Imagine all that we could do if we are first just comfortable in our own skin.
- Amandla Stenberg
Recently, I watched a video of Amandla Stenberg explain that “My Authenticity is My Activism.” As soon as I finished listening to her message, I was amazed at the wisdom and beauty of this 17-year-old young woman. I immediately started to wish that I had a friend like Amandla when I was 17-years-old; a friend who would encourage and reassure me to be my true self. I can only imagine how different my life would have been at that time, and the years to follow. Simply put, Amandla described how she has become a social activist, and that it primarily involves pushing herself to be none other than her true self. At first, this may not sound like a radical idea, or something that should be considered “activism,” however I would argue otherwise.
The Miserable Pressure of Social Norms.
Believe it or not, there is a pressure must of us feel daily that comes from social norms. These norms tell us what to do, how to dress, what to say, and attempt to define who we should be. Social norms are everywhere, and can be drastically different based on social and cultural context. Sometimes, social norms become rich traditions that are reverenced and celebrated. Other times, social norms become inflexible and limiting. Depending on who you are, different social norms may have a different impact on you and your life.
Because social norms (which often align with the voice of the majority) are so powerful, you’re less likely to experience backlash or resistance from society when you “fit in” or follow along with the decided norms. However, that does not take away the pain and despair that comes with attempting to be someone you’re not.
Using Yourself as a Form of Resistance.
One portion of Amandla’s message that I found myself identifying strongly with was her relationship with her hair.
I’ve realized that loving myself has been a gradual process. Coming into myself as a Black person and as a woman has been a gradual process. When we grow up as Black girls, we are told we should be ashamed of our hair, we are told we should be ashamed of our bodies, and that we should be ashamed of our voices….We’re fed these advertisements that tell us to straighten our hair, as if, if we straighten it, we’ll be more civil, which is just another way of saying more White.
While this part of Amandla’s message may appeal specifically to Black Women, the overall idea is that oppressive social norms and standards often limit the expression, potential, and happiness for millions of people from various cultures, every single day. This is because these oppressive social norms often say, “your true self will not be accepted here, and so you must change.”
However, choosing to resist those social norms, and resist the pressure to fit in or conform is courageous, inspiring, and healing. These are all adjectives I would use to describe activism. Choosing to be yourself in a world that often tells you otherwise is at the core of what it truly means to be an activist. Let your true identity be your resistance. Be who you want to be and be proud of it. Then, your activism will become authentic and will speak for itself.
It’s okay to exist as yourself. Be the very best version of your true self.
How can I be an activism in a society that disparages me? ...Just by choosing to love myself, choosing to honor myself and being comfortable with my identity in a society that tells me I shouldn’t, I am starting a revolution.
Thank you, Amandla!
I've recently been exploring and researching more into the idea of Black Woman Identity Development. One theme I've always been bothered by and continues to come up is the tradition of Black women being asked to "protect" the integrity of Black men, for the greater good of the Black race. This is unique because while women in general are often told their issues are less significant, within the Black community there is pressure placed on women to diminish themselves in order to protect an entire race of people. So in a sense, asking Black women to forget that they are women, to uphold the Black community. As I personally begin to understand the significance of my womanhood and its impact on my identity, this becomes more and more problematic for me.
Black women acknowledging issues of gender-related oppression is not "Black man bashing." Bringing attention to Black women and girls should never been seen as a personal attack on Black men. It does not take away from or diminish the love and power apparent within relationship between Black men and women. It is in no way meant to demonize or diminish the character and integrity of Black men. It's simply Black women asking for recognition and protection that should innately be present, because we are human. Neglecting to understand that within the Black community still exists oppressive acts and ideologies based on gender, sexual orientation, ability status, age, SES, religion, nationality, etc. is absurd and something that I hope we can continue to illuminate.
The Black community is not a monolith, and it is possible for us to be unified while at the same time address issues that impact our lives in different ways.
What do you think? Share your thoughts!
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.