There are some writing assignments that move me into action out of a sense of duty and responsibility as a citizen of this world. I often consider my creative voice to be mission driven and a necessary tool for processing life’s challenges. But then there are some topics that, just in contemplation, leave me feeling naked to the world and extremely heartbroken.
This is one of those topics…
I hate more than anything else right now, that after all of these years and so many blogs, essays, poems and even one woman shows, I am at the place where I can no longer avoid writing about the continuous demotion of the black woman. I loathe that this is the blog that needs to be written more than any other piece that I’ve embarked on so far. In fact, when I woke up this morning and realized that this raw truth was welling up inside of me, preparing my mind to put pen to paper, I cried and truthfully as my fingers press these keys now, tears are still falling.
These tears are for every black woman that has ever arrived at the numbing conclusion that your best, in the eyes of many, will never, ever, ever, be good enough. These tears are for my beautiful, classy, shy, intelligent, witty daughter, who on the cusp of turning 21, knows this all too well. She, like so many other young black women who constantly find themselves in predominately white settings, will experience more microaggressions in one semester of school than we can imagine all year. May I just add that her sense of awareness, quiet resolve and resilient energy, is what makes her emerging beauty so powerful to me as her mother, and I often glean from it. Staying in tune, informed, and in love with who you are and how you were made is how one survives the ugly truth of constant doubt, suspicion, and demotion.
I’ve been deliberating on how to broach this subject for the past few hours, a subject that has been written about and discussed for decades now, without sounding like a wounded victim. You see, black women do not have the luxury of being victims, ever. In fact, if and when we do suffer at the hands of injustice, we quickly become suspect to being an accomplice to a crime that was committed against us. We are often blamed for injustices towards us, our children and our men. We are considered by many in society to be lazy, uninformed and disinterested in the lives of our children. In fact, once a black woman looks for outside assistance in any way, perhaps because of job loss, divorce, illness or simply needing help, she often falls under the interpretation of wanting a hand out and not being worth the investment. Because of our constant portrayal in movies or television of being angry, violent and unnurturing, we are not even allowed to be outraged when something is in fact an absolute outrage. We must remain calm and keep our demeanor at all times, because rest assured if this doesn’t happen, we are labeled, punished and dismissed as “the angry black woman.” Consider the careful demeanor of the mothers and wives of the slain black men and women who suffered at the hands of police violence.
Their pain is measured in suspicion. Sympathy or condolences are given in limited ration from the outside world and many do not acknowledge these grieving families at all.
I know all of this first hand, as do many of you who are reading my words. For every classroom, break room or, God forbid, courtroom that we enter, there is a pre-determined stigma waiting for us, to question our validity in society. Whenever I entered into a parent conference on behalf of one of my children, I had to come armed with my very best information about my child’s needs, personality, accomplishments and home life, in order to prove that I was in fact an informed and capable mother who cared deeply for her family. Whenever I interview for a position and want to be seriously considered, I have to pull out all of the stops, from my appearance to my command of the English language, there is no room for error. Because of this, I have often been considered “very articulate”, which usually lands me high praise and a consideration for what would normally be handed over to my white counterparts. I must enter the room with poise, while doing my best Bruce Lee impersonation in my mind to fight off low expectations.
Again, none of this is news to a large majority of us. This, and much more, is the thing that makes us stronger, even when we feel as if we have gathered the strength of Samson and would rather be damsels.
And speaking of damsels, one of the most heartbreaking discoveries for this divorced woman is how grossly demoted we have been by black men in our society. Again, I hate that I have to talk about this publicly. It doesn’t do much for the ego, nor does it make us shine as a culture, but not discussing it is like ignoring a dancing elephant in the middle of a coffee shop during the morning rush. It’s an epidemic that at this point in my life potentially affects me. Disclaimer: I am not against interracial relationships. I truly believe in the power and force of love bringing two souls together to connect on an organic level, while pushing all obstacles aside. I do however, despise the concept of dating someone because of a racial fetish. It’s objectifying and belittling to only pursue someone out of curiosity about their skin tone. It diminishes the concept of seeing someone for who they really are and getting to know their personality, likes and human struggles. I can’t imagine deep abiding love being born from a fetish. Fetishes began on the plantation, and we all know that black people were only considered three fifths human beings during slavery, which means when a woman or man was taken by force for sexual purposes, they were not even looked upon as being worthy of a choice, but rather useful and exotic while being considered subhuman at the same time.
