Anybody who knows me knows that I am probably one of the world’s biggest Beyoncé fans. I started off as a lover of her empowering RnB ballads and upbeat bangers, but over the last few years, I’m less of a lover of her music, but more of an appreciator of her creativity and empowerment – especially since growing up means I have been faced with the realities of the world that have evolved me into quite a feminist myself.
Today, I attended an amazing workshop on identity with Dr Showunmi of UCL. The task at hand was to write down on a piece of paper, who we are and where we belong. Amongst the attendants of this Women of Colour discussion group, many of us attributed the labels of our ethnicity, religion and gender or various other labels that signify these details e.g. hijab, dark –skinned or locked hair. These are labels which highlight our physical appearance, are attributes associated with our ethnic group and are simultaneously things that we cannot physically escape from or conceal, things we are often judged on, but also things that we love about ourselves.
Membership in a group, as well as one’s value and emotional significance attached to this membership, is an important part of one’s self-concept. Individuals need a firm sense of group identification in order to maintain a sense of well-being. It is by no surprise that a whole host of psychological research by Jean Phinney has linked high levels of ethnic identification with high levels of self-esteem and wellbeing for persons of colour of various ethnic groups around the world. However, why is it that when people express their infatuation with their ethnic group, it is conceived of as hatred to the “other” (whoever the other group may be), rather than an act of self-love?
Possibly because, the emergence of ethnic identity as a concept has also been found by psychologists to act as a protective factor against experiences of racism, cultural stress and difficulties with integrating into new cultures. Just because love of one’s ethnicity often emerges under experiences of prejudice, it does not mean that self-love is equivalent to hatred of another. Ethnic identity has also been found to hold as a protective factor against a host of other anti-social behaviours and psychological illness, and even positively related to higher academic achievement – in a vast number of ethnic groups around the world (Miller et al, 1999; Lee, 2005 & Warren et al, 2005).
Beyoncé’s celebration of a variety of defining moments in African American history coupled with lyrics such as “I like my baby heir, with baby hair and afros, I like my negro nose, Jackson 5 with nostrils” are examples of cognitive creativity and positive distinctiveness which contributes positively to our self-esteem which psychologists Tajfel and Turner have similarly referenced in their research on social identity and the “Black is Beautiful” movement. Surprisingly (I’m sarcastic if you don’t know me) Beyonce has broken the internet and naturally with all social media crazes, people sit divided in their opinions as to how we can “fix this.”
It is difficult for me to accept the words Beyoncé and racist in the same sentence. This is not a label that I can attribute to the identity of the greatest living performer of our generation (yes, I said it – second to Michael Jackson in my book; we can debate that in the comments). A woman who changed the Western idealised definition of beauty from pathologically anorexic to curvy, of colour, independent, intelligent, inspiring, mother-figure, lover of other women and girls and so much more. Beyoncé the feminist is one well documented (and well received and celebrated) part of her identity, along with Beyoncé the American superstar. Black Beyoncé is something I will assume that most of the wider world knows very little about, but if you have been a long-time fan like myself you can recall several occasions where she has name checked Martin Luther King, shown support for the family of Trayvon Martin and was caught performing the “palance” dance in Trinidad and Tobago. More recently she confessed she carries hot sauce in her bag, though it seems that Black Beyoncé was only embraced when she was “bootylicious.”
W.E.B DuBois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe how Black Americans live with navigating between two aspects of their identity – one as Black and the other as American. Other theorists have taken this further to suggest that multiple identities can go beyond just ethnicity and can apply to the multiple roles many of us play with regards to labels as our religion, occupation and hobbies which can be less visibly noticeable as opposed to race and ethnicity.
But why is it then that navigating between multiple personalities can be characterised as a mental health disorder?
Is it this stigmatization of the so called “unpredictability” of a person based on our own linear assumptions; rather a reflection of our inability to see beyond our own constructed boxes, beyond our own attributions, beyond “Beyonce” the entertainer; that we have imposed upon the personalities behind the labels?