As Cara kindly mentioned, I had a birthday in November. It was my twentieth. So, in making a break with my teen years, I want to talk about what this means socially, and particularly as regards my writing work. I’ve been struggling with this post since October, and I feel a bit self-indulgent doing this. But I think it’s important to address, especially in deconstructing some attitudes about what teenagers are capable of, and what teenage writing looks like.
For my entire life, I’ve been running up against some really trying attitudes regarding my writing – and what I believe, and who I am – based on my age. That’s regarding my academic work, my creative work, and my social justice work, though, curiously, not the youth issues column I used to write for the local paper! I spent a fair portion of my schooling years being accused of plagiarism in my stories and poetry, accusations people could never back up, because they weren’t true. They were purely based on the idea that young people couldn’t write in the ways I was clearly writing. A total lack of evidence, authority over the accused and a warped social attitude make for a heady mix.
It made me feel constantly anxious about cheating even though I never did cheat. It made me feel insecure about not living up to newly heightened expectations, too. (Even as I’m writing this, I’m worrying about whether my writing is sophisticated enough for those readers who are stuck on the idea of youthful incompetence – in spite of despising the “wise beyond her years” trope I’ll be thrust into if I do achieve it, and in spite of my conviction that a sophisticated writing ideal has some rather culturally-specific and classist assumptions.) But even worse, my experiences made me feel like the writing soul in me wasn’t quite legitimate, like how I express my humanity isn’t quite real.
But I’m not ten years old anymore. It’s been getting better as time goes on, particularly in offline modes where I am finally being treated like I might know what I’m talking about, might have written something myself, might have experiences and feelings in me. Less of the “you’ll know better when you get older” and such, if you know what I mean. The continuance of these experiences online in particular was therefore quite a shock.
Recently, I mentioned how my race gets constructed by Feministe commenters. I’ve spent the time I’ve been writing here being constantly misracialised, usually as white. This has had some pretty nasty effects on me as a non-white person with light colouring, effects you will never understand unless you’ve been in the same situation, if you’ve been living the kind of life I’m living. It is a horrific experience, and one I really wasn’t expecting to have while writing in a social justice space.
What has that got to do with age? Well, there’s a pretty enormous contrast with how my age gets constructed by readers. My youth has been brought up a lot, and is, unlike my racial identity, inevitably remembered. My age has been used to shut me down. In comments on this, my own blog. In emails. In threads on other websites. It has even been brought up in irrelevant contexts in ways the speaker thought supportive, as in “this is so good for someone so young”.
So: one part of who I am, my race, gets pushed aside, I guess in part because there is a view of Feministe as a white blog. On that last, white viewpoints do dominate here, and that’s important to acknowledge, but erasing non-white people in the course of acknowledging that is hugely messed up and, as I hardly need point out, racist. I think it’s partly also because we do seem to have a majority white readership, and privileged people tend to expect to encounter people and viewpoints matching their own. But another part of who I am, my age, has often been utilised against me. That dynamic, that contrast, has been at the forefront of my mind for months now.
Bits of me get constructed as is convenient where people don’t want their worldviews challenged; that’s true for anyone marginalised in a particular instance. It is hard going trying to exist in the world, and it is harder being erased and being reconstructed to other people’s satisfaction in a space that ought to be sustaining. Exposing myself to this weaponisation of who I am is against my better judgment, but writing and doing my best to show that I exist has kept me going through the ridiculous days and nights of trying to speak.
Hopefully, now I’ve passed the arbitrary birthday that will mean I will be granted more respect. And I hope I never forget to support those who haven’t, and who still are facing the kind of rubbish I have been. As for race stuff, well, I can only keep speaking, and can only hope that people remember that white people aren’t the only people, and stop jumping to binarised notions of race otherwise.
I never grew used to the contempt and condescension I got as a girl and in my beginning womanhood. I never took it as a given that I ought to look cute and shut up. I never accepted that my life experience was less worthy for my life being shorter than those of some, or my opinions worth less the hearing. (There’s a quote from Jane Eyre I like: ‘I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.’) I never submitted to the idea that I was less of a person because I was a young one.
I’ll be glad to never hear that I write ‘really well… for a teenager’ ever again for as long as I live. That’s a pretty sad way to be leaving my teen years, however. Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing what twenty feels like. I never got to feel like a proper teenager for fear of being viewed with contempt, and I never felt I could act in “teenagerish” ways because that would have been confirming the worst. Hopefully I can come to feel more free to be myself, a self who is sometimes clever, sometimes silly, always passionate, and far more invested in looking after myself and my idea of myself, no matter what anyone else thinks. I think I can thusly harness the idea of teenage rebellion to nurture myself in years to come, even if I never played it out in my teen years.