A Personal Note on Relearning Womanhood by Monyae Kerney aka “River”

Before we begin, ask yourself this question and take a second to respond:

When you speak, when you talk, when you sit…are you expressing yourself as you truly are or are you performing or self-policing to be more palatable?

I caught myself speaking to someone a year ago and mid-conversation I suddenly went, “WTF am I doing?” I was talking all high pitched and was smiling so much that my cheeks were growing tired. I was nodding my head, not because I agreed or even heard what they were saying, but because I didn’t want to seem rude. In that instant, I suddenly became conscious of my performative patterns. It was as though I was immediately hyper aware of that myriad of ways that I had been pretending. Pretending to be intrigued by the conversation. Pretending to be enthused by the interaction. Pretending to be agreeable. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a mean person per say. I don’t just go around being an asshole, but what I realized was that it was more than just performing politeness. I was actively people pleasing through my subconscious behaviors. I was OVERLY genial, OVERLY attentive, OVERLY agreeable. I was trying so hard to come across as non-threatening that I was completely dismissing my sense of self with every interaction. I realized; this is probably the root of my social anxiety. This is probably why I always feel so drained after even brief social interactions. It’s one thing to connect. But it is another entire vat of energy to be self-policing every head nod, every eyebrow raise, every smile, every laugh, every tone of vocalization, every everything! When I’m by myself, I don’t police myself in that way. When I’m by myself, I feel recharged because in that space I don’t have to pretend to be anything other than myself. I can be loud. I can be angry. I can be disinterested and ungraceful. 

  In that moment, I realized how deep my natural tone of voice actually is. And let me tell you, I was about three or four octaves higher when I was participating in that particular social exchange. As for my body language, I had been actively minimizing myself, literally compressing my physical self to appear smaller (not thinner, but smaller) as if in an instinctual way of signaling, “I am not a danger to you. I pose no threat.”  But when the hell did I decide to shrink myself? When and why did I decide it was my responsibility to make myself appear non-threatening? Why is it so important to me to appear agreeable and sweet and harmless that I would actively drain myself with every interaction for the sake of being favorably perceived? 

I am not as sweet or as gentle as I had been pretending to be. The truth is, I am a tough ass, strong ass, outspoken as hell, badass being who was simply pretending to be amenable. And my question became why? In some ways, I already knew the answer. I grew up with a mother who I had never seen cry until I was late in my teenage years and a father who was in the military. I grew up having to be the defender of my family. I was the peacekeeper and what that meant was that I absorbed a ton of trauma and had to find ways to deal with it by myself. Akin to a human filter, I took in a bunch of shit and transformed it into strength for my family. There was no therapist growing up back then. I learned from a young age how to self-soothe. How to absorb without anyone to fall back on. How to weather storms without anyone knowing it had ever rained. When you grow up like that, you learn to be self-sufficient almost to a fault. You pride yourself on independence. Trauma is read almost like a thrilling challenge because you know you’re going to get through it and you know you’re going to be an even stronger, more self-sufficient version of yourself on the other side. And so, you excitedly anticipate it. And sometimes, even when there are people there who genuinely want to support you through it, you turn them away. When you are all you’ve had, when you’ve had to piece yourself together when nobody else was there, friendships and all other relationships to be honest, begin to feel frivolous. Unnecessary. It’s great if they’re there, but if not, oh well. That kind of independence is most definitely a trauma response. It’s a survival response and so it’s how you learn to keep getting by (for better or for worse).  This is my truth. These are the circumstances that I literally developed in. As a result, this is how my mind, my body, and my spirit processes things. Tough doesn’t even begin to describe my Spirit. Now with that, you can better appreciate the sheer disgust I felt when I realized how I had been playing down my own strength. I was this monstrous source of great power and energy that I was continually presenting as a soft, gentle, kindhearted space. Imagine telling a child to draw a hurricane and they handed back a picture of a cloud with a smiley face. That was the stark contrast between who I knew I was and how I was representing myself to others. And in that moment, I was fed up. 

As a [non-binary] Black/Afro-Indigenous woman, I have been conditioned to police myself to be more agreeable. To be more feminine. To be more attractive. You’re more well received; you’ll get more job offers and opportunities in life if people see you as non-threatening. If I smile and nod then I’ll get farther in life than if I come across as a bold, audacious, uncompromising “bitch.” 

“You’ll never get a man, if you act like one.”

