When I first moved to Los Angeles, I went out a lot. On Fridays and Saturdays, there was no way that I wouldn’t be out with my friends. I loved the excitement of strapping on a pair of heels. Hopping my way down a strip of bars made me feel like an adult. The thrill of getting to spend my own hard earned cash on a colorful fizzy drink while hanging out with my girlfriends was invigorating.
One night while we were at a bar, a white guy in his 40s sidled up next to me.
“You’re gorge,” he said with a look that gave me the creeps. “What are you?”
What I was, was a 21-year-old new to both the going-out scene as well as male attention. This was a question I’d been hit with my whole life, and one that I detested. But at the time my fear of coming across as rude won out over my desire to pick up my drink and walk away.
“My mom is Afro-Cuban,” I smiled politely through gritted teeth as I searched the dimly lit bar for one of my friends to make eye contact with.
He edged his drink closer towards mine and leaned in. “Sexy. You wanna know what I love about Spanish women?”
I blinked, not the slightest bit curious about what he liked about them. And then he touched my hair.
Then. He touched. My hair.
“Don’t. Touch me,” I cringed, my frustration and annoyance building up in my throat.
That’s when he said it. “I know Spanish women have fiery tempers. But I guess you’ve got that ugly black side too.”
I picked pick up my drink and walk away.
The encounter had completely spoiled the rest of my evening, and I remember ultimately deciding to abandon my friends and head home early. On the Lyft ride home I found myself growing angrier and angrier, and then I cried. I was mad at myself for letting some random guy get the the best of me. For having a temper. For being seen as an “Angry Black Woman” and a “Spicy Latina.” For seemingly fulfilling and simultaneously being a stereotype, when I didn’t even do anything wrong. For not throwing my drink in his face.
I began to grasp the negative ways non-Black, non-Latinos saw me, based on my appearance.
My siblings and I were the only Afro-Latinos in a school full of white children. We were pretty regularly picked on and because of this our mom always reminded us to keep our heads down and focus on school work. Despite our attempts to blend in, every once in a while someone would permeate the bubbles that we’d constructed in an attempt to keep ourselves invisible.
One day in first grade, the bully who’d been antagonizing me for months firmly yanked my hair. I’d never resorted to violence before, but this time I slapped her. I immediately got dragged to the front office.
By then, I’d been picked on so much and with little help from the school that my mother instructed me not to talk to anyone until she or my older sister was present. I echoed her words while I sat in a chair across from our vice principal before zipping my mouth shut.
When I refused to answer any of her questions and shook my head, she grew irritated.
“Why can’t you guys just cooperate?” she huffed. At the time, I knew it was an unfair question for me to answer. Mostly because I didn’t understand why she thought me and my siblings were the ones causing all of the trouble. Didn’t she know that I hadn’t started all of this? Why was I being sent to the office alone? Who did she mean by “you guys”? Looking back, I wonder if she was really asking: “Why can’t you black people control yourselves?”
In either case, I very much believe that this exchange sparked the moment I developed a deep fear of my own temper and an anxiety of fulfilling a racial stereotype. Over time I realized that if I did express my anger, others would only see it as a genetic problem not a situational or emotional one.
So I did my best to squash my anger when I was confronted by it. Any time my anger did rear its head, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I would feel like I was afflicted by some kind of temperament that I could not personally control. It made me feel less human and like others were justified in making me feel like someone they had to “put up” with instead of addressing my concerns and feelings. And with thoughts like those, of course my anxiety grew.
After college, when I got my first job as a writer at a website, I gave myself a chance to confront an infuriating experience in the office.
My intersectional feminism was at full-force. I had decided that I no longer wanted to suppress how I feel to make others more comfortable. I also decided I wouldn’t be forced into being the end-all be-all authority for minorities just because I was the only women of color present.
That day, Blake Lively had been accused of cultural appropriation and the CEO of our company, a white woman, demanded my opinion, though it actually felt like she wanted my confirmation that she was right.
“People are being too sensitive. Right, Alex? It’s not racist,” she said.
“I don’t think I can speak on that.” I muttered.
“But what do you think?”
I looked around at the various white faces staring back at me.
“I think that we should hire more people of color so that I’m not the only minority voice in the office,” I responded.
Her face went beat read and lips twisted into a scowl.
Later, my boss asked me to meet with her. “I know I say our office is like a family, and I know that some behavior is just a cultural thing and we can’t always control it when it comes out, but point-blank I was shocked that you disrespected me like that,” she said frowning back at me.
Guess you’ve got that ugly black side too.
The thing is that I do have a fairly intense temper.
But I know that I have often been judged more harshly for it because of my three strikes: Woman. Latina. Black.
Regardless of how I display it, I can’t help but wonder how much my anger feels valid. These stereotypes can be such a heavy burden for women to carry. Particularly for those that are of color and strike the binary of belonging to two groups that are in the minority. Of being like me – Afro-Latina.
Sure, I like to think of myself as a pretty reasonable and practical person, but that characteristic dissipates the moment I see mistreatment or injustice. When I reach my peak anger, I can either barely talk or I ramble on so much that the person in my line of fire can hardly understand what I’m saying. So, for a while when I did get upset around a group of people that wasn’t my family or Latino or Black, I forced myself to keep my mouth shut. Wouldn’t the burden of feeling you like you had to stifle yourself so that others saw you as less “threatening” and “angry” eventually piss just about anyone off? Especially knowing that non-Black and non-Latino women don’t have to deal with that nearly as much.
Being a woman in this world is exhausting. As a woman that is Afro and Latina — a woman whose constantly being side-eyed for her every “over emotional” reaction – it sometimes feels impossible. But at least now I’ve learned I can’t and won’t apologize if I come off angry about it.