by Rose Miyonga
Last week, TK was fortunate to have the sparkled voice of Tahmina Beghum of XXY magazine as she shared her experience of dual identity and frustrations with rigid concepts of personhood. This week, we are so excited for Rose Miyonga, one of our contributing editors to share with us her experiences the same subject.
My mother is White British and my father is Black Kenyan.
My sisters, Poppy and Jasmine and I have had to explain what this means to people our whole life, so I have been aware of my racial identities for as long as I can remember.
During my early years, my family lived in Brixton. I don’t remember my brown skin or my hair (usually in dreadlocks or cut short) being an issue. Of course, in my immediate family, it didn’t matter.
I knew that my parents had different skin colours, just as I knew as they had different eye colours and that they loved my sister and me. It was just one thing that blended in with a whole host of other things that happened to be true about my family.
When I was six years old, our family moved to Kenya, and my sister and I were enrolled in a local school on the outskirts of Nairobi. The cracks in our ‘deeply flawed’ system of categorisation and classification of ‘race’ were clearly exposed when our race changed somewhere between Heathrow and Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Suddenly, without warning or consultation, we were white. To my Kenyan classmates, my skin was pale, my hair was soft, and I could see that relatively, I was more white than most of my friends on the school playground… It was a lesson in ‘context’.
This is not to say that race and racism do not exist, as the realities that we have to battle with every day make them evidently tangible, but that race and racism were created and constructed as tools to justify slavery and subjugation; to divide and dehumanise.
I didn’t fully understand how other people’s perception of my skin tone would come to deeply affect me when I was six, but I had learned something important, and something that would repeat itself in various iterations over and over again:
As a teenager in rural England, my Blackness was constantly highlighted by my peers, and I was forced to grapple with it, accept it, and eventually fall in love with it, and when I spent two years at school in the U.S., I remember trying in vain to explain to some (not all) of the people I encountered that I was actually not just black.
I’ve given up explaining now (well, for the most part). Although my heritage does matter, I don’t want my skin colour to define how I live my life. I can’t control how I am perceived and treated by others, but I can control how I look at myself, and I choose to look at myself without judgment, to see my beauty without boundaries, and to love myself without limitations
by Rose Miyonga
It’s been over three years since I stopped wearing make-up regularly. I still wear it sometimes for the odd photo shoot, or, if the mood strikes me, I might brush a little glitter over my eyelids or slick on a bit of lipstick, but day-to-day, I don’t wear make-up.
Don’t get me wrong, I think make-up is awesome.
When it’s done by someone skilled, it is a true art. However, I apparently lack the motor skills needed to apply it properly, and my daily attempts at it often drove me to frustration and despair, and sometimes inflicted physical pain – I can’t be the only one who has poked their still-sleepy eye with a mascara brush in the morning.
I have been asked so many times why I have chosen to opt out as if not wearing make-up is something so unnatural. The answer is pretty simple: for the moment, I just prefer being bare-faced.
As a woman, and especially a woman of colour, my body is too often the battleground on which issues of gender and race are fought, and the use of makeup is a prime example. It is as though I am denied the freedom to let my personal choice be just that: personal. It is so often assumed that my decision not to wear make-up is a ‘stand’ that I am taking for my intersectional feminist agenda, but it is not.
Sure, I do reject the idea of policing of women’s bodies and telling them how they should or shouldn’t look. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where I was taught to question preconceived ideas of what it means to be a beautiful woman, and learned to look at my face in the mirror with love and acceptance. This, for me, right now, doesn’t involve make-up every day.
Recently, both Alicia Keys and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie made bold statements about make-up. I admire both women immensely, and I don’t think their ideas are contradictory, although Keys has chosen not to wear make-up and Adichie is the new face of a make-up brand. Both are rejecting the prescription of beauty standards and redefining beauty from themselves.
My not wearing make-up is not because I think it is frivolous or unimportant. Far from it! Make-up can be magical, empowering and transformative. I take pride in my appearance, and I don’t think it’s somehow un-feminist to do so. As Adichie puts it, “I think it’s time to really stop that ridiculous idea that somehow if you’re a serious woman you can’t and should not care about how you look.”
I choose not to wear make-up (or sometimes to do so) because I hope that I am part of the first generation of women of colour whose personal choices do not have to be held up to a political ideal, but can instead follow whims, moods and fancies without judgement or moralisation.
By Rose Miyonga
As soon as I step off the plane at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport it envelops me in a familiar embrace and I know that although I am more than 4000 miles away from London, I am home.
It was never my intention to take a year out from my degree at University College London and move to Kenya. It was actually conceived during a conversation with my sister, Poppy, who is a photographer and lives in Nairobi, on the way to Heathrow Airport.
She suggested. “I can’t just…” I stuttered
“Why not? If you want to be a writer, write, and if you don’t like being in London, come to Kenya.”
So I did.
On the outside, it could look like I was in the throes of a breakdown: I dropped out of university, got a tattoo and moved to another continent, but I was actually calm and joyful, seeing my life with clarity and enthusiasm for the first time in what felt like years.
Kenya is where I was born, and it is my Fatherland, so in a way it made total sense to go back there, move in with my sister and get a job as a writer. I went with the blessing of my family and my university, and I didn’t feel nervous stepping off the plane into that warm Nairobi night. Instead, I had managed to find a remarkable power: confidence.
I don’t believe in fate or destiny. I believe in making things happen, in asking for what you want and embracing opportunities (and working hard, sometimes).
When I arrived in Kenya, I didn’t really have a plan. Poppy and I went back to her house and ate brownies and chatted and laughed long into the night, and the next few days were spent visiting old friends and enjoying the sunshine.
I had been living independently to varying degrees since I was 16, but support from my family, scholarships and student loans had meant that I’d never felt entirely financially self-sufficient. A paying job was for the first time not a way to make extra cash, but an urgent necessity.
Luckily, Poppy once more had a simple solution, and introduced me to a friend who offered me her job: my first full-time paying job as a writer.
I very deliberately went back to Kenya for myself, to nurture myself and reconnect with my Kenyan identity and my Kenyan family, to seek new adventures in a place that I call home.
I stopped acting out of fear and obligation and started acting with confidence and vitality.
Now, back in drizzly London and preparing for a new adventure in Madrid this September, I carry the memory of re-learning what I first learned as a young child: how to ask for what I want and how to approach life with confidence and a willingness to have fun along the way.
Rose Miyonga is [currently] a London-based student, writer and general adventurous woman. Born in Kenya to a British mother and Kenyan father, she has lived, studied and worked in the UK, Kenya and the United States, and hopes to make a career out of traveling, learning and sharing stories.
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
All photos courtesy of Poppy Miyonga.