I’m a mix of black Jamaican and white American. My distinctive identity is both a target of hatred and my weapon for fighting injustice.
A demonstrator at a protest against racism in Berlin, Germany, 6 June 2020 (Friedrich Bungert/Geisler-Fotopr/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)
My family is a bizarre combination of stereotypical Western normality and a complete defiance of such. I’ve been raised upper-middle class, in a predominantly white small town. With trimmed lawns and painted houses, my hometown is the definition of quiet, picturesque, American suburbia. And yet, I’ve always existed as an aberration — one of the only brown faces in my classes and my mother’s only brown-skinned child. It feels strange to be biracial. In a white area, my blackness is amplified. Silenced by curly hair and melanin, my half-white heritage is too quiet for anyone but me to hear.
My house has been a mix of black Jamaican and white American — although it feels more white-American accented with Jamaican, as if the latter is a mere bonus. My mother speaks in unmistakably American English, we celebrate the Fourth of July but not Emancipation Day, and beef patties are far less common at home than hamburgers. At school, however, I am palpably Jamaican — not only Jamaican, but the Jamaican, one of the few — but if you came to my house, you could barely tell. The one ever-present Jamaican element has been a few of the cultural values that persist — the requirements for deference and for academic excellence. Good Jamaican children are respectful and studious. I try to be.
Perhaps I should not let myself be defined by this, but I’ve needed to sculpt an identity for myself. And my home and school have given me the clay. I am whatever people see me as — Jamaican, American, biracial, half-black, half-white, Caribbean, West Indian — and some other crueler words. I will accept the descriptors and reject the insults.
My identity is complex.
In some ways, I am not a Jamaican at all. Good Jamaican children are Jesus’s devoted followers, and I am silently, stubbornly, agnostic-atheist. Good Jamaican girls only love boys, and since I was thirteen, I’ve known I cannot say the same about myself.
I am a queer teenage girl, a first-generation American with two parents — my father from the American South, my mother from south of America. I am economically privileged, a private-school suburban kid, and more God-hating than God-fearing. I’ve lived with epilepsy for years, but now it lies dormant. I’m unsure whether that’s a valid descriptor for myself. My MRIs and EEGs have been a major component of my adolescent years, but I don’t know whether to consider a faded disability a disability. Regardless, I am unique from my peers in the number of times I’ve had wires glued to my scalp. I am a seventeen-year old, and I have been a scientific specimen. These identities clash clumsily, crafting a permanent sense of awkwardness. Marginalized and privileged, I never belong in any space.
Despite my laundry list of identifiers, I am a writer, poet and artist, and, frankly, I wish that were all that mattered. Those identities are the most important to me. And, of course, I am constantly striving to lead. Leadership is the way I can pursue a brighter future for myself and for those around me.
Leadership means challenging injustice.
My leadership style did not and does not fit neatly into any of the categories — and, frankly, neither do I. I lead with both my head and my heart. I use the former to analyze the situation from a logical point of view, and I use the latter to generate my passion and fire. In discussions about a topic I have knowledge of, I will speak first, but otherwise I am silent. I am more vocal in classroom discussions than I am in ordinary conversations. I have never fit neatly into a category. Sometimes I am Jamaican and sometimes I am American; sometimes I am logic-driven, sometimes I am emotion-driven. Being mixed means being a chameleon, and I cannot help but carry that into my leadership.
Challenging injustice is a necessary component of leadership. Injustice is founded upon the denial of humanity, and the principle cause is the belief that certain identities are unworthy, less than human. To combat injustice, one must use ethical principles to help groups often targeted by prejudice. One needs to utilize morality and place it above convenience, personal desires and implicit prejudice.
Being a target of identity-based hatred has made me more invigorated in opposing bigotry, yet I believe that I would be passionately against injustice, regardless of my identity. My sense of right and wrong is deeper than what boils down to society’s depiction of me. Leadership in a diverse, multicultural society means that the perspectives and opinions of a wide variety of different groups must be listened to, respected and acknowledged, and I have always attempted to look outside my own identifiers when I am leading, to see how certain decisions benefit and harm others. This is critical to leadership: what helps one individual may not help all.
Willow, do not stop fighting. Do not stop writing and speaking. Physically you are weak, but your words are your weapon. Holding an intersection of marginalized identities means it is difficult to box you in simply in the world. Do not stop resisting others’ attempts to define, label and mistreat you. You are shaped by your surroundings, but the fire inside you can never be extinguished. Racism, misogyny and homophobia cannot stop you. And while you should continue for yourself, you should consider your allyship of utmost importance.
For you and for others, do not stop fighting for a better world.
Three questions to consider:
- The author writes, “In some ways, I am not a Jamaican at all.” What does she mean?
- In the author’s eyes, what is the relationship between “being mixed” and being an effective leader?
- If you were to describe yourself in a sentence, what would you write?
Willow Delp is a 17-year-old artist, writer, graphic designer, debater and poet. She is a student at Montclair Kimberley Academy in the U.S. state of New Jersey, currently attending the African Leadership Academy with the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in South Africa.