“Step into your feminine power.”

 Right? In more ways than one, that’s what we’re taught. But I didn’t develop with the luxury of being a super soft girl. Yes, softness and strength, femininity and aggression can 100% coexist. But we’re not taught that. I had to “be a man” and a woman, but I’m only supposed to present myself like a “lady.” To the eye, yes, I wore dresses; but beneath those petticoats and white laced socks was armor. The dresses, the ponytails, the bows all became costumes. They were uniforms that helped me to navigate through enemy territory, undetected. 

My truth is that I was raised to be a warrior. In Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later” (which would probably be the most appropriate title for my fictitious autobiography), there’s a part where he’s crying and his friend checks on him. Drake wipes his tears and says he has to have a “warrior spirit.” When that music video first came out, a friend sent that part to me and said, “this you?” I swear I laughed for five minutes. Didn’t even come up for air. 

I come from a line of African and Indigenous ancestry. It’s in my blood. It is literally in the genetic makeup of my very Being. Resilience. Being strong as F***. And I’m tired of pretending not to be. Every time I lowered my gaze or refused to challenge what I knew was wrong. Every time I allowed my voice to be cut off or I willingly spoke in a higher pitch. Every time I ended an email with a dumb ass exclamation point, when there wasn’t a damn thing exciting about what was being discussed. Every time I smiled or nodded my head in agreement when someone was bringing me some bullshit. Every time I acquiesced and said yes to things I didn’t want to do just because I wanted to appear like a team player. Every time I allowed someone to disrespect my boundaries because I didn’t want to come across as rude. Every time I should’ve beaten somebody’s ass, but instead walked away saying nothing. Every time I pretended not to see the million red flags that I immediately picked up on for the sake of not bruising the male ego. All of those times, I was disrespecting the hell out of the strength of my bloodline. My ancestors would have beaten yall’s ass, and then mine. My ancestors would’ve straight up killed some of y’all for the uninvited sexual entitlement that you have feel you have over my body. And every time I smile in the face of disrespect, or I let some shit slide so that I’m not seen as a threat, they look at me in complete confusion. 

WTF are you doing? You are a warrior. You come from warriors. You ARE a threat. 

I AM a threat. And I refuse to keep acting like I’m not. I am not harmless. I am very much capable of doing great harm. If this were a Marvel movie, I wouldn’t be the villain, but I for damn sure would not be the superhero. I’d be a vigilante. I’d be someone who was kicking ass and taking names but in the name of justice, of peace, and of community. 

I’ve often thought of what my True Name is. I think my name would be Water. I think if colonization hadn’t done its job, my name would be Water. I had been behaving as water is portrayed to behave. For those who have access to it (*cough cough* why don’t my people have access to clean drinking water), we think we control water. We turn it on. We turn it off. We adjust it to make it hot. To make it cold. We bottle it. We sell it. We think we have dominion over it. We decide who gets access to it and who doesn’t. This is how we’ve grown to see water. Contained. Digestible. Accessible. But don’t get it twisted. That same water you use to make coffee, will rise up to be 100ft waves of sheer destruction. That same water will freeze and cut through mountains. That same water is where modern day monsters call home. The same water that brings life is also the bringer of death. 

I am water. I am not harmless. I AM a threat. And you would be very wise to appreciate me as such. 

Monyae (she/they) is a Black/Afro-Indigenous non-binary womxn, queer feminist scholar, pleasure activist, educator, researcher, ally, and full spectrum doula. Her work centers the holistic wellness, mental health, and radical healing of the Black community; more specifically, Black womxn and femmes (including queer, trans, and gender diverse identities). They are a recent graduate from Teachers College, Columbia University where she earned her Masters in Spirituality Mind Body Psychology and an Advanced Certificate in Sexuality Women and Gender with a special concentration in LGBTQ populations.

Monyae’s work focuses on the intersections of spiritual healing and political resistance in Black womxn and femme identities to promote and embody pleasure-centered ways of being. They have facilitated holistic wellness workshops with academic institutions, grassroots organizations, and many other community spaces seeking to transform their wellness practices. Monyae is currently earning their 200hr yoga teacher certification on a social justice scholarship to increase accessibility to the practice in BIPOC AND 2SQTPOC communities. In her research, personal practice, and service, their work centers critical race theory, black feminist thought, and ancestral/indigenous healing wisdom as necessary modalities to both personal and collective liberation.

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