Grace

Hi all! I meant to publish this on my birthday last week but I totally forgot, lol! This essay was originally published on the Welcome To What We Are blog and now I’m sharing here for my own followers. Thanks so much for reading!

Grace

I was 9 years old when *Anna Finch, arguably the most popular girl in my grade who occasionally gave me the opportunity to be friends with her, told me I didn’t “look black”. As the child of a white mother and black father growing up in Alabama, I immediately knew she intended this to be a compliment, which made me feel sick, but my 4th grade brain wasn’t quite capable of articulating the offense. I knew I couldn’t take it as flattery, but Anna’s saccharine smile let me know that she didn’t particularly care. I bit my lip. I think I probably responded with uneasy silence, a staple of our relationship by that point, and we continued playing on our school’s playground. When I was a kid and I didn’t have the right words to stand up for myself, or if I got overwhelmed by my own emotions, I just shut down. I told no one, kept it packed deep inside some space underneath my muscles, buried in the blood, and I carried on.

Years later, I found myself navigating these same brackish waters when I came out to my friends and began to hear “wow, really?? You don’t look queer!”, sung from the mouth’s of smiling faces, eyes bright and proud at the “praise” they were bestowing upon me. I was old enough now to know that there was a good reason I felt stung, a good reason I was never sure exactly how to respond; I grew up in the south, so I was used to people cradling me softly with one hand while pinching me with the other. But I had moved to NYC by this point and had started to find my community as I was finding myself, started to feel the real power of that blood splashing over my bones. I smiled tightly, changed the subject.

Now as a professional working actor in television, film, and stage with decades of work under my belt, I am more and more frequently confronted with the newest version of “Let Me Tell You Why Your Shame Doesn’t Make Me Uncomfortable”. It initially manifested itself as “You still look like you’re in college!”, followed in quick succession by “You don’t look 34 at all!”, “38?! You’re kidding!” and “OMG YOU’RE 39?!? THERE IS NO WAY YOU’RE 39!” Of course, they mean it as a compliment, every single time. They always have. But I stopped taking these unsolicited remarks at face value long ago.

These days when I share my stories with other people, describe the pain of all the tiny invisible nicks that cover the surface of my skin (which I now know to call microaggressions), their faces fall into the expected folds of disgust about Anna’s blatant racism, about my friends’ unacknowledged homophobia. But they get stuck when I talk about the damage it does to listen to people tell me I don’t “look” my age. They wrinkle their eyebrows in forced sympathy, but most of them don’t truly recognize how harmful it is- they still consider it a compliment. Yes, looking younger than you actually are is considered a privilege across many cultures; it’s called ageism, and I call bullshit.

What I understand now at almost 40 that I couldn’t vocalize in the 4th grade is that when Anna told me I didn’t look black, she wasn’t insulting me, she was exposing herself for the racist her parents and community had raised her to be (she eventually confessed that she didn’t want to invite our classmate Shauntay to her birthday party because Shauntay was black and actually looked it”. I paused, and stared at her, confused, until she explained that “black people steal” so she “didn’t want one” in her house). I also understand now that when my friends looked at me with pride in their eyes while congratulating me on the fact that I didn’t look queer, what they were actually saying is that queerness is something that clings to you, shameful, dark, and heavy, and that no one should purposefully want to be associated with that kind of indignity. They were telling me it was okay that I was queer, as long as it wasn’t an identity that was obvious enough for unassuming straight people to recognize.

I’m sure you are reading this and thinking how awful, how horrible, how obviously devastating it would have been to have someone tell you that the parts of yourself you had learned to take pride in held no value, that these cornerstones of your identity were shameful. Clearly blackness is nothing to be pitied, clearly queerness is something to celebrate! Yet here I am, trying to understand how age is any different. What is so despicable about looking 37? 38? 39? Why wouldn’t I want to look 50 if that’s how old I am? We spend so much of our lives eating foods to nourish our bodies and working out to keep ourselves strong and reading books to keep our minds agile and going to therapy to make sure we have long, mutually beneficial relationships so that we can enjoy living on this earth for as long as we can, yet as our age climbs higher, we feel more and more embarrassed about it. Who started this? Who told us we could have both? We can’t. We don’t get to work towards living our healthiest, most sustainable lives while also condemning the fact that we are getting older; one begets the other. So why do we waste so much of our energy fighting against and hiding from and disparaging the fact that we are aging?

