Blackness is not my only form of identity

In Beauty by Chiderah Sunny

Black women should abandon racial activism, to attain their dreams – it is not my job to go into this space, it is not my job to revolutionize this space, it is my job to enjoy it.  

I am sitting on my couch in my flat in Berlin retelling the events of my day to my wife Deidre while our small dog is neatly resting between the both of us. For a moment I zone out while Deidre is responding to certain details that I just shared with her about my day. “How did I get here…how am I creating a life on my own terms?”

On August 20, 2020 my platonic soulmate, now wife, and I boarded a plane to Berlin, Germany. With only a few suitcases, a dog, and our unwavering longing for a better life than the ones we left behind in Toronto. In Toronto my life was bleak, to say the least. 

Upon first glance, anyone who met me would see an image of a dark-skinned Black woman flourishing and making her mark in the world. As an undergraduate student, I founded the first organization of its kind for Black women at the University of Toronto. I brought the prestigious post-secondary institution something it sorely lacked—a safe space for Black women on campus to access opportunities, mentorship, networking, kinship, and sisterhood. Given my role, I was invited to speak and host workshops and talk about anti-Black racism within the University, all the while pursuing an honors degree in Political Science, African Studies and Women, and Gender Studies and developing a business. 

I worked so hard to be the quintessential  “activist Black woman”. The problem with this is that this role started to become the only version of my identity that seemed acceptable for me to play in Toronto. However, there were moments when I tried to divorce myself from this role; seeking purpose in things outside social activism, such as attaining a modelling career, starting my own boutique PR agency, or trying to achieve any form of upward mobility that did not rest on me being a black-tavist. I was confronted by a sad truth. Toronto did not want me to succeed and by me, I mean a dark-skinned Black woman who refused to play by the rules and often challenge the status quo. 

I can recall a moment with a former Black female friend. She asked me to name dark-skinned Black women that I knew in Toronto that were succeeding on their own accord, and who did not play into the Black activist persona. I could not think of one. Instead, I was overwhelmed by my circumstances. I was vulnerably housed, broke, and in a string of abusive relationships. I was constantly treading just above the water to make ends meet and when I tried to seek help, to persevere, Toronto would remind me that it was not a city designed to protect, let alone provide a life for a dark-skinned Black woman that did not require her to beat into submission and play the one-dimensional role that seemed to be my proverbial birthright. 

At a certain point when your environment continuously betrays you and discards your existence, as if your body is a disposable commodity. You suddenly wake up one day and realize this is no longer admirable. The life of just barely getting by becomes a ridiculous endeavour and you say enough. This becomes a turning point the moment that everything changes and life-alternating decisions are made, that finally allows you to start choosing yourself rather than a cause or an identity that has never served you. 

I abandoned the world of racial activism because to me it was at my expense. It robbed me of my happiness and honesty and made me so angry with the world around me. I no longer wanted to be typecast, to be one-dimensional. I grew exhausted by the call to racial justice. I wanted to live my dreams and create a life for myself where I could keep choosing my dreams. So I sold everything I owned, packed two suitcases and I left Toronto with my now wife during a global pandemic.

Within two weeks of living in Berlin, I was signed to one of the top modelling agencies in the city VIVAmodelsBerlin. With the spread of the Coronavirus creative industries, such as modelling became part of a myriad of occupations to be drastically impacted; as the volume of shoots reduced significantly. A total of six months had gone by and in those months I had managed to book one unpaid gig. Radio silence, things seemed rather bleak at this point but I continuously told myself that this was a small price to pay for choosing to follow my dreams. 

Eventually, I was booked for my first paid gig in February. Many have tried to point out the coincidence in finally receiving work during a month that celebrates Black bodies. Many have tried to bait me into having conversations surrounding systemic racism within the modelling industry. They have tried to thrust me back into the role of the Black activist because this seems to be the only role worthy for a dark-skinned Black woman. And my response to such chatter is this. 

The modelling industry is known as being overwhelmingly white but I think that this is a result of gatekeepers who are white that hold power over who is chosen and who is cast rather than the people doing the shoots, who from my experience have been racialized and marginalized.

In my personal experience as a Black woman in modelling. I have never been made to feel that my blackness was the only reason I was chosen. This is a narrative that is constantly forced upon me by white gatekeepers and those within the Black community. They want me to somehow reinforce their preconceived notions surrounding tokenization which seems counterproductive to me because should we not be celebrating the success of a Black woman? Rather than constantly questioning the legitimacy of her success. 

Black women are thrust into the role of the revolutionaries, the freedom fighters, the callers of racial injustice. None of which serve me and my own happiness. I do not, and should not have to, shoulder the burden of calling out racism and being a Black-tivist. Oftentimes this comes at our own expense both financially and career-wise. Some could speculate that me getting work during February was coincidental, but this does not negate my hard work and self-advocacy that propelled me to where I currently am in this industry. I am here on my own terms, my magnetism and undeniable star power and presence have gotten me to where I am today in the industry, and it will only continue.

As a Black woman, I deserve to have success and find joy and comfort in my work without always worrying about the racial implications. The racial implications will always be there but I do not have to spend my time talking about it or worrying about it. This does not mean I think ignorance is bliss, more so that I do not want to have talks about race and how it affects me 24/7 . 

Black women: we do not have to sacrifice our dreams for the sake of carrying the world into the promised land of racial consciousness. This is not our job. You are allowed to abandon racial activism. It’s exhausting. I became exhausted, but the moment I stopped trying to see the racial inequalities in everything I did, especially the one thing that brings me the most joy—modelling—I was able to create the life I wanted on my own terms. Unapologetic and unbothered by insidious things that may occupy this space. Presently, my only concern as a Black woman is to be a successful Black woman who is surrounded by luxury. I call on Black women to do the same.