JASIKA IS BLACK IN AMERICA

The 3rd of 28 interviews with a variety of artists, writers and friends to learn more about individual perspectives on being black + original illustrations by George McCalman

JASIKA NICOLE (actor + artist + activist)

Being black has taught me how to find my own truths.

How did you come to understand what it is to be black?

Growing up in a mostly white community in Birmingham, AL., my white mother and black father tried to instill in me lots of pride about who I was and where I came from. But the actions of my peers, my teachers, and even strangers had a powerful effect on me. They seemed to pity me, to show surprise when other black students and I excelled academically. They expected less of me and the people I came from. I was constantly trying to unify the rhetoric I was taught at home (that my identity was my own, that I could name myself, and that I should be proud of my heritage) with the white supremacist culture that existed outside of it, and failing miserably.

At 18 I left Birmingham to go to college in NC. Although NC wasn’t necessarily more progressive, my environment had changed dramatically. I found myself living on a campus with a diverse group of people from around the country. Many of us showed up to school aching to shed the identity we’d carried like armor throughout our grade school years. I made friends with smart, talented people whose personal sense of empowerment defied the anti-black sentiment that our culture was steeped in. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t been strong enough to see through the flimsy facade of white supremacy I’d grown up with, and realized I could define for myself what it meant to be a biracial woman of color.

What’s something most people don’t realize about being black?

That being black doesn’t look a certain way, or feel the same for everyone. Blackness is often housed in this box that people outside of the community see as fixed. The truth is, we’re part of a diaspora that’s comprised of many, many different experiences.

This is what frustrates me most about the lack of visibility in media: people think that if you see a couple of black people on a tv show then you’ve covered your bases. But we don’t all see ourselves in a character just because they share our skin color (or sexuality, or gender). When whiteness is depicted on tv, we get to see a spectrum of ways that they live in the world, but that’s not a privilege most marginalized communities get to experience.

What’s on your mind when you’re not thinking about race?

My identities intersect with one another in so many important ways that I don’t know if my blackness is ever NOT on my mind. My queerness, my gender, and my race all seem to inform each other in new ways as I continue to challenge my understanding of the world and my place in it.

How has being black made your life better?

It’s allowed me to be more compassionate toward people who’ve had different experiences in the world than me. It’s made me a better listener and more empathetic. I know what it feels like to be discriminated against. And I know what it feels like to have to prove to a disbelieving someone that white supremacist/homophobic/misogynistic thought has affected my life negatively.

Being black has taught me how to find my own truths. So much of my pride in being a person of color has been because of my own searching and self-discovery. I’ve had to dig through all that crap I learned at a young age — other people’s misguided thoughts — and discard everything that doesn’t feel good.

Some say blacks gave birth to cool, agree?

I do! When a community of people is pushed out of the conversation held by the majority, that community has to create their own conversations with one another. Their histories and experiences give the conversation a new perspective and a new power.

This has happened not only in art — from writing to music to fashion to entertainment — but in schools of thought, like coining the term “womanism” as a social theory to challenge the white-centric “feminism.” Black people, and other marginalized communities, are able to elevate so much of the conversation because of the oppression they’ve faced throughout generations. It’s empowering.

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About George: Instagram & things / About Ebony: Instagram & things