Oh right, the patriarchy.

Our obsession with youth is a direct result of the patriarchal standards that have defined our culture for centuries, and aside from the fact that it inequitably impacts women and femmes, the standards are also patently false and impossible to live up to. When we comment on an older woman’s beauty, we often say that she is “aging gracefully”, but this, too is an untruth, because what we usually mean is that she looks young. We mean that she doesn’t seem like she is aging much at all. We mean that she makes us feel more comfortable about how many years she has been on earth. We mean, ‘maybe there is a chance that we can get older and not feel bad about it’. But we will. We will always be fed the false narrative that perfection is just within arm’s reach, that once we buy that serum or take that class or read that book or hire that life coach, we can elevate ourselves to our most youthful, attractive, energetic selves. But understand that there is no end to that reach. Behind that bottle of serum is another, more expensive bottle. The class never actually ends. The book is just one in a long series.

Most of us know that traditional standards of beauty are directly related to their proximity to European whiteness, but I am realizing more and more that they are also directly related to youth, and the further women get away from looking like 20 year olds, the less attractive most of society deems them. We are told that as we get older, our “grace” has nothing to do with the impact we have had on our communities, our art, our families, our relationships, our contributions to the world at large or our worlds at small. As a man gets older we treat the shiny salt in his beard as if he earned it steering ships through thunderous seas, the deepening furrow of his brow as if it made its’ appearance after years of battling international spies. Sometimes it seems like all a man has to do to “age gracefully” in our society is keep his hair trimmed and not wear velcro sandals. But women, on the other hand? Our gray hair and crow’s feet are proof that we have “let ourselves go”, our age spots remind everyone that yes, we will all die someday, our plump bodies serve as a manifestation of how asexual the world insists we have become.

Does it matter if we started writing poetry in our 60’s and found out we were actually good at it? If we helped save someone’s life, quietly and humbly? If we continued to show up for ourselves after years of timidity and finally achieved a level of peace that we had only dreamed of? Unfortunately, none of these accomplishments is more powerful in the eyes of the patriarchy than our breasts continuing to sit as pert as possible, even after bringing children into the world. I’m not a mom, but I imagine “can you believe they had 5 kids?! They look so good!” is another backhanded compliment that makes the rounds pretty frequently. Why have we internalized the idea that being an actual vessel for life is something to be embarrassed about? Why can’t we celebrate the map of our lives painted across our bodies for all to see?

I am still struggling with how to respond to these comments that frame being 40 as some dreadful, secreted fact that shouldn’t be spoken about in more than a whisper. In my industry, youth is currency, and I acknowledge it as a privilege, just like my light skin, my able body, my cisgender, my neurotypical brain. But it’s not lost on me that so much of what is considered valuable in our culture are things we are completely powerless over. No one can help how they are born, what their genes look like, who their parents are. And we shouldn’t. Our ability to age gracefully should rely less on our closeness to conventional attractiveness, less on our closeness to youth, and more on what we have done with all the years we were lucky enough to accumulate on this earth.

Anna Finch wrote me on facebook several years ago, before I deleted my account. She started with something along the lines of “You probably don’t remember me, but we went to elementary school together…”. Amazing how one person’s forgotten memories can be another person’s linchpin. Anna was the first person to express to me in words her disdain for my identity, a contempt I had felt from strangers often, my skin burning from the stares that disgusted white people beamed at me and my family as we walked down the streets of Birmingham. But I had never heard it articulated to my face by someone I knew, someone I wanted to be close to, someone I was so desperate to be seen by. Anna had written to tell me how proud she was of me and my career. I promptly replied with the most scathing, angry words I could form into complete sentences, years of fury and hurt and bitterness raining out of my fingertips and onto my keyboard. And then I deleted it and closed my computer. I know that people, especially children, have the capacity to change for the better, and my hope is that Anna found her way down a path that brought her to a place of less hate and more peace, more compassion, more love. But it’s not my job to be her welcoming committee.

