For Black Women Whom Are Considered Aggressive & Other Ruminations

Reading Time: 11 minutes

“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.” 
― 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah

I used to think about losing things a lot. Losing my job. Losing my friends. Losing my community. Losing my family. I convinced myself that if I could just stay quiet enough

 when the men came and…

 when the white people came and….

when the racist person came and…

I could protect myself. I could keep my head down. I could rely on English and a vernacular cultivated and handed down from adoptive ancestors so white you can trace them back pre-1840, pre the line where my black ancestors were just known as numbers, pre-colonialism and massacre and slavery and…me.

But, I kept losing sight of someone else.

Me.

This invisible woman. You can see me, but you can’t really see me. See, here is my face. See, here is my mouth. See, here are my legs. See, here are my hands. Can you see me?

Or, did you blink?

I have tested this theory, you see.

When the men came and ….

                                                                When the white people came and…

                                                                                                                                When the racist person came and…

My voice said no.

Body tense,

Legs closed,

Arms raised.

My mouth said – I am a human. My body said, I am enough. I am enough. I am…

But.

They just kept on coming.

This black body never looked white flag

Never looked white house,

Never looked anything but

3rd world baby & white woman smile

Never looked anything but

Mud hut in need of aluminum

Never looked anything but

Ground ready for a snowstorm

Never looked anything but

This Cherokee African American

In need of colonialism

 See, I had convinced myself that if I could erase that tight feeling in my gut, if I could erase enough kinks in my hair, if I could erase my skin with bleaching creams, if I could erase my natural instinct to scream when the people touched my hair, touched my skin, touched my body…again and again…I would be able to somehow transform myself back into approval and acceptance and goodness.

The first time I was called the N word was in 3rd Grade. My white classmates and I were playing kickball, and I was dominating…. until I wasn’t. I stepped up to the plate to kick and a classmate yelled the N word.

When you think about balls deflating, it always seems as if they deflate just a little at first and then, suddenly, everything goes really fast.

You know, like that balloon that you meant to fill up but suddenly it is whooshing all over the room making those indelicate sounds that you know absolutely sound like a fart, but you never actually say because you are too busy staring at the ground wishing away your sudden interested audience.

I think that sometimes degradation works the same way. At 9, I didn’t know what the N word meant, but I remember thinking that it had to do with me and my skin and the way in which I was different. And, I knew different. As the youngest in a family of 8, different meant that when I wore hand me-downs to school, someone noticed. Different meant holey shoes and beads and braids and a backpack that wasn’t LLBean. I knew different. But, before – different was always monetary. That day, something deflated in me but, unlike balls that are often either trashed completely or found by some benevolent gym teacher and refilled, I didn’t bounce back. I wasn’t found by a benevolent anyone and refilled.

Instead, when I finally got home, I searched all of my parent’s dictionaries (yes this was the early 2000’s and the age of dial-up internet…or at least, the age of dial-up in our house) for the word. I remember climbing into my father’s office chair and spinning in circles, tears streaming down my face as my mother hurried into the living room.

I don’t remember what she said. Maybe it was a conglomeration of reasons why the word wasn’t in there. Maybe it was reassurances that I was enough. Maybe, it was all of the above. To be honest, the only thing that I remember was the beginning prick of my own black consciousness.

And, while I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate the concepts of my own double consciousness, I remember thinking about the imagery of a white woman holding a black child and the enduring continuitiesof racism.

How could I possibly be enough?

Growing up, we avoided those conversations. A mostly conservative farm family in rural, white America, living in the heart of the Lancaster County Bible Belt, we didn’t talk about racism or shootings or systemic oppression or Black History Month. We didn’t talk about police brutality or the invisibility of the black female body or how generational poverty creates a 7-generation inequity between impoverished white and black families.

We didn’t talk about why it was easier for strangers to assume that I was “fresh air” or a “poor African foster care kid” than a black girl from Philly. We didn’t talk about why white people asked me if I was a crack-baby, or if I could describe what living in the ghetto was like or if I was an orphan.   

We didn’t talk about how black women are usually regulated to three stereotypes: Jezebel, Sapphire and Mammy.  (Quick back history. A Jezebel is a fiery, overtly lascivious, sexually insatiable plaything. This stereotype was used as a justification for rape and sexual relations with white masters.,  The Sapphire is a fiesty, unabashed, always rude and loud angry black woman. She is a harsh nagger and displays irrational anger. She is a harsh critique of black women whom are vocal about systemic injustices and is a mechanism employed to punish black women that violate societal norms teaching them to be passive and docile and pleasant. The Mammy is the ideal enslaved person – she is happy to be a slave and she is often pictured as obese and well mannered. She enjoys the domestics and servile lifestyle. She is the caricature used for the Aunt Jemima and is the prominent figure on more the enduring racial caricatures of black women.)
We didn’t talk about the racist family members, the strangers that complimented me on my English and told my adoptive parents they were “saints, just saints,” or that looming, haunting terror that, perhaps, all adoptees experience of wondering when they will be left. Again.

