have complex identities and not have to apologize for them.” Thank you.

    I re-read this a couple of times to remind myself of this, especially since I connect with what you said towards the beginning about being so immersed about school and so rule-abiding (okay, and also the reaction friends’ boyfriends). Even now in grad school, I wonder periodically whether my intensity about academics has been a way of protecting myself from questions of identity. I’m not sure how I could have handled being queer in a place like Colorado Springs, so I stuck with being Hispanic, bookish, and weird. Yet I didn’t figure it out in undergrad either, even though it would have been fine there, I think.

  8. Please don’t misinterpret this comment as an attempt to “negate” the various parts of your “intersecting identities.” I’m giving you this feedback from a “glass is half full” perspective. It sounds to me as though you have more to be grateful for than you have to complain about. Yes, you had hardships in your life–everyone has a certain amount of hardship. You were able to overcome your hardships and become strong and resilient. You excelled BECAUSE you did not perceive yourself as a victim based on race, gender or sexual orientation, etc. If you had believed that you had no chance at success in life because of prejudices or structural barriers in the “system” (or in society) that were based on these ASCRIBED CHARACTERISTICS, you would not likely have had the determination that you had to succeed. You are living proof that success in this world is more about our own perception, and our own perspective, than about what other people think, do or say. You empowered yourself. If you had been exposed to/ bought into, neo-progressive, victim mentality, you would not be where you are, today.

    • I respect your opinion, and I also disagree with pretty much all of it. My article was not mean to show an example of the “right” way to be a poor person, a POC, or a queer woman, and your comment feels dismissive and lacking in any kind of compassion or empathy for another person’s experience. I am allowed to feel both thankful for my lot in life and frustrated at the hardships I have had to endure with equal fervor. I have not “overcome” my hardships- they are something that I struggle with each and every day- they are a part of my life, and they help inform how I navigate this world, for better and for worse. And, for the record, my hardships are not limited to what has been mentioned in this personal essay of mine; I have shared a tiny piece of what feels comfortable for me on this platform, but believe me, I am a whole person with a lifetime of anxieties, complicated relationships, regrets, shame, and bouts of self doubt. It feels unfair for you to tell me how I should feel about what I have been through in my life when you don’t know me, and problematic for you to explain to anyone how they should or should not view the trials and tribulations they have survived. I can be a victim of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia and still be “successful”- those things can (and do) exist on the same plane, simultaneously, for many, many people. Success doesn’t cancel out the difficulties that one has faced in their life, nor does it buffer the negative impact on one’s psyche. I am not writing this comment to start a debate with you, because I am completely uninterested in explaining myself any more than I already have in this comment, but I am replying because I took offense to what you wrote, regardless of your intentions, and it was important to me that I explain why. To me, your comment feels like it serves a broader purpose than just as a response to my essay- I get the feeling that you think many disenfranchised groups should stop “complaining” and just “work harder” to make their lives better and stop blaming things outside of their control on their perceived failures. You look at me and see that I survived and am “resilient”, so why can’t others do the same? While I think you intend this as a compliment, I will not willingly be the example for your skewed understanding of how people should and should not be affected by discrimination and trauma.

  9. Just wanted to thank you, Jasika, for your eloquence and openness. Such a beautiful piece of work, and these snapshots of experience can be so powerful for others further back on the road, especially written from such an empowered place.

    Also, I have to get this out – du bean – you have clearly missed the entire point of the piece. Also, “mate”, when you put “meaningful experiences” “trauma” and “analysis” in quotations marks, it actually does come off pretty disrespectful. Not that that shines a candle next to the stunning arrogance of thinking you know enough about a stranger from a blog post to contradict the meaning an author draws from the sum total of their life experience. Now that is a privileged position if ever I saw one. Quite surprised to see language like ‘victim mentality’ not being monitored by the site, but that Jasika’s been patient enough to lay it out for you… well, more power to you.

  10. Just wanted to thank you, Jasika, for your eloquence and openness. Such a beautiful piece of work, and these snapshots of experience can be so powerful for others further back on the road, especially written from such an empowered place.

    Also, I have to get this out – du bean – you have clearly missed the entire point of the piece. Also, “mate”, when you put “meaningful experiences” “trauma” and “analysis” in quotations marks, it actually does come off pretty disrespectful. Not that that shines a candle next to the stunning arrogance of thinking you know enough about a stranger from a blog post to contradict the meaning an author draws from the sum total of their life experience. Now that is a privileged position if ever I saw one. Quite surprised to see language like ‘victim mentality’ not being monitored by the site, but that Jasika’s been patient enough to lay it out for you… well, more power to her for that.

  11. Thank you so much for writing this story. I also give praise to Whitney Houston for helping me love myself through her music. I too am a gay male. I was mugged several years ago and left in an ally way stabbed over 5 times, just for being my truth. When I was finally able to get released from the hospital, I was afraid to leave the house. I spent several months just staying inside my home. Then it happened. Whitney Houston was on the Oprah show singing to me. “I DIDN’T KNOW MY OWN STRENGTH!” Immediately I got up out of bed and started living again. What a gift she gave me that day

  12. Hi Jasika! I just wanted to write to say how much your article resonated with me. I am currently going through that journey of self discovery at university. Except I happened to end up at one which is even less diverse than where I am originally from. Being black/queer women I often find I am always one or two of the mentioned in the room. It was really nice to read of your experience. So thanks so much for the great article 💕

    • Hi, Jasmin- I appreciate your comment so much! Thank you for reading it and I feel honored that you connect with it. I wish you all the luck and love in the world as you continue on with your journey 🙂

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