My first diary came with a lock and key. I got it for my birthday. I spent the entire afternoon decorating the diary with words like “PRIVATE!!!” I drew a very mean skull with my pink glitter pen to let the world know that I meant business. After this, I promptly told everyone in my house, including my Abuelita, who doesn’t know how to read, where the key was.
I am what you would call an “over-sharer.” I don’t like having secrets. I would much rather perform them on stage in front of strangers. As a spoken-word poetess (PLEASE remember the “-ess” it is the only way people will know I am a mere woman), I am a big time show-off who craves attention at all times. However, as a woman of color who performs for a living, my instinct for taking a compliment is “Oh, that was such a mess, I was so nervous. I’m an idiot. I don’t know what I’m doing. Why am I here? ” It is disturbingly easy for me to world-build about how theoretically incapable I am. I just don’t know how to deal with compliments.
I find myself negating remarks like “you are so genuine” or “you are so real,” just because I think they are slapped on to praise in the same way iceberg lettuce is slapped on to a frozen veggie burger as a means of “nutritional value.”
(I hope you enjoyed that comparison. I am, after all, a poetess.)
I’ve started watching people I admire take compliments and have begun taking notes because it seems so practiced. I say this admirably. I believe humility is, like most things, performative. Now, what do I mean when I say performative? I mean when your friend has a crush on someone and that someone is around and you say something to your friend and your friend tilts their head up and lets out this bubbly, life-of-the-party laugh and you’re like, “Wait so did you do well on your final or not? I can’t … tell.” We’ve all been this friend. There is nothing wrong with being this friend. This friend is awesome. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be seen and projecting a version of yourself in the world that you wish people to remember you by.
For a long time, I did not believe this. For a long time, modesty and assimilation meant survival to me. I did not want to take up too much space with my body or my voice. The affluent, primarily white town that I— who was neither—grew up in, taught me how to code-switch. If someone asked me if I knew about a certain pivotal cultural moment, I’d say “It’s my favorite!” even though I had no idea what they were actually talking about. This, obviously, ended up being detrimental to me because I never wanted to ask for help. I wanted to keep up the facade of being just as smart as everybody else. Everybody else, of course, had the benefit of private tutors and multiple-degree holding parents whose first language was English. So, I didn’t exactly work harder to get ahead. I didn’t get ahead. I failed my senior year math class and almost didn’t graduate. I just became really good at pretending.
I see my mother do the same kind of pretending. As a beautician, her performance is customer service. Her listening voice is the best I’ve ever heard. When her client is all, “Anyway, you know so-and-so place where so-and-so famous white person once had a coffee?” My mom is like, “Yes! Love it!” And the customer believes her.
To some, this is being fake. To me, this is the performance of survival.
I believe that pretending is how I found my voice. Now that I am not pretending I am a smart white kid, I am as performatively and dramatically myself as I choose. While performing has helped me find myself because I am a woman of color, I am expected to do copious amounts of emotional labor for people who are paying attention to me. As a woman, if I don’t do this, I am ungrateful. I am a diva.
Case in point: once at a poetry show, a man turned up after sending me a creepy message. He scared me. I had campus security escort him away and then they had to escort me to an uber. At the time I felt dramatic as if I were selfish in thinking that anyone would want to harm me. Like I might as well have asked the hosts of the school to give me a green room with a pool of hummus inside of it. Later, this man found my email online and sent me a message saying that he was disappointed because I wasn’t as “down-to-earth” as everyone seemed to think. Because I did not give him my time, because I reacted instinctively to a feeling of fear: I wasn’t down-to-earth. Not only was I stuck up, I was disappointing.
(Dear everybody: when we tell feminine people that they are being dramatic or overreacting when they feel unsafe, we are calling upon our internalized misogyny. When we tell feminine people of color that they are overreacting we are making space for violence.)
While humility is a performance it can also be a dangerous performance, the kind that tricks us into thinking we are safe. I see people, particularly cishet men, say the right thing so articulately, so poetically, so performatively that it overshadows the very real, violent thing underneath. Yeah, I’m talking about Junot Diaz. Yeah, it makes me sick to see the way men use this learned language to continue taking space that’s being taken away from women of color.
I was in a taxi with my ex-boyfriend after a dinner we both went to. He was really quiet afterward and said to me, under his breath, “It’s always The Melissa Show, huh!” Immediately, I felt bad for talking too much, for telling too many jokes, for being myself. I was being one of those girls! I did not want to be like one of those girls! Now, in retrospect, this is incredibly anti-femme. At the time, I did not “see the point” in getting dressed up for a party or to take pictures. It was as if by asking, “Who is going to see you?” I was shaming myself and whoever chose to perform for others, whoever chose to wear a pretty dress in hopes that they would simply be noticed.
One of my Dad’s ex-girlfriend said to him, “Women don’t dress up for men. We dress up to impress each other.” While this comment is rooted in heteronormativity, what I extract from it now and place dearly on my femme mantel is that I am always trying to impress people. Whether it’s my crush with my Instagram story or my best friend with a poem I wrote just next to her, I want people to be impressed with me. Yes, I post on my Instagram story 30 times a day.
Yes, I tweet about wearing a dress that I was fingered in once to my niece’s first communion. Yes, on stage I look down at my pants and say out loud, “Wow, thank god those are zipped up.” I take up space with the information you don’t need because I want to show off being alive.
Once, after we found out my Abuelo had cancer, my Abuelita kneeled before her altar for la Virgen de Guadalupe. She put her hands together, wailed, then made this dramatic, drawn-out speech to la Virgen. My sister and I didn’t know what to do because this loud display of emotion was a lot for us, even though the circumstances were understandable. We didn’t know if she was doing it just because we were there. I think in some ways, her grief was a show. In some ways, I think she wanted us to watch. I think that she could only fully understand her grief, her fear, her love, through a performance.
I don’t keep a diary with a lock anymore but I do leave it around whenever people are over in hopes that someone rifles through it. What is the point if I can’t share it? It kind of echoes that question: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? Obviously, it did, but it probably felt lonely. It made a sound, but I’m sad I wasn’t there. I’m even sadder that it wasn’t me, cutting it down through gritted teeth, being the one who caused all the noise