Avoid the Side-Eye: Dos and Don’ts When Working with Black Women

A cartoon I saw yesterday left me with a knot in my throat. It showed First Lady Michelle Obama looking masculine and irritable, when compared to her potential replacement of the Republican-Party-Hopeful persuasion. There are so many things wrong with this image of her that I had to look away. It infuriates me that a strong, educated, strikingly beautiful American woman can be drawn so viciously. I refuse to link to it here and glorify the artist for his disgraceful work.

But then I considered my own identity issues as a Black Woman. I thought about how we’re shamed for not being good enough, pretty enough, educated enough…but then we’re shamed anyway, even when we blow those expectations out of the water. The truth is that we can never be good enough because someone will always find a reason to complain, nag, and diminish our value (enter the first stop on my Road to Relovery: validate yourself first) – even if you’re a double Ivy League graduate and the First Lady of the United States. I thought about how the physical attributes that kept me away from the cool kids table 20 years ago are the same things the cool kids are spending millions to have synthesized today.

beauty goals by octavia reese
Standard of Beauty 1996-2016

I wasn’t allowed to be Black growing up. As I was taught to strive for greatness, the image of greatness was not Black greatness. The image of greatness I saw did not look anything like me. The image of beauty I was shown was 90s heroin-chic; long, cadaverous, pale, curve-less. And the image of success I was shown was…well, any lawyer or doctor (or both) with a giant house, beautiful kids, 90s heroin-chic wife, fancy car, multiple vacation homes…yep, the upper-middle white man of the 90s was my hero.

But before I go too deep on the double standards I’ve watched evolve over the last decades that absolutely turn my stomach (again, the shame and rejection of the Black woman’s figure by mainstream media, “Omigod Becky look at her butt,” to the booming booty boosting industry giving non-Blacks our shape; the cannabis industry turning from Black street crime and thousands of imprisoned business-savvy young brown people to a legal, medical multibillion dollar industry profiting non-Blacks, etc.), I want to offer the following tips to assist in a successful interaction with the Black goddess of today:

  1. Do know my name. Do everything within your power to call us by our own unique name – not to be confused with that other Black woman you met once, talked to, worked with or grew up with. In school, I was The Token for many years and everyone knew me by name. Enter new Black family stage right; suddenly everyone started calling me Nora. Not my name. I realized I was just filed under “The Black Girl” in their minds and when there were two of us, ERROR 404: Black Girl Name Not Found.
  2. Don’t conditionally compliment me. That means, don’t be surprised that I speak a certain way or have a large vocabulary. Don’t say “wow, you speak well …for a Black girl.” And while you’re at it, drop the mom clause too, i.e. “wow, you look great…for a mom…”
  3. Don’t ask if our hair is real or ours. Assume it is, close your mouth and move on.
  4. Don’t compare us. I am not Michelle or Whoopi or Kerry or Serena or Beyoncé or Iman or anyone else that you’ve seen on TV. Unless it is a comparison to compliment, just accept that many of us don’t fit into your boxed definition of Black Woman. Best once again, to just close your mouth and move on.
  5. Do join us. Women are strong, powerful, divine vehicles of life and yes, we can do all of that thing that you’re doing pregnant and in heels. Men, please stop asking us what we can do for you and let us do our thing or maybe even, dare I write it, offer to help us. And to my ladies, women of all colors, cultures and creeds need to stick together. Stop the girl-girl hate, cat fighting and competition. How about we take each other out on friend dates.
  6. Don’t tell stories. We don’t care about that one Black person you know. It’s ok if you don’t know any other Black people. Actually, no it’s not ok, but if it’s your reality, then so be it. You don’t score “OK With Blacks” badges by telling us about someone you met or asking if we saw the last Tyler Perry movie or episode of Scandal or Empire. Just relax and act normal.
  7. Do let us be ourselves. We’re not all comics or athletes. Again, relax. And maybe just keep the lips sealed one more time.

