"I'm strong, not because I want to be, but because I have to be." In a rare moment of vulnerability, I shared this insight about myself with a male colleague. There had been some issues between us because he wasn't comfortable with my "strong personality". Most of the time, when I meet a man under any circumstance, we get along well, until we're thrown into a situation where we may have to demonstrate competence or achievement; then, I usually hear that my personality is "too strong", or that I'm trying to "take charge" or "take over", and my relationship with that man becomes strained. In those situations, I usually stand out, not because I'm better than anyone, but because my mother taught me, through her life, to work harder than anyone, to do everything to the best of my ability, and to push myself to be better. My mother was not allowed to go to school, so she does not know how to read or write. I remember asking her as she walked me to my class during one of my first few days of school (at least I think I said this): "Mami, why do I have to go to school? You didn't go to school, and you're okay." However, I also vividly recall walking towards my home in the housing projects in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the first grade or so, and thinking, "I have to do well in school, so I don't have to live here for the rest of my life." This is where I gave birth to my so-called "strong personality".
My "strong personality" developed as I grew up. Puberty hit me early, and hard. At the age of nine I had to slam our apartment door in the faces of teenage boys who would knock on the door to tell me they loved me, and at the age of twelve I had to curse out grown men who catcalled as I walked by. My "strong personality" was tested every day in the sixth grade when I was chased by boys after school who thought it was cute to grab my butt; who equated sexual assault with puppy love.
My "strong personality" evolved during my first weekend in college, when my friends and I were standing on the sidewalk trying to decide what our next adventure would be, and we were called "nigger girls". It was that first vivid experience with racism that led me to learn about my cultural identity and eventually shaped my career path as well as my activist spirit.
My "strong personality" almost died when my husband said he wanted a divorce. And yet, my "strong personality" did not die; it demonstrated its resilience by immediately driving me to get my Master's degree, find a place to live, a job (that provided me that place to live), and buy my own car, 350 miles from everyone I knew and loved.
My "strong personality" developed its assertive nature when I was repeatedly belittled and sexually harassed by a supervisor until I eventually stood up to him, ending the abuse.
My "strong personality" took me through the interview process for the only job I'd applied for while I was doing an internship, a graduate assistantship, studying for the National Counselor Exam, and writing an 80 page Master's thesis. And my "strong personality" got that job.
My "strong personality" taught me to step outside of my comfort zone and help develop a women's leadership program when I neither considered myself a leader or an expert on "women's issues" (as if living all of the above experiences didn't make me an expert).
My "strong personality" continues to grow as I take care of all of my needs, clean my own home, pay all of my own bills, suffer the consequences of my own poor decisions, struggle with every life decision, and try to be the best daughter I can be (from so far away), the best counselor, the best role model for the ladies in the leadership program, the best "second mom" to my students, the best, best, best of what I need to be for me and everyone else in my sphere of influence.
I'm not strong because I want to be. I want to be taken care of sometimes. I want someone to ask me what I need sometimes, and I don't always want to be the person who people come to only when they need something. I want men to stop blaming me and my "strong personality" for their own insecurities. I want men to take responsibility for their own actions, and not expect me to let them get away with being less than the best person they can be. I want men to stop acting as if I'm supposed to accommodate them and "adjust" to them, when they won't do so for me (and yes, I've been told this by a few men). I want to hear the words "I'm sorry" come from more men's mouths when they know they're wrong. I want to know that, when my moments of weakness come (and they often do), there will be someone there who can, and wants to, hold me up and allow me to lean on him without feeling like I'm "draining" him. And I want men to be vulnerable enough to tell me when they need me to be strong, and not feel like I'm "intimidating" because I am capable of being strong for myself and everyone else around me.
I'm not strong because I want to be. I'm strong because I have to be. And I cannot wait until the day I don't always have to be strong anymore.