This is what drowning feels like

By Patula Ballakistan

I’m in a pocket of air; it’s closing in around me. The space that should have offered me succor and protection is now the disappearing cell of my own destruction. To preserve what’s left of the space around me, I must stop breathing… This is what drowning feels like.


The year is 2015 and I (for the first time) hear the term Womanism. A word that my processor underlines in red, as if to say: ‘here is an idea that does not exist’. I know it does, for as I spell-check a possible correction is the word ‘womanist’, singular, as if to say: ‘you are on your own’. However, this term gives a viable option to women of colour that intersectionality leaves behind.


 Intersectionality. Nowhere is it more prevalent to me, than in the Coloured community. No, this will not be a one of those ranty narratives about race; I only wish to give a balanced summary of events. 


It all started with a discussion and with the group taking a decidedly race-driven argument for and against it. I thought it best to stay out of it. However, when I heard someone say “Oh no fuck, I don’t want Khoisan living next door,” I intervened. I was angry and righteous and on my own because even though I was not the only POC in the vicinity, I was the only one addressing the issue. In fact, after I said my peace, I was told that it was a joke intended for our group and that I was taking it too seriously and also (according to one of my former friends) I was being ignorant of the circumstances in which our white, female acquaintance grew up. WHAT?! Of course, me being me, I desperately sort out approval from everyone who I find wise and to confirm that I was justified in my reaction. 


To cut a long story short, my friend and I could not reconcile our differences and haven’t been able to talk for a nearly a two years since that day. 


Although I had no term for it at the time, the concept of intersectionality was starting to form in my mind because the friend was a Coloured man. I had no excuse for his behaviour, except to blame it on the patriarchy and their reverence of all things fair, pure and fragile appearing. The whole episode left me bitter and miserable. 


The upside to this: I woke up.


There have been times over the years where, only with other like-minded women of colour, did I find myself free to be myself and feel. We are all trying to hide what we really feel and what I feel is betrayal. 


I am finding that the common understanding of feminism only extends to those who do not seek to promote freedoms of culture, religion and femininity. How can we continue to stand on the border of both and not be accepted by either? Why can’t we find unity in our diversity? 


To be a woman of colour is a thankless job. We are hated on by bigots, hyper-sexualized by the media, misunderstood by men of colour; we feel we need to compete with western-white beauty standards; we are talked down to by white feminists; we despise the melanin (lighter or deeper) we see in others and we despise the melanin (lighter or deeper) we see in ourselves. I for one feel drowned by it all, don’t you? Yet, as a group we can make a future of our own, not true? As women of colour, we need to start taking ourselves seriously and in the same breath; we also need to cut ourselves some slack. Respect yourself, have fun, water your spiritual garden and accept love without guilt. I will work on me if you work on you. We can surface and breathe.

Image Credit: Luc Fierens