In afternoon clinics I can find and pull medical records in our paper-based system; when required, I can check weights and test urine samples. I measure blood pressure and blood sugar; I write prescriptions. I am quick and efficient, even if I don’t always follow protocol. I think this is easier than asking other people to do their jobs.
Black girl childhood is a very specific and nuanced experience. The particular damage done to black girls often comes from our mothers who perpetuate patriarchal standards of respectability and people-pleasing. This is the legacy of girlhood, passed from womb to womb like the secrets of our bodily cycles. What starts as admonishments to keep the girlchild safe (don’t fight, dress modestly) twists to become the base on which our worth is judged. Good girl/Bad gyal. Prude/Slut.
By the time I hit puberty I had absorbed a constitution of rules about good behaviour and decided that being “good” meant being liked by other people. If I was not liked by other people, that meant I was “bad”. And a sure-fire way to be disliked was to get involved in conflict. As a child observing conflict at home, at school and in my community it was clear that nobody liked the angry person who made noise and upset other people. I developed a panic reaction to conflict and tension of any kind, and to this day whenever I perceive conflict my stomach clenches, my breath hitches, and I become acutely aware of my heartbeat. I became sensitive to the barest hint of discord and in anticipation of that physical reaction I avoid, avoid, avoid.
So at work when someone raises their voice, or grumbles under their breath or takes an inordinately long break time and cannot be found, I hesitate the next time I need to ask that person to do their job. My anxiety doesn’t care that it’s the job they’re being paid to do; my anxiety’s only concern is protecting me from a potentially stressful situation. This ingrained response has kept me alive and safe so far, but the work I do is so much bigger than my anxiety.
So I keep trying to grow beyond my survival mechanisms to a version of myself who can be brave. I find solidarity in the realm of social justice where there are plenty of loud angry women doing their best to dismantle systems that oppress and harm entire groups of people. But mostly I hold on to this lifeboat of questions.
I don’t get it right all the time, and most of my progress comes in the tiniest of steps. But I’m here to take up space in this fight. And no matter how imperfectly I try I will continue to take up space and work toward the future I want to believe in: a future where little girls don’t get boxed into respectability. A future where women aren’t afraid of their voices.
A future where all of us are brave, and vulnerable and radically compassionate with the world, and with ourselves.