Stop apologizing: What independence really means

Dear Reader,

One of the very first things I heard during my VONA experience was this:

“You are allowed to take up space.”

The words weren’t foreign to me but how they were put together were. Space? I nodded thinking that I knew what that phrase meant.

All through my week, I kept hearing that phrase over again like a mantra in yoga class. During our workshops and in conversations with my workshop leader, this phrase was the bad penny of conversation but, like with everything else from that magical week, I took it with me to mull over and consider.

Fast forward to this morning and my scrolling through social media. Forbes posted this gem and the first item on this list was this:

Don’t apologize for taking up space.

But this time, after more than a year, I know what that phrase means. I feel it like one feels cold or warmth. I feel it like how one feels pain. It is instinct now.

For people of color, women of color in particular, we play this inherited game. We walk into it really, the second we accept our first job. We learn to get better at it. We shrink ourselves in ways we’re not conscious of. We learn when it’s best to talk in the meeting even though we had that great idea two weeks ago. We learn to dress professionally, with just enough colors to be seen or even be considered fashionable, but mixed with enough muted colors to blend into walls and cubicles. Our voices are softer and lower, our tones calm, our speech rates slower so that we are understood but don’t come off as “passionate”,  a code word for threatening. We change the texture of our hair — we relax it, we weave it, we place it in buns or ponytails. Our laughter in the workplace is limited least we are thought of as lazy and non-compliant despite working longer hours and working harder.

In short, the goal is to take up enough space to be seen as a professional but not so much that we’re seen as intrusive.

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Writing is like that sometimes. Take up enough space to do your art but don’t demand any more than that. And getting paid for your writing? Well, that’s absurd!  Writing for art? Who do you think you are? Hemingway? Writing the truth of the world around you — well now you’ve gone too far!

How dare we ask to take up the space that is not only due but required to just make sense of the world around us? I, as a writer, a woman of color, the daughter of immigrants, an Afro-Latina, take up this space because, simply, I am human.

So, nah, I ain’t sorry. I am allowed and required to take up all the space I need.

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That is what independence is to me. That freedom of being and creating in my space. Being who I truly am. Not apologizing for it because none is necessary. I am human after all and we need what we need to survive and thrive in whatever way we chose. If that means I take up more space than I’m allotted then so be it. Making myself smaller physically or on the page serves someone else, serves a game that I’m not willing to play anymore.

I am allowed to take up space. I don’t have to apologize for it. I am free.

Happy Independence Day,

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