I am black, I am queer, and I am turning 40 on April 10th. I am proud of all of these parts of my identity, and I will be celebrating not how I look, nor how other people think I look, but how I feel. I met my partner 13 years ago and in our time together we have created the type of healthy, loving relationship that was never demonstrated for me as a kid. That is grace. I turned a childhood rooted in anxiety and fear into an adulthood where I learned to channel my energy into making, creating art that has inspired and empowered me to no end. That is grace. I have always been guarded, suspicious, apprehensive of opening my personal world to more than a few people at a time, but I am consciously working to change that, to fight against the fear of being vulnerable to the most important people in my life. That is grace.

Aging gracefully doesn’t look like anything, it’s not young or old or ugly or pretty, male or female; it’s not on any binary. It’s just a sense, an awareness that we are striving to be better than we were yesterday and the yesterday before that. An acknowledgement that we can’t be where we are right now without all the years that came before it. A connection with the blood that has been racing through us from the moment we took our first breath up to this very day. A promise that we won’t ever disparage ourselves for being exactly who we are, where we are, when we are. Because we deserve nothing less. Happy birthday, y’all.

*name has been changed to protect this girl from my mom

8 replies
  1. Zephine
    Zephine says:

    Happy birthday Jasika!
    Your text really touch me, and made me reflex a lot…
    On the f*cked up lottery of social privilege, I’m the winner: I’m healthy, wealthy, straight, cisgender, neurotypic, with a high degree of education and an extrovert nature. I’m white, tall, lean, with blue eyes and natural wavy blond hair, and a skin that tans without burning. I’m 35, but look barely 28 according to my colleagues. The only “handicap” (my skin itch at writing that, but hey ! we live in a patriarcal world as you said) is that I’m a female. NONE of this I decided myself, it’s all due to my genetic or my socio-economical environment (apart maybe for my education, which is part luck to grew up in a wealthy educated family, and part MY decision to keep studying for a PhD after my master).
    I am well aware of all these advantages I got given at birth, and I try to watch myself to not be ignorant of other people’s disadvantages… But it’s hard to be perfect when you are unaware of the reality of other’s life! And despite trying to not judge, some of my comments that I thought were “just facts” have hurt people around me. For example, I’m tallI (5.10), that’s a fact and I’m used for people to comment on this. But when I bumped into someone way taller than me (man, this guy must have been 7 foot !), I dropped a “wow you’re tall!” without even realising it. I offended him, I guess because he feels like people only agnoledge his height, not who he is a a complex person. I guet it, physical characteristics (skin colour, height, sex,…) doesn’t fully define a person, and I blamed myself for having said out loud what I thought was just a “harmless fact”.
    For the first 30years of my life, I had never really be aware of the queer scene, just because in my immediate environment, nobody openly identify as such. Then my new flatmate introduced me to his friends (the whole LGTBQ alphabet is there, as they like to say), and a whole new world open in front of me.
    I’m not ashamed to confess I’ve hurt some of them, for example when i said “I wouldn’t have guess” to a gay guy. My point wasn’t to say “good on you you don’t look gay”, I just wanted to express that I didn’t assumed his sexuality, and there was no hint in his behaviour that could have lead me to think he was straight or gay. This was a fact, not a judgment, but sociaty has trained us to transform facts into judgments.
    Ok, I’m digressing a lot here. My point is that not everybody is aware of the little aggression of small talk (which doesn’t mean to not educate people on that, as you’re doing with this text!). When it comes to age, the usual “wow, you don’t look your age” I got from strangers seems more like a fact (I don’t look my age indeed), more than an appreciation. They don’t say “good on you to look younger”. What is f*cked up tho, is that they would refrain themselves to say the exact same thing if they thought I was older than my age, because society told them that looking old is bad*.
    Sometimes, I ask myself if my willingness to accept people’s comment with kindness and brush it off comes from the fact that I have it easy? Would I be the same if I was lesbian? If I was short? If I was black? If I looked older than my age???

    OK, my comment is getting longer than your initial post, mostly because there is so much to say about it, and I enjoy confronting my view on life with someone who has a different background/experience, to open my eyes.

