Words and photography by Kat Thompson
I’ve been privileged enough to interview a lot of incredible women for Jennifer. From a DJ and make up artist couple who spread joy each day in different ways, to a journalist unafraid to be herself and report the truth wholly and authentically, to a model/blogger using her platform to talk about real world issues, I’ve told stories of empowering women kicking ass and taking names—and I’m so lucky because that’s just a fraction of the women I’ve talked to. It's amazing to have a platform to share stories I think are worthwhile, to deliver words of wisdom from real women carving their paths in various ways, which is why I’m especially excited for this interview.
Sarah Norise is one of my closest friends. We met in college (and are still unsure exactly when) through mutual friends and rode the crazy train of a liberal arts education together throughout our 4 years of undergrad. Sarah is someone who is able to take a step back and think objectively, who takes time to listen and understand before responding, who is always welcoming and smiling regardless of whatever circumstances she is placed in. She is the definition of someone I think everyone should aspire to be—critical yet kind, intuitive and open, gracious under scrutiny. Sarah is currently a Fulbright grant awardee in Malaysia teaching English in the state of Perak—not an easy feat for a black woman who constantly has to defend her identity. "Unfortunately, in some people's minds, if you are not white or white appearing, you are not pure American," she said—a sentiment that continues to exist here in America. We chatted about her experiences as a black woman in Southeast Asia, the effect Western media has had on her students, and how to define allyship. I’m so proud and honored to introduce my friend, Sarah Norise.
What is your name, age, and title/occupation?
My name is Sarah Norise, I am 23 years old, and I am currently fulfilling a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Malaysia.
What about you surprises people the most? And why do you think that is?
I think the fact that I am not really a quiet person surprises people. I feel that I can be selective in who I choose to open up to and connect with. Once people get to know me, many are surprised that I’m not more shy. But I also feel like this comes from the idea that many people take silence, or sitting alone, as an invitation to fill the space or an invitation to fill [my] “loneliness.” I also feel that people don’t take into consideration that just because a person is not talking to you it doesn’t mean they aren’t talking to other people.
What is the most challenging or infuriating thing about your work right now?
As is expected when working in a different country or culture, there is a bit of culture shock to get over and to navigate. But I think the hardest part about being in my line of work right now is being a black woman in Malaysia. I say this not to detract from the privilege that I know I am afforded for my lighter complexion.
Colorism—which to be honest is racism—is very prevalent here, with the idea that being lighter and white is the ideal. You can see the perks that are given to many of the white members of our cohort, or teaching staff—whether that be more compliments, more pictures, or this idea that they are “pure” American. Unfortunately, in some people’s minds, if you are not white or white appearing, you are not “pure” American. [There’s also] the privilege of being introduced as an American teacher [without] having multiple people ask you to confirm where you are from. While we are all looked at as foreigners, there is a big difference when you are looked at in admiration and looked at in disgust.
Allyship is hard when you are put on a pedestal while at the same time adjusting to a new culture.
I think probably the absolute hardest thing and most infuriating thing is to see the influence of white supremacy and white Western beauty standards with my students. I assigned a journal entry for [my students’] future goals; the amount of girls that wrote “I hope I am whiter” or “I hope I get whiter” was really disheartening because to get whiter, many of them use pretty dangerous chemicals to try to achieve that goal. Which is sad—it’s always sad to see kids try to achieve unattainable beauty goals instead of focusing on the positive aspects of themselves.
What's the best method of confronting allies, or teaching others how to be respectful and aware? It's not really an easy thing to do, and confrontation must be exceptionally hard in a new environment when everyone is trying to adjust and figure it out—even though some people's experiences seem to be much easier.
I think in a way there is a group mentality aspect going on; if you confront one person, more likely than not they will find someone who agrees with them. If you confront someone, you are seen as being aggressive and a silencer. So because of this, I feel like I have stopped trying to confront people for my own sanity, but instead [have] found a group of likeminded people to vent to and get support from and give support to.
I know this sounds very complacent, but I have definitely had to pick my battles, and my main concern is being accepted into my school and building relationships with teachers and students.
How old are your students? What is it like working with them and that age group?
I teach in a Malaysian secondary school, which is basically high school. The system is by forms instead of grades. My school has form 1-5; at some schools, [there’s] a pre university form 6.
Form 1 is basically seventh grade, form 2 eighth, 3 freshman, 4 sophomores, and 5 juniors—in terms of age equivalents for the United States.
I teach forms 1,2, 4 and 5, so basically 13-17. So much teenage angst. But seriously, I love working with them—they are hilarious and fun and creative. I am such a proud mama sometimes; I am honestly proud of almost everything they do. I will say, I usually like to work with younger children, but working with teenagers has been fun because you can have actual conversations with them.
I am currently working with the English debate team; we have a tournament today. We have not done anything but prep, but I am still proud of them. [Editor’s update: Sarah’s English debate team won their tournament!]
You mentioned how disheartening it is for your students to subscribe to white beauty standards. How do you combat that? What methods can be used to encourage self-love and appreciation—especially when mass media tells them otherwise?
It’s real hard. But the students have a tendency to [tell me], “Miss, you are so beautiful” so in response I [tell them] that they are beautiful. But I also [remind them that] they are saying I am beautiful—I do not have white/light skin and I am not white, my hair is not straight, so if I am beautiful with brown skin, aren’t you?
I think I am in a really interesting position, as I am not a white “pure” American; I think just seeing Americans that are not white is something that is helpful in changing the idea of beauty standards.
I’ve done a few lessons on inner beauty, using the song “Scars to Your Beautiful”—which I now hate, because I have heard it so many times. For the younger forms, it was listening and then making a chart about their hobbies and what makes them unique. For older forms, we had a discussion about inner beauty and outer beauty—and how outer beauty is not permanent.
My main point is to continue reinforcing that having dark or brown skin is beautiful and that being you is perfect.
What is your go-to cure for a bad day?
Drinking lime sparkling water—La Croix preferably—and watching TV.
What empowers you?
Strong POC, especially WOC. Speaking to and being surrounded by strong WOC is so empowering. Learning from and reading from WOC.
How do you want to make the world a better place?
That’s a hard question. I’m not sure I can make the world a better place; I think that is going to take a lot more than one person to make change. I hope that I can impact the world positively. But if it were possible for me to make the world a better place, I would want people to have more knowledge. Education. I am really not sure how to do it, but I would like to stop all the fucked up shit happening in the US and around the world. I want everyone to chill, to love more and hate less, and to listen.
What is your deathrow meal?
Pequod’s—a pizza place in Chicago—pan pizza with black olives, pepperoni, and mushrooms with a root beer, pitcher of lime sparkling water, and a bottle of red wine.
What is the one perfect word to describe you?
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your lifetime?
“A watched pot never boils.” My grandmother would say this very frequently when I was a child, usually to make me entertain myself while waiting for something. As I have gotten older though, I have found this to be more true and prevalent. You can stress over a test and an application but once it’s turned in, there is nothing you can do, so best to continue your life instead of stressing over the possible outcomes.
What is the accomplishment you're most proud of?
Kat, I don’t know… I am very proud of the fact that I received a Fulbright Grant. The application is something I worked very hard on and dedicated a lot of time to.