That being said, I have noticed first-hand the difference in the responses that black women get as opposed to white women from black men. While a white woman with a serious or intense look on her face may still be spoken to and encouraged to smile through recognition of a door being held open or a good morning being offered, a black woman with the same facial expression can easily be ignored or barked at for not smiling, because we are considered to be evil or angry at the world. Both women may be carrying the same concerns with them throughout the day but only one will be penalized for having the audacity to show it.
In my younger years, while walking in my own neighborhood, I was often assaulted with the words “damn baby, smile!” thrown at me on any given day. I always felt like apologizing for allowing my inward pain and angst to show to the world and not knowing how to mask whatever was plaguing me at the moment. I rarely, if ever heard, “how are you today?” or “are you okay?” I learned early that how I felt did not matter to the males in my community outside of my own mind. I was constantly labeled as evil looking or angry.
Fast forward many years later, and I often feel as if I have to say hello first to my black brother whenever I encounter him in public. It’s as if to say: I’m safe, I’m not angry, I come in peace, in order not to be judged by him. Even still, it’s a short lived interaction that makes absolutely no impression on him from what I can see. Perhaps I’m jaded and I’ve learned to live on the defense. Or, perhaps I see correctly and this brother is loaded with his own impressions of me already. Perhaps it’s because he dated or married a black woman that turned out to be “angry” i.e. wounded by life’s experiences past the point of his patience and understanding. Perhaps, because he himself struggled immensely with a life or a childhood that was not that kind to him at all, he harbors self-doubt and confusion about his own worth. Sadly, perhaps he decided to buy into the notion that black women were too much work while white women were a kinder gentler and even easier alternative. I’m embarrassed to know that such mindsets exist within black men but they do and short of wearing signs that say “I’m not a stereotype, I’m just living out my life the best I can, bruises and all”, I don’t think there is anything we can do about the population of brothers who have chosen to look away from black women all together. Perhaps, we remind them of a pain that they do not know how to heal…
I am consciously trying to avoid sweeping generalizations on this subject because I am all too aware that in doing so it shuts the listener down and my very vital points will be muted out by the sound of “Not all ___” .However,when I speak about the experience of the black woman, those who can and will attest to what I am saying would also admit that our experiences make up a collective, dreadful norm and not an exception. Because of this, black women experience emotional fatigue in our daily lives that would otherwise be reserved for mid to high level crises for most other people.
As sad as it makes me to have to admit that we have lost the love, adoration, and support from a lot of our black men, one of the greatest tragedies that has come from being constantly minimized by society is how a great deal of black women minimize one another on a daily basis by refusing to speak to each other in passing, failing to support each other’s endeavors or lend a hand to one another when needed. We have allowed the green eyes of jealousy to be our tour guide through our own communities when viewing one another. We have taken to allowing our hair length, quality of our manicures, value of our cars, houses, jobs and education status determine how we interact with each other. I think of this as class separation within the black community. Again, a mindset that was arranged for us during a time when blacks were property and not people.
I am amazed at how we judge one another even during a struggle.
I was recently reminded of how painful it can be to go through an all-time low in life and be told by one of my black sisters to basically “get over it.” Her comment went something like, we’ve all been there and we all made it out and you will too. I expected this “pep-talk” from everywhere else but it deeply hurt coming from another black woman, someone who I witnessed going through her own personal struggles, tears and all, for many years. I remember thinking about how hard a person would have to become to blast another hurting human being and what mindset lead up to her response to my situation. I concluded that in her mind she had arrived and nothing else needed to be said to me but “you will too”.
