Black, Brown, Other

As 1 of 5 black creatives at my place of work, I’m constantly feeling displaced. Having to think about my own identity was the impetus for this project. I wanted an opportunity to collaborate creatively with people who felt the same. Instead of forcing a sense of strength or power, I needed to express a sense of vulnerability. To exhale.

People of color spend our whole lives being strong. Having to be the model minority, or exist without expression — the moment you truly reveal yourself it’s too much. (“I didn’t expect you to be ‘urban’ all of a sudden.”)  These photos and interviews explore the burden of being silent. There are so many ways that American life shuts out people of color unintentionally, and this project gave the opportunity for us to decompress all of that through candid talk.

Below is the story of Cassie and Yess.

Cassie & Yess

Cassie: I don’t feel alienated as much anymore since moving to Brooklyn from Albany.

Especially because I’m in social work and there’s a lot of people of color doing the work. I work another job at a bakery and there’s a lot of white customers. I’m usually the only black face there, so there are certain interactions in which I'm viewed as less than.

When I talked about it with other co-workers or managers on shift they ask, “How do you know that they're racist?” or “How do you know they're talking to you like that because of your skin color?” I’ve experienced this most of my life. You can tell it in tone. It's something I feel. It’s not me being self conscious, it's their tone being offensive.

Yess: I also work in the food industry and for the past six years I've been management. Two years ago, I went to a big food exhibition by Association of Food Industries in Atlantic City and the hierarchy was all white men. And I’m not just a person of color, I'm a queer person of color. My body is a person of color. I look queer. So I always have this extra step of being careful of who I speak to or finding who looks approachable and safe. The majority of times, I feel like I'm most approachable to people of color. I can actually have a conversation and a mutual understanding with them, without any comments on the way that I physically look or my accent. Because I can white-pass physically, but I can't white pass my speech. Which is one of the things that I'm fully aware of and that people make me fully aware of. I was 15 when I came to the USA. When someone corrects me I feel like a mockery--especially in public. It's embarrassing, being corrected. Because this language is not mine, it's something I've learned. So I'm very careful to feel out who I speak to.

My mother's accent is thick. She has a business, and she would always ask my sister to be the one to do the voicemail for her because of her accent. She's very self-conscious about it because people have corrected her a lot. People have treated her like she isn't smart just because the way she speaks.

Yess: It seems like when someone hears an accent, especially in white America, they think you’re “less educated” or you're less-than. And that's completely incorrect. Because, personally, this is not even my language and I speak it.

Cassie: Most Americans can't even speak another language.

At the bakery alienation feels less evident because I’m around other people of color but anti-blackness spans across all races and ethnicities, so me speaking my truth could be shut down. I talk about it with my other co-workers, but not my boss, because she's Asian. Last week there was a homeless black man sitting on the bench outside on a 95-degree day. I’ve seen white people sitting on it all the time but the owner walked in and told a white-passing barista to tell him to get off the bench.My boss told him to call the cops, and my co-worker refused because he knew it would put his life in danger. They were afraid that he would scare away white customers. Even in social work, I see black kids who get the cops called on them for minor situations.

Yess: Because I’m white-passing I get a lot of privileges that white people get. Financially, I am so much better. Growing as fast as I did in the company that I was with, I try to give more space to people of color. I manage at least 50 people, a majority are people of color. And the people who aren’t white-passing, I argue on their behalf.

Cassie: I saw a white guy get a raise who had less experience than me. I knew more than him and it took me speaking up about it for my boss to give me a raise. I felt like I had to treat him like my superior. Why? Because of race? Because of gender?

Yess: I worked for three years in Greenwich Village, which has a very welcoming queer community. After that I started working in Brooklyn, in Sunset Park. There's a Latin community and also Orthodox Jews, and middle class white people that go into that environment and you can see the difference between the locations. While working in Brooklyn I was labelled as a lesbian. More cold. Which I would hear more often than I would in Greenwich Village. I'm not a lesbian. I'm a queer person.

