In my late teens and early twenties, my closet was alive with color: floral patterns, plaids, and polka dots in waves of neons and pastels. Like most 19-year-olds, I was still figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be. At the time, I was attending a women’s college in my home state of North Carolina very much trying to perform the role of the ladylike Southern belle. As a first-generation college student, I knew this place was not designed for me — institutions of higher education are often hostile, unwelcoming spaces for students of color — so I tried my best to mold myself into what I imagined as the model student.
My college has a reputation of attracting “pearl girls.” While the school’s demographics are changing and diversifying, there is a long history of Salem College as a destination for the daughters of elite, white Southern families. The image of the prim and proper, picture-perfect student persists at the school no matter how much students are trying to change it. So, in my desperation to fit in and be accepted – in my effort to obscure the fact that I was undocumented, poor, and had no clue what to expect from college — a pearl girl I became.
But the older I got and the more confident in myself I became, I realized the Vineyard Vines, Lily Pulitzer sorority girl aesthetic didn’t work for me. I am not a Southern belle. I am an immigrant whose parents could never afford the brands that used to fill up my closet. By trying on the role of the “pearl girl,” I was differentiating myself from the poor, working class environment I grew up in. The more I matured, the more I realized that not only could I not afford this image, I didn’t feel comfortable in this role.
Two years ago, I moved away for graduate school and experienced a variety of emotions — excitement, enthusiasm, disorientation, loneliness, and homesickness. During this time of transition, something about me changed. I experienced a new version of racism — the kind that claims diversity for diversity’s sake and uses people of color as tokens and trophies. I volunteered with a labor rights organization and saw for the first time how poorly undocumented workers are treated. I spent a summer in the borderlands researching migrant deaths and was exposed to some of the worst human rights violations of our time. I became angry. I became more radical. Perhaps I did it without realizing at the time, but I started finding excuses for donating my old clothes — either they didn’t fit me anymore or a dress had buttons missing or a blouse would look better on a friend. Slowly, my closet began to look less floral and more monochromatic.
My closet still reflects this journey of self-discovery, except now, it’s mostly all black. Why? Because what I wear is a political statement. Wearing all black says I did not come to play. I came to slay. It says I am serious, not to be messed with. My all-black closet demands respect.
This is a conscious decision I make every day. There is so much demanded of me as a Latinx woman. My Christian family expects me to be sexually pure while dominant stereotypes of Latinxs paint me as fiery and hyper-sexual. The schools I am enrolled in want me to do innovative and “diverse” research but they push back when my work is too “out of the box.” I am good for admissions statistics but a threat to the institution when I speak out or criticize certain policies. In the same way, there are impossible expectations placed on my body and how I choose to adorn it.
Politics of respectability mean my brown body is scrutinized everywhere I go and my clothing choices are subject to the white gaze no matter where I am. As this Ms. Magazine article discusses, racist stereotypes such as the angry black woman, the hyper-sexual Latina, the modest Asian woman, and the sexually available Indian squaw are inscribed on our bodies and our clothing choices.
Because as a graduate student, I occupy a space that has traditionally been reserved for white men, the way I choose to present myself, including my clothing choices, matters. It matters, not only for professors and other students, but for everyone in my life. As soon as I received my PhD acceptance letter, my dad sat me down and said I needed to get rid of my ripped black jeans and my “ghetto” shoes because professionalism requires a different type of clothing style. Our bodies are social texts; every single word and every punctuation mark written on them are inspected and picked apart.
So, I wear black to reclaim that gaze and to reclaim that power. My black clothes reflect who I’m becoming — a woman confident and proud of her multiple identities. I am not ladylike or modest. I am bold and bossy. And what I choose to wear means something. As Laura Perez writes in Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities, our bodies are texts inscribed with social meaning. So, I choose to wear all black to assert my identity in a world that tries to make me hide it.