    be yourself
    Do let us be ourselves
  8. Don’t say “I’m not racist.” You are. We all are. It just depends on what you do and say with your initial prejudices.
  9. Do be aware of your prejudices. Name them. And if you’re a forward thinking human-loving being, then you’ll know better which thoughts and reactions to push aside and how to move on without being awkward.
  10. Don’t admit to not understanding #blacklivesmatter. Just don’t. Close your mouth. Google it.
  11. Do understand police tensions. It’s not right that young Black kids dislike or fear the police, but it does make sense. It is sad but true and don’t forget that our Black history with law enforcement is drastically different from your non-Black story.
  12. If you’re going to assume anything, do assume we’re just as American as you are. I’ve been asked so many times where I’m from. Here. I’m from here. Just like you. We sing the same national anthem, cheer for the same teams, and drive on the same side of the road. If you haven’t noticed, America is actually quite colorful. And it is an astoundingly beautiful thing.

~OR

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Hope

It happened. The binge watching. The time-stunning world-gulping addictive blackhole itch that only Netflix or OnDemand can scratch.   First, it was Shannara, a fantastic escape to post-apocalyptic Elvin-run Earth that I first visited in the 90s with my brother. Druids. Allanon. This Allanon is hot. 1997 me didn’t envision him like this. 2016 me approves.

Next it was X-Files, like the good and faithful nerd that I am. It’s been nice pretending to be a tween again.

Then Mr. Robot. I tried. I really tried. I haven’t given up. But there’s something about the curiously attractive cartoonish features of the main character that entrance me in his face; not to mention his monotone, rhythmic – humming to near-numbing – monologues combined with the smog-filtered cinematography that lull me right to sleep. I haven’t noticed my eyes have closed and I’ve rested away several hours of my life until the silence of the electronics’ auto-sleep jolts me awake.

Ever since having children, I hate the silence. Because it’s when there’s nothing on that I hear everything the most. Creaks. Motors. Fans. People laughing a block away. Someone’s engine. Dogs barking. Of course, my own thoughts are loudest of all.

And I just miss my kids. When they’re awake, I miss the nonstop cycle of giggle-scream-whine-cry-guffaw-mom!-cry-scream-I’m hungry! And of course tripping over them as they stay underfoot. Stay. Six eyes on me as I mount my porcelain throne. I draw the line when they ask to see what happened. Just leave. They abide by sitting outside the door and commenting on the smells, asking when I’m done, sliding notes and finger tips under the door.

But when they’re sleeping or with their dad, I miss that complete disregard of privacy and breech of personal space. I miss it like…like a mother misses her children.

Ironically, since I put in my two weeks and was instead granted an immediate exit, thus walking into an unexpectedly needed yet desperately underfunded 2.5-week sabbatical, I’ve had the most frustrating experiences with my decrepit and ever-expiring netbook paired with a deafening case of writer’s block.

So, childless, workless, and afraid of the silence, back to the téle I go. There’s this one thing I keep hearing people talk about. Orange is the New Black. I usually don’t follow TV fads or jump on the hype. I likes what I likes and I’ll watches when I want to watches. But I’ll watch it because I’m curious, not because everyone else says I have to watch it. So, three years later, now I’m curious.

And I’m hooked.

What stood out to me the most, and what has finally cured my temporary case of writer’s block, was in Season One when the skinny mousy yoga lady says that one part that finally starts to ground the main gal.

“You have to remember that. It’s all temporary.”

I had one of those weird reactions like looking behind me to make eye contact with my neighbor because obviously there had to be a witness to this woman on Netflix that just said the thing that I always say – to myself, so that I don’t ever give up; to my friends, so that they don’t ever give up. But oh yeah, I’m alone. So I smiled to myself. I get me. High five.

Maybe that’s why I love the show so much now. Because it speaks to me where I’m at. No not “prision;” but my not-ideal situation.

I never made a conscious decision to be in the circumstances where I am now. Yet I don’t feel that I’m being punished any more than I feel imprisoned. That’s life. And I know that I have to keep going. The bad days are not forever. While it seems like they will never end, they are just as long as the good days I don’t ever want to end.

The other side of knowing that a not-so-ideal situation is temporary is having the hope that the next season is better. Or in the least, it will be a new change. A new adventure. Perhaps a new definition of hard-challenging-difficult-maddening, but the adapting will be distracting enough to feel at least temporarily better than the old bad.

Hope.

hope
/hōp/
noun
  1.  
    a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.
    “he looked through her belongings in the hope of coming across some information”
  2. archaic
    a feeling of trust.
verb
  1.  
    want something to happen or be the case.
    “he’s hoping for an offer of compensation”
    synonyms: expect, anticipate, look for, be hopeful of, pin one’s hopes on, want;

My hope is holding onto the possibility that things will change. Improve. Shift. Having faith that this sucky spot right now is not what God has intended for me. Why would I have such a huge calling on my heart to do certain things if they were only fake dreams, toying with my childlike wonder and optimism?

I don’t believe in a God that teases. I don’t believe in a Universe that beckons me towards a distant rainbow and then chuckles as I fall into a bottomless canyon on the way to paradise.

No. Hope is why I go skipping and singing through the zoo with my children as if nothing else matters in the world except that moment. Because it’s true. That glorious musical-like family performance at the zoo is just as temporary as my unintentional sabbatical that has already disappeared and died.

It is as temporary as my girlish figure. It is as temporary as my pregnancies. As adapting to raise one child. Then two. The intense heartache of losing a third. Then welcoming a fourth. As temporary as our first family vacation. Our last family vacation. It is as temporary as an infant’s first steps. Gone as soon as they happened. He’ll never take another first step. The first day of kindergarten. First lost baby tooth.

Life moments are fleeting. Life itself is fleeting.

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.

~Hebrews 6:18

Hope is and always has been one of my three recurring life themes. The other two are Life & Death.

Weird…

So while I laid my sabbatical to rest last night, this morning I awoke to a renaissance. A new life beginning today, where I quite literally hold a family’s hands as they say goodbye to one loved life; and within hours, watch several families crumble to their knees in gratitude for a temporary extension of their own loved ones lives.

Today I feel whole. My greatest gifts have finally been paired with a great need. Life from Death. And in the temporary phases that are life, I Hope that the painful times seem short and the precious moments linger…


~OR

Strong

Last night a dear friend and I dined and caught up. As I vulnerably told her about my /failed/ marriage and my /semi/ functional family, she asked, “Octavia. Are you alone?”

I paused. I chuckled.

“Yes.”

“You have the weight of the wor–how do you come skipping into church every week!?”

And yes, I do skip. And hop. And laugh. And smile.

And no, it is not fake.

I do have a lot to process. And I do feel like crumbling most days. But I don’t crumble. I’m strong. And I surprise myself how much everyday.

~OR

Validated

 

photo creds IG @_wills

 

Part of my Road to Relovery includes accepting myself – every part of myself – spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and the hardest one, physically.
I’ve been shamed and teased about my body shape and even coached on how to hide the curves and how to learn to walk or sit or dress differnently so that I look “normal.”

Now I’m at a place where I don’t need external validation because I’ve validated myself.

But guess what…

Read this.

A Big Butt Is A Healthy Butt: Women With Big Butts Are Smarter And Healthier – ELITE DAILY

Sometimes it just feels so good when science tells you it’s all good.

……………………….
val·i·date

ˈvaləˌdāt/

verb

past tense: validated; past participle: validated

check or prove the validity or accuracy of (something).

“these estimates have been validated by periodic surveys”

demonstrate or support the truth or value of.

“in a healthy family a child’s feelings are validated”

synonyms: prove, substantiate, corroborate, verify, support, back up, bear out, lend force to, confirm, justify, vindicate, authenticate

“clinical trials now exist to validate this claim”

make or declare legally valid.

synonyms: ratify, endorse, approve, agree to, accept, authorize, legalize, legitimize, warrant, license, certify, recognize

“250 certificates need to be validated”

………………………..

Drops mic.
~OR

 

Smart

<<This is Octavia. Octavia can learn from her mistakes. Octavia doesn’t trust people that keep…messing up her happy vibe. Octavia can adapt. Octavia is smart. Be like Octavia.>>

What’s that saying about insanity being doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

That sounds awful. It’s like me going to the ATM over and over and expecting money will actually come out next time.

I remember having my mind blown in a psych class when our text broke down behavior and the ability to learn. Isn’t it amazing how quickly someone of sound mind can adapt? We’re not dumb!

You reach for that bright pretty warm thing and get burned. That hurt. Owie.  I know you bet not grab a flame again! Even animals know this. They -we- are smart; we will remember the pain and never make that mistake twice. We are not insane; we don’t keep grabbing the fire until the fire stops being fire. We have memories.

My friend shared this and it hit me in my word-feels. So I had to share it.

There’s A Hole In My Sidewalk

(Autobiography in Five Chapters)

By Portia Nelson

(1) I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost … I am hopeless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

(2) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

(3) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in … it’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

(4) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

(5) I walk down another street.

And I had to share smart. Because I’m on a different path now. I’m never falling in that same hole again. And I’ll never fall in the same (differnent)hole more than once!

Hope you find your smart today and take a different street.

~OR

Oblivious 

ob·liv·i·ous

/əˈblivēəs/Submit

adjective

not aware of or not concerned about what is happening around one.

“she became absorbed, oblivious to the passage of time”

synonyms: unaware of, unconscious of, heedless of, unmindful of, insensible of/to, unheeding of, ignorant of, incognizant of, blind to, deaf to, unsuspecting of, unobservant of;

Oblivious. This is how I perceive many decision makers of the ethnic majority that hold leadership positions in large influential companies. It is a consistent pattern I have noticed over my three-plus decades on the planet. Certain issues are simply not on their radar, and often, the lie entirely beyond their realm of reality. For them, issues that affect those of us Of Color are nonexistent.  I could also generalize and include people at or below the poverty level and other “invisible” groups. The truth here is that all of us have a box of normalcy in which we reside and build blinders over time. And before we know it, we are completely ignorant to issues that are just out of reach of the edges of our Safe Zone.

And before we know it, we are completely ignorant to issues that are just out of reach of the edges of our Safe Zone.

Due to oblivious screenwriters, I passionately rejected TV shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and The City, (and reluctantly slightly snubbed 90% of my beloved sci-fi/fantasy epic adventures) because not one of the main characters looked like me. I intensely avoided several apparel stores in the malls – which is hard to do as a teenager! – because people that looked like me or were shaped like me were never in their promotional images. These writing, editing, marketing and advertising teams were oblivious to what I needed to relate to for role models, life scenarios, entertainment, and fashion.

Even Hollywood leaders are sorely clueless. While much of Hollywood boasts forward-thinking inclusive agendas, when it comes down to actually taking notice of and rewarding our Brothers and Sisters Of Color, we still don’t seem to make the cut. They are oblivious to their inherent exclusion – unless a Person Of Color flawlessly portrays a character trapped in a nauseatingly negative image of blackness (i.e., abusers, slaves, servants – these roles are rewarded, glorified, honored).

While much of Hollywood boasts forward-thinking inclusive agendas, when it comes down to actually taking notice of and rewarding our Brothers and Sisters Of Color, we still don’t seem to make the cut.

This is why I write. This is why my characters are brown. This is why The Hibouleans Series is for all the little brown girl epic-adventure-lovers that have yet to see one of us take a Chosen One role in a bestselling novel or on the big screen. So what images, then are my little brown girls being shown?

A NYTimes article circulated on Facebook today, naming the recall of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (now of course a #1 Bestseller).

The book sounds cute enough. It sounds harmless enough. It even sounds like it might just be educational, too.

But when you’re a little brown kid reading a book about our first president’s slaves happily baking him the best cake ever, it is a subliminal suggestion that paints a sunny – jovial, even – façade over the disgrace and horror that was slavery.  Not only is it confusing because it implies slaves might have taken pleasure in being nonhuman objects of possession, but it also implies that everyone is still OK with that image today.

As an author, writer, illustrator, feverishly hoping to one day live on my book sales, I know the steps involved in this incredible process – from the twinkle of concept to hard copies on shelves.

What I find most disturbing about this whole thing is that not only is the book’s tone and feel a product the author is proud of as one of her creative babies (and honestly, congrats on having a concept, most people don’t even get that far) but through the hands of a DIVERSE team of beta readers, editors, illustrators, contributors and publishers, not one of them thought “hmmm this might be a bad idea…”

“hmmm this might be a bad idea…”

And yes, a diverse team let this happen. But according to NPR, this isn’t the first time a book depicting happy slaves made it this far, only to also be pulled; that one by a team of Ethnic Majority. Perhaps this second attempt was pushed to be produced by a more diverse team as if to get a “pass” with the public? If so, FAIL.

Did they really have no clue how this would affect readers? Were they that inconsiderate? Or did this one slip through the filter around their world of what is appropriate? Were they as oblivious as the college president that couldn’t acknowledge the mistreatment of his students until the issue cost him his job?

It takes exceptional leadership. And I mean truly extraordinary leadership – to be able to connect and empathize with their team, their partners, and ultimately, their audience to foresee issues that adversely affect those they are actually trying to serve.

The option to abort this project could have been enforced by several people at any point over the probable year-plus it took to bring this book to life. And not one of them spoke up.

So while I shake my head in disappointment at Scholastic leadership for letting this work slip through the net, I still applaud the company for responding to the public and accepting that the depiction of happy slaves is vibrantly destructive to the America of tomorrow.

Maybe they can further redeem themselves by publishing a foreshadowing book where 60% of Fortune 500 companies have Leaders Of Color by 2030

People, take off the blinders.  You have to TRY to NOT be oblivious to the pain of others. Compassion and understanding take real effort.

~OR

 

Unlimited

un·lim·it·ed
/ˌənˈlimidəd/
adjective

not limited or restricted in terms of number, quantity, or extent.
“the range of possible adaptations was unlimited”
synonyms: inexhaustible, limitless, illimitable, boundless, immeasurable, incalculable, untold, infinite, endless, bottomless, never-ending 

  • BRITISH
    (of a company) not limited.
  • MATHEMATICS
    (of a problem) having an infinite number of solutions.

Today I am embracing my inner Elphaba Thropp. I’m defying gravity.

Responsibility, obligations, change, debt, delayed dreams and transforming relationships all have their claws in my flesh, yanking me downward at 9.8m/s.

That is my gravity. But today, today, finally I am defying it. I am unlimited.

I have options. I have choices. I have a voice. I can stand up for myself and what I truly want in life-relationships-and I have infinite options!

And so do you. Your gravity may be different. It could be a terrifying diagnosis, a death in the family, the death of a relationship…

Today I hope you, too learn to release the restrictions of shoulds (stubborn), fears (fearless), embrace your inner super-self (invincible) and defy your gravity.

~OR

Fearless

fear·less

ˈfirləs/

adjective

  1. lacking fear.

“a fearless defender of freedom”

synonyms: boldbravecourageousintrepidvaliant, valorous, gallantplucky,lionheartedheroicdaringaudaciousindomitabledoughty;

 

There are so many clichés that teach us to blame ourselves for things not turning out just quite right.

They all sound pretty similar: the one thing standing between you and your dream/success/future/achievement/fulfillment/fill-in-the-blank is you.

Or

get out of your own way

Or

Everything you want to do is on the other side of fear.

My prayer for this year is to be brave.  Fear not. Do not be afraid. Fearless. To stop talking myself out of what I want most. And to keep my list of not sorrys going strong enough to ignore my fear of others opinions of me. And to stop making excuses for falling just slightly short of the mark.

We only get this one shot at life – at least with this consciousness – and I don’t want to look back on my deathbed wondering, “why didn’t I just go for it?”

“why didn’t I just go for it?”

I mean, honestly…what am I afraid of? What are you afraid of? Failing? But what if you don’t fail?

 

 ~OR

Stubborn

 

stub·born
ˈstəbərn/
adjective
  1. having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.
    “he accused her of being a silly, stubborn old woman”

 

 

 

 

 

#sorrynotsorry

Today – and as I grow, heal, mature, and hopefully evermore – I am stubborn. Being the peacekeeping, balance-loving, diplomatic Libra that I am, I usually believe there is always a compromise and solution – we just need to explore the possibilities and find it. But there are some things I have learned are nonnegotiable. Some things are what they are – some people are who they are – and I’m finally learning to be unapologetically me.

So, Sorry. I’m not sorry. The list below is my final farewell to things about myself I have learned to love, despite others’ – yes real people’s – strong suggestions to change, eliminate, or “correct” – and yes, I said “correct” with a side-eye.  Skip you. I’m not sorry.

I’m not sorry for having a wide nose.

I’m not sorry for having full lips.

I’m not sorry for having brown skin.

I’m not sorry for having dark scars.

I’m not sorry for having dark brown eyes.

I’m not sorry for looking like Vanessa Williams.

I’m not sorry for having a bubble butt.

I’m not sorry for having a lisp.

I’m not sorry for having a crooked smile.

I’m not sorry for having brown gums.

I’m not sorry for having bulging eyes.

I’m not sorry for not talking how you think I should talk.

I’m not sorry I’m independent.

I’m not sorry I’m not attached to my phone.

I’m not sorry I didn’t want a second date.

I’m not sorry I passionately want to explore all my talents.

I’m not sorry I want to be a working mother.

I’m not sorry the laundry isn’t always clean.

I’m not sorry the house isn’t always spotless.

I’m not sorry I hate shaving my arm pits.

I’m not sorry I get hair bumps when I do reluctantly shave them.

I’m not sorry I also hate shaving my ahem…

I’m not sorry I don’t shower every day.

I’m not sorry I have thick, coarse, self-knotting hair.

I’m not sorry I have short nails.

I’m not sorry I have rough palms.

I’m not sorry I love everyone.

I’m not sorry I love white people.

I’m not sorry I love black people.

I’m not sorry I’m black.

I’m not sorry my pelvis isn’t flexible.

I’m not sorry I don’t always enjoy chicken wings.

I’m not sorry I’m allergic to watermelon.

I’m not sorry I defy your stereotypes.

I’m not sorry I have stripy stretch marks after carrying four children.

I’m not sorry I will never look the same in a bikini.

I’m not sorry for wearing a bikini.

I’m not sorry for being vulnerable.

I’m not sorry for speaking freely.

I’m not sorry for having ideas.

I’m not sorry for talking.

I’m not sorry for speaking up.

I’m sorry for singing.

I’m not sorry for refusing to work for free.

I’m not sorry my name is hard to pronounce.

I’m not sorry I’m afraid of the dark.

I’m not sorry I’m a slow reader.

I’m not sorry I don’t enjoy deep analytical conversations.

I’m not sorry for walking away from an abusive situation.

I’m not sorry for exiting an abusive conversation.

I’m not sorry for refusing to participate in gossip.

I’m not sorry having a tattoo.

I’m not sorry for wanting a hundred more.

I’m not sorry for liking tattoos.

I’m not sorry for being attractive.

I’m not sorry for dressing well.

I’m not sorry for not giving you my phone number.

I’m not sorry for not smiling when I don’t feel like smiling.

I’m not sorry for following my dreams.

I’m not sorry for loving karaoke.

I’m not sorry for enjoying TV.

I’m not sorry for loving a day on the couch.

I’m not sorry for having abstract ideas.

I’m not sorry for being creative.

I’m not sorry for not fitting into your box.

I’m not sorry for not being Michelle Obama.

I’m not sorry for having goals.

I’m not sorry for laughing too loud.

I’m not sorry for dancing too much.

I’m not sorry for being silly.

I’m not sorry my feet stink some times.

I’m not sorry for farting.

I’m not sorry for slacking on my pedicures.

I’m not sorry for having a sweet tooth.

I’m not sorry for having three children.

I’m not sorry I refused to be talked down to.

I’m not sorry for being intuitive.

I’m not sorry for being right.

I’m not sorry for making mistakes.

I’m not sorry for being happy.

I’m not sorry for being sad.

I’m not sorry for needing help.

I’m not sorry for falling in love.

I’m not sorry for changing my mind.

I’m not sorry for believing in magic.

I’m not sorry for being Christian.

I’m not sorry for looking for the truth in all religions.

I’m not sorry for saying, “No.”

I’m not sorry for being strong.

I’m not sorry for being brave.

I’m not sorry for not counting calories.

I’m not sorry I’m finally starting to know my worth.

I’m not sorry for being Octavia.

 

~OR

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