On feeling like a constant other, and the power of finding my voice

I recently attended a conference on intersections in academia, which turned out to be a place for me to have what will probably be the first of many final realisations about my phd (and life) journey.  Ultimately, I am finishing my phd this year.  By finish, I mean handing in my drafted manuscript to my (tbd) viva committee and crossing my fingers that the whole thing is absolutely perfect enough to pass with minor corrections. I’m hoping I won’t forget anything important about my research that leaves a giant gap in the justification and resonance of the last three (but really five) years of creative intellectual work I’ve accomplish. I’m hoping it’s not all for naught.

These anxieties have plagued me from the get go, even when I sent along my original research proposal to the three Uni’s in Glasgow. But I have started to realise that my work is at the intersections of two very different but not completely dissimilar disciplines: the arts and business. I’ve also realised that my intersectional identity as a Black American woman who pursued the arts, yet had an interest in the utilisation of business, always made me feel as if straddling the two sides meant that I would forever be outside of both yet also inside. 

Feeling like an outsider

I think this sense of being an outsider started when I was in high school.  When instead of wanting to audition for the fall main stage play, I wanted to cast and direct it.  As a theme of my life, I really didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, or what was entailed, but I wanted to be the one in charge of the vision. I wanted to execute my vision, really. So I put my hand in to be the director, and I got it. But, feeling like an outsider, especially in high school, led to some pretty harsh expectations I put upon myself to “be like so-and-so”, though I obviously was already beyond that.  I struggled with myself and my feelings around my identity, which were further exacerbated by being called an “oreo” by other kids. So on one side I was being ostracized for not being “black” enough, but on the other embraced and encouraged to take risks like directing my peers in a big production.

Celebrating otherness

It was in this space of celebrating otherness that I began to reconsider and reclaim my own identity through poetry and community organizing.

At this point in my life, I shed the need to fit into any obvious identity groups, internalized that pain that I felt by omission, and embraced my creative life.  I jumped into my own creative career and went on to study theatre management, which merged my artistic practice with business learning.  I felt like I had a place I could be myself yet also be part of others’ discoveries of themselves. This wasn’t without the undertones of identity struggles and depression, but I felt secure in my place as a creative manager. This theme continued on for me both academically and professionally and I added in social justice to the mix.  It was in this space of celebrating otherness that I began to reconsider and reclaim my own identity through poetry and community organizing.  I created a digital poetics project called Black Kids, based on conversations I had with other Black women in arts admin and communications fields. I loved it. My confidence grew and I felt like I had found something that nurtured me at a time when I was ready to confront and nurture myself.  In parallel, I became interested in the way the art world made social practice or commercial artists seem like “others”; I was curious about how artists could do these social and commercial things while maintain the integrity of their creative practices. So I applied for a phd in Scotland and hopped on a plane to pursue it.

The struggles of “idealised enculturation”

Who am I? Who do I want to be?

In the UK, I think I felt the weight of leaving home and of leaving a space of comfort that I hadn’t yet fully explored, but the opportunity arose so I didn’t hesitate.  However, I began to struggle again, but with a different aspect of myself. I had also wanted to move abroad and living and work in a different country from mine. Yet I hadn’t considered the emotional costs of moving abroad and being expected to shed my own, newly explored identity in an effort to enculturate to someone else’s expectation of who I should be.  In this way I idealised what my transition would be, but was also being projected upon the idealisations of what others thought I should be.  This concept isn’t unique to my situation as many people feel pushed to be something they aren’t, at different points in their lives. But as I persisted to further step into my Self, I continued to create. And to visualise and explore the person I wanted to be. “Who am I? Who do I want to be?” were questions I continue to ask myself. And in this process I found places, spaces where I could combine what felt like the many different parts of myself into a hybrid overall many.  I found spaces where I could be nurtured as a Black woman, a creative practitioner, and as an enterprise scholar. I was finally “allowed” to let these pieces of myself come together collaboratively, and/or stand together cooperatively.

A note on the power of language

Am I at the intersections or just out on a ledge?

Returning to the beginning of this post, one type of such places of nurture, for me, has been conferences that focus on intersectionality, or black feminism/womanism, or creative research, or a combination of them all (which has been the case more often than not). I’ve attended a handful of them, but not nearly enough. I even wrote a reflection about and for the very first one I attended, which you can read here: Gathering as Enterprise. And, as I continue to reflect upon myself, I’ve realised how powerful it is to use  the right words for the right situations. I have questioned myself many times when feeling anxious about my otherness in certain situations: “Am I just out on a ledge by myself? Am I a rebel rouser, for no reason?” But I’ve started to realise that there are multiple ways to approach difference. When you’re standing in a hybrid space, there is an overwhelming pressure to choose one side or another (to “focus” on one thing as more important than the others), but there’s actually more power in being able to see the multitudes of sides and utilise language and/or rhetoric that speaks to each about the same thing. As I continue on my journey of self-discovery, I am enthralled by this concept of what I’ve been calling: strategic rhetoric; and the possibilities of multi-focus communications to help others find and feel like they belong in whatever groups they choose to join.  

A question I ask myself a lot is: “Am I at the intersections or just out on a ledge?” But, I think it’s important find and use my voice to  be both at the intersections and to be out on a ledge.  I’m beginning to step into myself and lead my life through a (re)creative and collaborative praxis.  And it’s through this voice I plan to make significant strides towards the betterment of not only myself but others along the way.

✌ Jaleesa