You have set a pair of iron shoes in front of me.
This is not a fairy tale. I am not your resentful, salt-cheeked stepdaughter. I am not a prisoner of circumstance and squandered riches. And yet, you set a pair of iron shoes before me, snaggle-tooth nails leering from the forbidding seams, still stained with the last victim's blood and tears and insurmountable pain.
They are not my shoes. You say that they are not, do not take this personally. They belong to someone else: someone neither of us has seen, except in mere fluttery flashes of their being wandering by, moving like air or dust motes out of my grasp before I can grasp them by the collar, shake out their sins from between their clenched teeth, force their feet in the shoes you have created so kindly, so thoughtfully, for them to dance in so that my own small, nervous toes will not be punished by proxy.
It is because I look enough like them, or what you know of them, what you expect of them. That is what you say, do not take this personally. You have seen their eyes, their skin, their teeth, and cobbled them together into a beast of your own creation. You present this portrait to me as I inch back from the hateful shoes, the unwanted manacles, pointing out the resemblances in my brow, my last name, my faith.
They are my shoes now, because you are insisting that they are, they must be so.
And yet, I will not step forward to be shod and shredded down into submission.
Stereotypes are painful, horrible things. They masquerade as justifiable logic, reasonable generalization, practical and pragmatic constructs that you unfold like cardboard boxes and stack your expectations of other people in, so you can unpack them when desired and force them to chew and swallow, smiling at you pleasantly (they must smile pleasantly, always, when you dissect them by what you've heard in the news or what you've read in your latest novel, or what your grandmother told you about people like Them).
Some are more easily identifiable than others. They have been washed and worn and their threads have faded out. They sneak about and jump back into the shadows when we point an accusatory finger in their directions. We tug them away from the shoulders of our friends, toss them down on the ground and break them down to their base substances: envy, prejudice, sheer ignorance, hate.
The presence of the marginalized villain, though, is one that continues to be perpetuated. It is reasonable, I am told, do not take it personally. People like you are not people like us. People like you, even if you insist, you prove, you close your eyes and scream into the masses that they are not at all like you, are bad people.
Every group of people has bad people. But how many other bad people do you see who are not brown-skinned, have a certain shape in their eye or tilt to their nose or accent to their voice? How many bad people do you see that fit that iron shoe, continuously, constantly: who fall into outdated, ludicrous tropes, wear down their daughters to rag and bone?
Every group of people has bad people. That is what you tell me, do not take it personally, when you insist, you protest, you beg to be allowed just one villain in your story line that is based off horrific, skewed, easily identifiable stereotypes of people like me. Every group of people has bad people.
You are not special.
You are not singled out.
You should sit down. Be silent. Just wear the shoe that doesn't fit you, that cramps you, that confines you, that isn't who you are.
Here is what you need to hear. Here is what you need to know.
No. This is not my shoe to wear. Not because you say, not because you assume I will happily chew and choke down your kind "reclaiming," "unpacking", "nuanced" representation of an already tired presence in every story you claim features and stars me.
This is not my shoe to wear. This is not my pockmarked, dark soul you attempt to pin to my back. This is not the microaggression you try to shape and mold me to accept, to swallow down every time: "violent," "disloyal", "hateful," "angry," not like us, not like us, not like us.
Marginalized presences as villains, each and every time, do nothing to our progress. It does nothing for my voice, for me, to open another novel, another perceived harbor of comfort, to have the gates drawn in my face by the shrouded, veiled figure or desert dweller or backwards immigrant parent tethering their child to the window sill where they can sing their songs to the sympathetic world spread beneath them and get fresh air and stay where they are, wither away where they are.
This is not my shoe to wear. I will not believe my foot is fitted to it, that you do me a favor by creating it, that it is nothing personal to assume I will wear it, that I will understand it, that I will gladly pay money and choke it down and swallow it (always with a smile, no offense taken, that is the way things are, that is the way we are) when it is presented to me on a plate.
I am saving my feet, treating them tenderly, for the soft, silken slippers they are meant to wear: the truth that my tongue will savor, will slide down my throat with a gentleness, a soft surety that this is right, this is who I am, this is my soul and my shoe to wear and I am pleased with it.