The Audacity of Self Love in the Diaspora

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“ Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”- Warsan Shire

My name has always been heavy on the tongue. Since my childhood, I can say I have mentally compiled a list of renditions of my name. So, as I steeled myself to enter university I thought I’d heard it all. But after several formalities, introductions and attendance sheets, my name was hidden in between an initial “umm” and a question mark. However, it wasn’t so bad, someone actually called my name “ exotic”. And somehow, I couldn’t take that as a compliment.

The dictionary defines self love as a “regard for one’s own well-being and happiness (chiefly considered as a desirable rather than narcissistic characteristic). Key word: desirable. In other words, love yourself but only in the ways outlined for you. Accept yourself because society will never accept you. However, unlike the definition above, self love through the lens of an individual in the diaspora, is deeply rooted in acceptance of historical and political context that have masked and suffocated the autonomy of self love.

The concept of self love can be seen as entirely philosophical, subjective and many may argue that the matter of should depend on personal experience. However, from my own recent observations, I have come to understand that self love consists of a social identity in the african diaspora, that has unfortunately become a political phenomenon, bound by self-preservation. Self love has become generalized, an umbrella term that females in the African Diaspora are encouraged to think deeply about, and in doing so, assert their narratives against the political backdrop of pervasive media that refuses to give a them a face, a voice to overcome the back-handed labels that have been plastered on them.

This debate of self love as a political phenomenon can be manifested in the standards the world has placed on being “ acceptably black”. Individuals with caucasian features, lighter skin and loose curly hair have been deemed as “acceptably black” or even at times “ not technically black”. These ideologies have affected east african girls and women who strongly identify under the african diaspora, who feel their voices have been filtered and individual narratives remain displaced in a superficial box connected to the hands of western acceptance.

However, an important and much need discussion was initiated last week by Safy-Hallan Farah who has written for Feminist Wire, Vice and Rolling Stones. She began dialogue with the hashtag #eastafricanfeminism- and in turn created a platform for the East African diaspora to unpack their narratives, heal and share their voices. Many tweets alluded to the exoticism which they feel has separated them from their “blackness” and has contributed to silencing their individual plight.

Last year, in an article on Feminist Wire, Farah wrote on the acceptable blackness of East African girls that is amplified and romanticized through the lens of mainstream rappers such as Drake and Nas, who speak of the East African girls as distinct from black girls. In particular, she criticized how both groups were depicted in Kendrick Lamar’s song “Poetic Justice” which featured Drake, and spoke on the social position of  both group through the eyes of men. In this thought provoking, game changing piece, Farah states:

“The lines between acceptance, fetishism and exoticism are blurry. It would seem that the primary distinction between black (North American) men, East African men and white men exoticizing East African Girls is that for many white men and even some East African men, the exoticism is firmly rooted in a belief in the racial categories—a belief that race is biological when it is in fact social, and a fetishization and romanticism of our Arab World ties and colonial past” (Farah, Safy-Hallan. “Poetic Justice: Drake and East African Girls”).

Unfortunately, for young african girls who are born in western countries, they remain victims to the implicit consequences of this colonial mentality, even though they may not directly identify or have personal narratives to guide them in the direction towards self-love. Second generation african females in the diaspora would find it difficult to see the historical consequence at play, but instead view the confidence they internalize of being “acceptably black”  as a fortune, source of comfort and relief amidst a technological world that sexualises or fetishizes black women in general.

So, as the western world may paint a picture of what it means to be black or the standards of being black, its important to uplift the voices of youth in the diaspora who must construct their narratives in such a world. For if self love is to be political, and a fight only for those who identify under the african diaspora or with their personal narratives, second generation youth can be lost in the problematic, cyclical process of constructing a social identity on self preservation, instead of what is supposed to be the development of self love.

Although can say that the concept of self love should be entirely personal, separate from any political theories or arguments, its important to consider that historically, the consequences of colonial mentality continue to linger in conversations of skin colour, hair, and body image the diaspora engages in. Moreover, the conversation, when political, can become increasingly important once the diaspora realizes that mainstream media will continue to monopolises and accessorise the bodies of african girls. Perhaps in all anger, pain or internal discomfort, you receive an amplified appreciation of personal narratives you never thought of, saw as an untidy spot, but have now realised through the political and historical context that prevents you from achieving self love.

I received such a feeling in discovering the wholeness of my name after I realized how I only said it with an accent when asked. How it almost never matter at all.

Maybe self love is personal, after all. Maybe we should have the choice to lose the accents on our names, or remain content in being categorising ourselves as “acceptably black”.

In any case, I have come to understand that the issue of self-preservation and the attainment of self love and self identity comes with necessary and ingrained political and social underpinnings. When realized, these forces can unexpectedly fill one up with a sense of greatness, wholeness and purpose, that will always be timeless.

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