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I Am a Phenomenal Black, Disabled Woman

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When I look into the mirror, I am phenomenally Black. When I rise, as I move throughout my day and as I prepare for bed, I am proud to be bold, beautiful Black. My melanin in my skin hugged me and defined me before I was anything else.

It also, unfortunately, gave me my very first target in my back.

Being Black in America pulls on every aspect of the psyche. As I fill out applications, I question if I will get the job because of my name. It may sound Black. I wonder if the checked “African-American” box will turn up a nose.

What if they don’t want me because I’m Black?

But then, what if they do want me because I’m Black? Contrarily, when I do get an opportunity, how do I know if the brand or company feels I’ve earned it? What if, instead, they’re throwing me a bone because of the color of my skin, filling a quota in their diversity numbers to prove how “woke” they are?

My second target is being a woman.

Womanhood in our society has been no cakewalk. Our history has included being treated less than all the way through. We had no say in the household, but were seen as quiet property, barefoot and pregnant. Suffrage was a fight, among many other rights that our male counterparts didn’t have to bat an eye at. When we won those battles (though we’re still fighting many), then we had to fight our way to share the space as breadwinners in our households.

Many of us did the same jobs as men, backed by the same education and the same accolades. Yet, our gender tends to hold us back when it comes to pay gaps and promotions. Just because we’re women.

When I was a 24-year-old graduate student, I gained my triple threat: my disability.

It was just another reason for the world to weigh on me more heavily and chip into my confidence, making me feel that I was less than.

I never considered that I could become disabled, especially in the way I did. It happened out of nowhere — when, as a young adult, I started to lose control of my own body.

I fell often. I struggled to lift my arms, then my legs, as if I was weighted with an anchor with the mission to drown me alive.

When it started, I tried to hide it — avoiding filing for disability and similarly keeping it away from my career. In interviews, I’d blame my limp or crutches on a sprained ankle or a car accident. Unlike the “I’m Black” box on the applications, I didn’t want my disability to be real to either of us: myself or the job. I worried they wouldn’t think I was as valuable — or employable — if I told the truth.

Black, woman, and disabled.

According to the world around me, that meant I was three times less favorable in the workplace, in relationships, in life.

Having three targets on me doesn’t leave much in the way of “flowers and rainbows” in my existence. When I show up for events or feature in a webinar, I’m always smiling. That’s what I choose to show, because that’s how I aim to present myself. Deep down, these targets poke holes in my mental health, my self-esteem and my feeling of belonging in the world.

In 2020, all of these feelings are exacerbated.

The world around me seems to be growing more reckless and more inhumane by the minute, and I see it guided by our leaders. With the election date creeping up, I have my fingers crossed that leadership will change. I want our country to be led by someone who doesn’t perpetuate that I am less than for any of the things that identify me.

By then, we may be outside again. But will I be safe?

As a Black person, am I safe enough not to be wrongfully killed, hurt or arrested? As a woman, can I trust that I won’t be sexually harassed or assaulted as I navigate the streets? And what about as a disabled person — can I be sure that folks will keep me in mind and wear their masks?

The trilogy of my existence takes a toll on my mental health – always causing me to wonder if I’m safe enough. Just for living. For breathing.

It feels like the current President has been in office for one hundred years, when instead it’s only been four. In that time frame, he’s led the country into a place that challenges all aspects of who I am.

At this point, I’d even vote for Kanye.

As a person who has dealt with the weight of these targets, I’ve learned a few things to survive the mental stress.

I’ve grown more comfortable with who I am — comfortably Black, comfortably woman, comfortably disabled. It’s taken time to feel strong and proud when it seems like the world is against me. It’s come through community and at times, help from a licensed therapist. My family served as my first community, and then I built my own: Girls Chronically Rock. My family was there with me when I struggled with my identity, especially after I was officially disabled. Once I got comfortable, I grew closer to acceptance, and I was able to build something that reflected who I am and welcomed others who were like me.

My communities are what keep me strong now. I express myself and enjoy myself, even through the moments of fear, through my #GCRFamily. It’s been a place where I can shout “Black Lives Disabled Matter,” and be supported by others who look like me. In fact, the shirts from that collection have sold the most during this time. It’s been an incredibly affirming thing to see.

I, Keisha Greaves, am a Black, disabled woman.

I can finally say it with unapologetic pride. Even with the three targets in my back: in the workplace, as an entrepreneur and on the streets, this is who I am.

I cannot hide it. Nor do I want to.

I am forever Black. Forever woman. Forever disabled. Yes, that’s me.

Originally published: August 14, 2020
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