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On Brown-Girl Exclusivity And Writing Our Own Narratives

Brown women do not need to be diagnosed with impostor syndrome in order to feel like impostors. We’ve had to contend with being told so from day one.

Posted on March 8, 2015, at 12:43 p.m. ET

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The girls of Girlhood.

"I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." —Zora Neale Hurston

Consider for a moment the first verse of Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Find light in the beautiful sea, I choose to be happy, she sings. You and I, you and I, we’re like diamonds in the sky. Before long, the 2012 pop ballad has ambushed you with anthem-like recall, citing those times when all it took was the breathy way Rihanna says I’m alive to transform a waning party into what feels nearest to coronation. Feel the warmth, we’ll never die. We’re like diamonds in the sky. The effect is subliminal. Some songs simply activate you.

There is perhaps no better example of the command of "Diamonds" than Céline Sciamma’s use of it in her latest film, Girlhood (translated from the French Bande de Filles, i.e., girl gang). Centered on Marieme, a black teenage girl who later goes by the name Vic (short for victory), the film takes place just outside Paris, in and around the concrete towered housing projects where she grows up.

One night Marieme (Karidja Touré) and her three girlfriends, Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré), rent a hotel room. They talk and laugh. They tease each other as only teenage girls can, with sweet reverence and slight clout, but also with an attitude that permits them to intervene in a world that will not have them or presumes to claim them. They are each other’s warrant on life: on the potential that is invariably denied to them time and again.

In this hotel room, temporarily immune to what pains them, they listen to “Diamonds.” They dance and mouth the words as it plays in its entirety. They move with purpose and self-made sovereignty, reveling each time Rihanna sings shine bright and feeling the rapturous appeal of repeating we’re beautiful. They’re also, it’s important to note, having fun. What rises up in them is not just the diversion of song but its associative capacity and a distinctly charged kind of levity. A levity that — and this is crucial — mobilizes. The scene is exquisite. Essential in its rejection and flawless collapse of what teenage girls and women of color have come to expect: that self-possession and the pleasure of appetite — of delighting in and seeking more, of yearning — must be approached with caution.

For those three or so minutes, Marieme, Lady, Adiatou, and Fily conceive a space that is entirely theirs, defined not by the odds that are stacked against them — failing school systems, concealed and overt white supremacy, the categorical violence flung at black girls every single day, an older brother and his patriarchal hold of the home, a rival girl gang — but by the vitality that emerges from closing one’s eyes and singing with resolve as if to say, I am not here for you. In this room right now, I am here for me. Together the four girls are, to quote Audre Lorde, “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”

Call me sentimental (and likely selective with my memory), but for a brief moment when watching this scene, what surged to the surface was a longing for my own adolescence. I was young and, in my naïve construction of self, felt invincible. Even now as I type “invincible,” misspelling it in my haste, my computer — as if reminding me of how things stood — corrects “invincible” to “invisible.” Go figure.

And yet, despite the goose bump–inducing thrill of that scene — Rihanna always has her way with us — I cannot overlook the glaring fact that a white woman directed Girlhood. Why should I be expected to? For women of color who so seldom see our reflection in film, it is imperative that we do not feel indebted to art that merely provides us with a mirror, that we do not confuse myopic glimpses of ourselves with the illusion of reflection, and that we remain critical of those who are holding up these so-called mirrors.

Sciamma’s gaze is palpable throughout Girlhood. Her insistence on concealing dark-skinned bodies in neon blue light does exactly that: It obscures. It distorts interior spaces too and implies a club atmosphere even when it’s daytime. Slowed panning shots of black girls dancing slackens pace at their thighs and mimics a music video. Stereotypical images of black girls walking and talking, and loudly speaking over one another are scattered throughout the film, and speak to Sciamma’s culled estimate of her film’s heroines.