    *the reason for ageism could be explain by our “reptilian” brain, the one that control our survival instinct, and the survival of our specie. Human female reproduction ability decrease with age, therefore a young looking body is an indication of a higher chance of a surviving offspring. Male reproduction ability remain almost constant until late age, around 70yo which was almost never reach when we were cavemen. But a male with visible signs of age (grey hair, wrinkles) means he was strong enough and clever enough to survive dangers, therefore increasing the attractivity for mating.
    We’re not caveman anymore, and we evolve to develop our brain for creativity, yet the primal instinct stayed and still rule the world… By the way, it’s the same primal instinct that make us want to smooch a baby with cuddle: our brain is programmed to protect what has big eyes, a big round face and high pitch voice. That’s why we squeel at a puppy, when the excitement is not a strong when we see a grown up dog. That’s also why manga’s or Disney’s characters are so disproportionated: to make us incontrolably connect with them…

    Reply
    • Jasika Nicole
      Jasika Nicole says:

      Thank you for reading. Not sure if you realize this, but your comment was basically 6 paragraphs of you singing your own “privilege winning” praises about how tall, white, straight, attractive, youthful and neurotypical you are. I’m glad you have had such a fortunate life- I wish more people could have that same experience. However I was hoping that my piece would be less an opportunity for readers like you to celebrate all their privileges and instead think about WHY they are considered privileges in the first place, and how we as individuals participate in the oppression of marginalized communities, whether consciously or not. It is frustrating (among many other things in your comment) that you continue to insist on the “fact” that you don’t look your age when one of the main points of my essay is to prove that age doesn’t look any certain way. There are 7 billion people in this world- 40 is gonna look different on all of them. You are continuing to center yourself and your experiences as the default by saying you don’t look your age, while the reality is that age has no look. When people of color, disabled people, fat people, or “the whole LGBTQ alphabet” as you so inelegantly described us, make the decision to share our experiences and our histories with people like you who are outside our community, I hope you get to a place where you are able to just listen to us and reflect instead of reflexively responding with every single thing that is happening in your brain. Perhaps these revelations and thoughts you have shared here on my blog will be better discussed with the other attractive straight white women in your circle.

      Reply
      • Zephine
        Zephine says:

        Touché ! Your answer is an eye opener, and I agree with each and every words you wrote.
        I’m in the learning process of adjusting my mentality and behaviour. I have it easy, I realise it more and more by reading article like yours, by seeking to widened my view and confront what I know to others people reality. It’s a slow and (dare I say?) difficult process, but it is essential for me to deconstruct what society I print on me.
        My comment was obviously a “faux pas”, thank you again for pointing it out.
        I will now shut up and listen

        Reply
  2. Alerie
    Alerie says:

    Beautiful, Jasika – thank you. And I loved the short story, not only did it resonate, but it really helped me grasp anxiety from an embodied place. It is really, really well written! I write too and appreciate how scary it can be to share one’s writing. I’m so glad you did, because it has enriched me.

    About age – I think, if we live well, courage can comes with age, and greater compassion for our selves… along with the increased ability to sit with our own pain, to grow through it, to actually embrace who we are, and who we are becoming.

    I’m 53, female, bi and multiracial. So I resonate. I found 39 harder than 40. It was freeing to turn 40, and obviously this is just one perspective (mine) but I found 50 even better. All the messages around our appearance, and the emotional work of caring for others, the expectations – it now feels like they have nothing to do with me, with who I really am.

    The beauty of age truly is to hold a broader perspective, and the capacity to give no fucks in terms of what others think. I agree we need to change the conversation and talk about the gains of age – wisdom, perspective, deepening into creativity, appreciation for what really matters in the world.

    I love your perspective and I hope this decade of your life continues as it has begun. All the very best wishes for your birthday!

    Reply
  3. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Thank you so much for this. Everyone should read it, and it has made a little shift in my thinking. I’ve been on a real journey over the past 2 years, including the experience of being made redundant at the age of 63, moving to a much happier me and celebrating my 64th birthday understanding how lucky I am to have had those years! I think that ageism in everywhere and seems to be the acceptable face of discrimination! I see with sadness where very beautiful actresses resort to surgery and sport 40 year old faces in 70 year old bodies, while men just become the rugged silver foxes. But when people tell me I don’t look 64 I did take it as a compliment, not thinking about what this really means, so thanks you so much for helping me to see this and gaining further pride in being 64 in all it’s elements!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply to Brooke Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *