Paper Dolls

A letter to my sisters: 

My very first airplane flight was when I was a small child. I was the flower girl in my aunt and uncles wedding, but we lived on opposite sides of the country. So my family packed up a little bag of entertainment for me to survive our plane ride. All I remember about that flight is playing with paper dolls. Do you all remember them? The bodies were essentially cardboard cutouts. The clothes covered the front of the body by folding the small tabs around the edges. For much of the flight my paper dolls tried on various dresses, shorts, hats, even sunglasses. I could dress her in casual clothes or I could make her truly fancy. Moment by moment, I was deciding who she was and I was engrossed in my own imagination. 

When I first started working towards racial justice and reconciliation, I had a really bad habit of making myself into a paper doll. For years I would walk into a white space let the room dictate whether I should be casual or fancy, easy going or passionate, outspoken or quiet. I allowed people to tell me who I am, but more devastating, I let them tell me who I am not. 

Not multifaceted. 

Not a leader. 

Not playful. 

Not present. 

Not effective. 

Not needed. 

In my desire to be a change agent, I lost myself. The weight of the paper dresses and hats and sunglasses became too much. They became too much when I realized that I am nobody's blank slate. I am fully human and fully alive. I am not perfect. I am not finished growing. But my body does not exist for the whims of others. 

Ever since the Charleston Massacre, I have been trying to figure out what to say to my sisters. Is there anything left to say? We watched Dajerria's body suffer the trauma of unregulated power. We pushed back against Dolezal's stories while so many people denied, minimized or erased our own complicated narratives of life in a black female body. We mourned 6 women shot to death in their church by a white male claiming to be concerned about white women being raped. And this was just the month of June. 

Most days we must wake up and reject the simple, ill-fitting, paper-thin narratives of who we are and who we should be. We live in a world where we must convince others that our stories matter, that our bodies are traumatized, that our voices are needed, that we are brilliant 








We are real. We are real people with hopes and dreams. There are places we want to visit. There are people we want to meet. There are many different ways we wish to leave out mark on the world. We are unique. Contrary to popular belief we each carry our own personality, our own way of engaging culture, our own histories, our own styles, our own interests. We are not impervious to those around us. We feel pain, many of us deeply. We know disappointment. We are intimately familiar with anger and numbness and passion and joy. We are messy. I breathe our culture in, and out again into the world transformed.  

You, my sister, are no one's paper doll. 

Your body is worthy of care. Your body is worthy of care.  Your body is worthy of care. Your feelings are valid, your worth immeasurable, your legacy is still being written. 

I know this cruel and dangerous world would have you believe differently. It would have you believe that you are wrong. Not that what you think is wrong, or what you believe is wrong, but that you are wrong: your body, language, culture, knowing. We, together, must reject this message. Your body is strong but worthy of gentleness. Your language is beautiful and complete, your culture is vibrant and rooted, your knowing is deep and vast. 

I know these words do not save you from pain, but I hope they help you through it. I know these words dont take away the fear, but I hope they inspire courage to keep being yourself. I know these words dont fix it, but I hope they offer just a glimpse of healing. I know these words aren't wide enough to cover all the places where it hurts, but I hope your wounds are safe here. 

I hope your wounds are safe here. 


Austin Brown1 Comment