By virtue of Sciamma being white, the film is born from her fascination and not from a black teenage girl’s lived experiences. Hers supersedes theirs. No matter her intention, that distinction is critical because fascination is a privilege that ultimately lays claim. It perpetuates the explorer’s exemption. It legitimizes appropriation, disguises power as curiosity, and so quickly mythologizes the socioeconomic realities of a character’s life. Beasts of the Southern Wild’s pernicious use of magical realism comes to mind. That film was nice to look at: Our senses marveled, Malick-type awe ensued. But spectacle shouldn’t absolve us of our responsibility to interrogate enchantment or forget that so often, the same images that mesmerize are the ones that misrepresent. There was nothing pretty about Hurricane Katrina.

Sciamma’s fascination confirms that depth cannot be reached merely from observing. Depth and fullness of character is not an upshot of fascination. The inauthentic crutch of purported “universality” is, however. So much so that I’ve come to flinch whenever the word is uttered, wary of any director who qualifies his or her characters with it. I’ve come to understand “universality” as a mark of carelessness, as a con. Of appearing nonthreatening while usurping story. After all, it’s frequently the well-meaning white director who when speaking about his or her work, traffics in expressions like “I hope to do it justice” in order to mitigate any responsibility for making a perfunctory film about real-life struggle he or she knows little about.

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Assa Sylla and Karidja Touré.

Exclusivity of narrative is what I’ve been racing toward over the last few years, in my life and in my writing. The act of swerving inwards and prioritizing the differences I was taught were inadequacies. Endorsing brown-girl exclusivity and seeking it out — tea dates and group texts, connecting with a roommate about our moms, our aunts, and their cooking, and noticing how these generations of brown women all seemed to waddle up the stairs of our fourth-floor apartment in the same anticipatory way. Or simply meeting other brown girl writers and riffing about the sheer reserve of stuff we want to say and commit words to. Nothing attenuates the effects brought on by a recent spell of self-doubt like talking it out with another brown girl. What converges in those moments is what I interpret as self-care.

Again, Audre Lorde said it right: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” After all, exclusivity of narrative is a form of weaponry. I chose silence as means to comply with a world that regularly denied my full extent. In learning to verbalize that silence, I am arming myself. I am also enjoying myself. Big-time.

More so, exclusivity of narrative denies the presumption that the only way to be heard is to teach. Teaching is exhausting. It supposes expertise and disallows brown girls the room to aim high, misstep, to flex, to honor our instincts, to experience growing pains and the feel-good spring that comes from contradicting ourselves or changing our minds. Teaching, in this particular sense of the word, is the quickest way to burn out.

The expectation that I am here to answer the average white person’s questions is, as Toni Morrison noted in a speech she gave in 1975 at Portland State University, an expectation that ultimately sidetracks me. “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction,” she says. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

In prioritizing the company of other brown girls, I am no longer valuing inquiring minds. They come second, if that. I am no longer caught mid argument with a ball of tears in my throat, reasoning against a movie’s negligence or elucidating why what that famous person said is racist. It’s an everyday nuisance. So terribly wearing. Thing is, those tears originate from the fluctuating rhythms of hopelessness and frustration — the cavity created from years of feeling outnumbered (my whole life, most of my friends have been white) and wondering if it would ever become possible to incorporate myself while preserving — scratch that, celebrating — my identity. Advocating for myself in a room of brown women who grasp that what exasperates me has metastasized into what ails me, that over time has encouraged self-omittence, is less about advocating and more about taking pleasure in the company of silent nods. Of clapping in agreement because it comes so naturally and expels the limitations of the unsaid. Our dumb-happy smiles overcome us because relating feels closest to co-conspiring. To shining bright.

The sweet return of recognition with my brown girlfriends is invaluable. It emboldens me. It keeps me alert to my own privileges too: where I attended college, my fair skin, the strong relationship I have with my parents. All of this recognition helps allay the fatigue and escape burnout. Because yes, there will always be one more thing.