The sad truth is that some of us black sisters are not accustomed to hugging one another, comforting one another or crying together for too long a period of time, if at all. Unfortunately, you cannot model what was never modeled to or for you. While resilience is an important quality to possess in this life, there are often many facets to overcoming tragedy, pain or affliction that we must process through in order to get on the other side. In Christian circles this is often overlooked or not understood. Some black women however, may not have the luxury of therapy, counseling or processing through pain for very long. We have too much to do with very little support, and cannot afford to sit or lay on a counselor's couch for weeks or months on end, if we are able to have the opportunity in the first place. Those who center their lives around the church may heavily rely on the counsel of a pastor or spiritual mentor who means well, but has no counseling experience whatsoever or even worse, a deeply flawed interpretation of scripture. Some sisters use scriptures to hurl at each other at top speed to shock one another out of depression or anxiety. We use the idea that one is lacking in faith or scriptural knowledge if they are sinking too low into a pit of despair. Church attendance, sin, and just a lack of salvation or spiritual maturity are continuous characterizations that the super spiritual use to thwart at vulnerable aching souls who simply need love and compassion. But again, how do you show what you do not know, especially when strength and resilience is often the most praised quality for a black woman?
Sisters, can we just “be” around each other? Can we relax and release our stress and concerns with one another without judgement? Do we have room for one another in our own hearts? If not, who does?
Excellence is exhausting
I often credit my father for much of how I carry myself through life because of the standards that he had for us at an early age. He was the father of six daughters, and as a black man who came from humble rural beginnings during the Jim Crow era to acclimate into a mostly white professional world, he wanted us to know how to present ourselves at all times. A neat appearance was huge with my parents. Our clothes, shoes and hair had to be at near perfection before setting foot outside our house, particularly if we were going somewhere special. Proper grammar was not optional, mainly because my parents knew all too well the assumption of being considered ignorant before having the chance to make a good impression. I was born in the sixties just at the turn of the civil rights movement, so you can imagine what my parents went through just to own a home and strive to further their education, let alone land a government job like my father eventually did. Excellence was a must for us and we all tried as hard as we could to live up to those standards on a daily basis, even when I was accused of acting white by my peers. In our house, the test of being presentable in every way was pass or fail on a daily basis.
I do not fault my parents for my upbringing, nor am I resentful of my father for his harsh critics of my hair and clothes during my youth. I don’t fault him because I now realize the pressure that he felt to be excellent at all times. It wasn’t easy for me to live under constant scrutiny and I still have to give myself permission not to be ‘just so’ all the time. But I can honestly say as a mother that I understand him now more than ever. I understand the feeling of walking into a room and taking on the responsibility of immediately breaking every stereotype known to man before even saying hello. Especially because I may have been the first or only black person ever invited into that room. I understand how it feels when I (at times) look into a white person’s face and see the look of utter surprise at the quality of my conversation and the depth of thought I put into every single word. I understand how it must have felt to know that you will never outlive racism and the overall idea that you are a minority in a majority world. My dad was concerned for us, much like I am concerned for my children. The amount of preparation that it takes to consciously raise a black child in America can be exhausting. Being a black woman with years of excellence demanded on me during my upbringing, while constantly feeling like I was falling short, has led to a chronic case of perfectionism in my adult life that I am still working through today. But such high stakes would have never been raised if we were ever seen as equals by our white counterparts.
I would love the opportunity to try and fail and try again like everyone else, without harsh conclusions being drawn about my failures. I would like to be seen as an individual and not a demographic. I would love to be treated like a lady by men, seen as beautiful, and be perceived as a valuable partner, lover and friend just as much as my fairer skinned friends. I don’t always feel like being strong or sassy. I mostly prefer the softer side of me whenever possible, but circumstances don’t allow me to relax enough to show that side, and I cannot afford to let go of the strength that I have obtained through years of struggle and hurt. It is a necessary tool of survival, even for one who prays and deeply believes in God.
More than anything else in this world, I would love, even if it’s just for a season, to relax, laugh out loud, enjoy my life and allow my soul to be a free spirited, uninhibited black woman who desires to contribute to her family, friends, faith and country just like any other woman…