A customer once attempted to attack me with a knife at the restaurant I work at, calling me a dyke, and you know what my bosses said to me? “Welcome to Brooklyn.” Because, for them, they went to Yale, Harvard--they're CEOs. Coming to and working in Brooklyn means being in a ghetto environment. 

I put this in mind [people assuming they are white/lesbian] everyday. I tell this to everyone: Being me physically, choosing to be myself, physically, is providing space for others to be more welcome. That's a goal every day. Being able to express myself to show someone on the train who's five years old, who has conflicts with their sexuality, for them to think, “This is fine. If they're doing it, I can do it”. Especially in the POC community where they tell you being queer is a sin, because Latins and Carribeans are very religious.

Cassie: People of color relied on religion during times of struggle, during horrible trauma and stress. Christianity is something that is forced upon by white colonialism but it’s not an excuse for homophobia. Why is being you such a burden? Why is it so hard for people to get comfortable with? At parties and shows where I’m the only black person there, I feel completely ignored. Why is it such a problem to talk to me?

Just because I am who I am? You don’t have to treat me differently. You don’t have to speak to me in ebonics. Just…be normal. Your kind of normal.

I remember having a conversation with a roommate about wanting to do an ancestry test. And my roommate who’s very cautious about certain things asked, “Why would you want to do that? Why can't you just ask your parents or your family where you're from?” Obviously I can't do that because of slavery. It's really about just knowing the history of black people in this country. She knew my ethnicity. I'm Haitian. Black Haitians just don't end up in the Caribbean. They ended up there because of slavery. 

In situations like these I often chose not to bring it up because I don't want to feel like I'm the aggressive black girl or “Why is she reacting that way?” There's a lot of things I wanted to say in that living situation and I couldn't because it felt like I couldn't. Environment matters. In microaggressions we see it. Someone asked my sister if her hair was real in a public space and she cut them off to tell them it was offensive. It’s not about if it’s worth speaking up but if you’re in a space that feels less threatening then it’s easier. I’ve corrected my friends, but if I’m in a white space it feels dangerous. It feels less threatening in an environment that’s mainly people of color or loved ones.

Yess: When I go out now, I always go to queer person of color events or bars. Only. Because that's where I feel safe. My body feels safe. I can be me. I can say whatever I want without feeling looked at or judged or oppressed. I'm not anxious, I'm not about to have a physical anxiety attack as I do when I go into a straight bar. I get a nervous breakdown going or thinking I'm going to a straight, white bar. It’s even different in places that are labelled as “queer” and places that are labelled as for “queer people of color.” When it's all “queer,” the majority of time it's like white gay men--which already take up enough space. So it's different. It's really different. I just feel more welcome when I'm in a queer person of color event. There's more...truthfulness to the welcoming.

But then, when I went to a space with people of color talking about police brutality, they thought I was white. I came in with a friend who is Cuban but also white passes. When we went into the room immediately people stopped talking and told me to get the fuck out. My friend just started crying. I had to argue and tell them that we’re Cuban. We as people of color need to be more aware of taking validation from others.

There's been times that have made me more focused on the physical aspect of my body. I've been in female bathrooms and put on display.  I was “bold”. I wore baggy clothes.
A lot of Latinx people don't think I speak Spanish. So I go into the restroom at work and there's two people speaking Spanish who said, “Did you see them? I thought I was going into the wrong bathroom.” Obviously to me that means they thought I was a man. That really got me angry. I think a lot of the knowledge I have about my body is because I know people that have committed suicide because of people's comments of their body. I was so angry. So angry. I was waiting outside and I took my shirt off. I was topless as fuck just waiting for them, and I said, “You see these tits? They're bigger than yours. Do not tell anybody that looks like me that they are less of a woman.” I said it to them in Spanish. If I didn't do that I would have been angry with myself.

Once I was on the train and there was this little girl who was uncomfortable looking at me. She was freaking out because she didn't know what I was. But then other times I'm walking down the street and a little girl says, “I love your hair!” So to me, seeing the differences means the person that was uncomfortable will feel more comfortable next time. I love my presentation physically. It took me time. It took me pain. It took me struggles. But I love it, because I want others to know it's okay to show your queerness.

Creative Direction and Writing
Dominique Wynne