And like The Daily Show's Jessica Williams, my choices aren’t up for debate. You did not discover me. You cannot collect me. I will not be governed by some fabricated sense of anticipation, some counterfeit hope that someone will soon stumble upon my work. Because here’s what I know: I was never voiceless. As Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Teachers spoke to brown girls differently. Carpool parents confided in us, volunteering commentary about my mother and father’s parenting decisions. For brown girls, to act our age felt like a breach of contract. We were born dutiful in the eyes of authority whereas white women are afforded a prolonged adolescence. Lest we forget: Williams is only 25 years old. For brown girls, obligation to everyone else has regularly outdone autonomy.

More so, what bewildered me most about Ester Bloom’s piece on The Billfold about Williams was her prescriptive tone. How casually she tossed around terminology like "impostor syndrome" with regards to Jessica Williams’ choice not to put herself in the running for Jon Stewart's job. What rushed to mind was the all times in my life I have been told I couldn’t achieve something, or that I was feigning my pursuits, or trying to impress someone. That my tastes were unlikely and could use some restraint. Brown women do not need to be diagnosed with impostor syndrome in order to feel like impostors. We’ve had to contend with being told so from day one.

It was springtime. Raining, I think. I was 12. My mother and I had been listening to Ella Fitzgerald in the car on our way to my high school entrance interview. Near-hypnotized by Fitzgerald’s scatting — a sound I had never heard before — and because my stomach was in knots, I welcomed the nonsensical freeness of her singing. It preoccupied me. “Whoa,” I exclaimed. “How does she do that?” As if to amuse myself, I scatted along with Ella. I use the term very loosely. Mostly I just giggled and dood-ily-do’ed as my mother tapped along on the steering wheel.

Before I knew it, we had arrived at the school, I was called in for my interview, and I was already being asked my final question: “Durga, if you could learn any skill, what would it be?” Still breathless from the car ride and likely still nervous, I told the teacher that my mother and I had just been listening to Ella Fitzgerald and that scat singing was, while I realized a funny answer to her question, the first thing that came to mind. “Scatting?” she said, looking at me skeptically. Maybe it was a silly answer; perhaps she had expected something more practical. Either way, she inched close, looked me straight in the eye and said, “While it’s clear from your grades that you’re a very smart and hardworking girl, my only advice is this: Next time, try and be more honest when answering questions about yourself.”

The guilt I felt in that moment has stayed with me all these years. The rush of blood to my face, the warming of my palms, the sheer physicality of shame — I will never forget that. It wasn’t until this year that I realized my answer was so innocent, so immediate, so exact in the mind of a 12-year-old girl who an hour earlier was merely enjoying the goofy attraction of a new sound, of dood-ily-do-doing and sitting shotgun with her mother. But this teacher deemed my innocence and curiosity, both, as suspect. I was a liar in her eyes.

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In the press notes for Girlhood, Sciamma describes first spotting the teenagers who inspired Girlhoood hanging out near the metro or in and around Paris’ Les Halles shopping center. She describes growing interested in “their aesthetic, styles and poses.” She characterizes their energy as “irresistible” and expresses a need to fasten the film to “the political reality of France today” — a reality that is barely explored in the film. In many ways Girlhood confirms what happens when a marginalized voice presents itself as an opportunity, as appealing. That Sciamma may not have meant to assert her opportunity as a white director — that her aim was to tell the story of a girl growing up — but her systematic power, the tally of two features she’d previously made, enabled her to imagine and then accomplish Girlhood. That’s not nothing.

However, in those same press notes Sciamma states, “This movie isn’t about diversity, but exclusiveness: The male and female actors are exclusively colored.” That sentence struck me hard. It sent me into what I can only describe as temporary speechlessness soon met with frenzied note taking and texting with my brown girlfriends. Exclusiveness is, I’ve since remarked, a newly positive sentiment in my life and my reaction to Sciamma’s words was nothing short of a salute, of impassionedly saying yes. Sometimes, it turns out, unlearning comes at you fast.

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