I have made myself a policy not to tell other people’s stories in my space of writing, so I will not elaborate or speculate on the reasoning behind why those strategies and skills were not developed at a young age.

Instead, I hope to share a few examples of my own childhood and adult experiences in hopes to convey alternative suggestions in regard to teaching white fragility, racism and how white tears, particularly white women’s white tears, continue to propagate and perpetuate systemic and institutional racism and oppression.

First, white women are uniquely positioned in society as both oppressed and oppressors. As oppressors, they benefit from white supremacy and institutional and systemic racism. And, as women, they remain
subordinate to men in regard to –to name a few –  gender pay-gap inequities, employment contracts, 
health care benefits, etc., However, this duality remains unequivocally interconnected with white women’s ability to carry a perpetual “get out of jail free” card. 

While many POC’s can relate with mistreatment at the hands of a white woman, and while (some) white women are, perhaps, learning that not all tears matter, it is important to note the important historical framework of white supremacy and white tears. While, many racial justice advocates will use Emmett Till as a starting point when discussing white, female tears and racial violence, I think it is important to note that while white tears in conjunction with white supremacy can also be used to track multiple genocides and mass murders in the last 3 centuries, the behavior which supports white tears and supremacy is learned.  And, this behavior is learned at a young age.

Indeed, consider the following excerpts from bell hook’s “Ain’t I a Woman” in regard to power structures between white women and black women.

In Once a Slave, a book which contains a condensed body of information gleaned from slave narratives, the author Stanley Feldstein recounts an incident in which a white mistress returned home unexpectedly from an outing, opened the doors of her dressing room, and discovered her husband raping a thirteen year old slave girl. She responded by beating the girl and locking her in a smokehouse. The girl was whipped daily for several weeks. When older slaves pleaded on the child’s behalf and dared to suggest that the white master was to blame, the mistress simply replied, “She’ll know better in future. After I’ve done with her, she’ll never do the like again through ignorance.” White women held black slave women responsible for rape because they had been socialized by 19thcentury sexual morality to regard [black] woman as sexual temptress….” (pg. 37).

Or, considered this additional excerpt from “Ain’t I a Woman:”

…rape was not the only method used to terrorize and de-humanize black women. Sadistic floggings of naked black women were another method employed to strip the female slave of dignity…a Kentucky slave recalled: The women are subjected to thes punishments as rigorously as the men – not even pregnancy exempts them; in that case before binding them to the stake, a hold is made in the ground to accommodate the enlarged form of the victim.

…Yes sir, the most shocking thing that I have seen was on the plantation of Mr. Farrarby, on the line of the railroad. I went up to his house one morning from my work for drinking water, and heard a woman screaming awfully. On going up to the fence and looking over I saw a woman stretched out, face downwards, on the ground her hands and feet being fastened to stakes. Mr Farraryby was standing over her and striking her with a leather trace belonging to his carriage harness. As he struck her the flesh of her back and legs were raised in welts and ridges by the force of blows. Sometimes when the poor thing cried too loud from the pain Farrarby would kick her in the mouth. After he exhausted himself whipping her he sent to his house for sealing wax and a lighted candle and, melting the wax, dropped it upon the woman’s lacerated back. He then got a riding whip and, standing over the woman, picked of the hardened wax by switching at it. Mr. Farrarby’s grown daughters were looking at this from a window of the house through the blinds. This punishment was so terrible that I was induced to ask what offence the woman had committed and was told by her fellow servants that her only crime was in burning the edges of the waffles that she had cooked for breakfast.

It takes little imagination to comprehend the significance of one oppressed black woman being brutally tortured while the more privileged white women look passively at her plight” (pg. 38)

America has been sexualizing, demonizing and degrading black women for decades. And, while I will leave the black women/white women dichotomy for another post, it is critical to understand the historical interconnectivity between America’s contemporary framework and the roots of American racism. (If you want to brush up on this dichotomy, I would suggest here and here as some intermediate level resources).

America has been killing black children and black youth long before Emmett Till and continues to kill black children and youth today. From Ferguson to Flint, black children are killed, exposed to polluted water and disappeared in rapid numbers. 

And, while racism more often than not creates a POC body count, racism relies on latent strategies as much as it does on overt ones.

Do we always recognize them?

As a newly minted college freshman, I began to intentionally lean into my ever-emerging double consciousness. As a black woman, my identities fundamentally position me as a political figure both by nature of being black and woman but also by nature of being alive, black and woman.

And, I began to notice a trend. Something began to happen to me when I switched as an incoming 7thgrader from a private Montessori School to a Private Mennonite School. I knew something was different, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. Instead, I’d stand in line for Picture day, my hair pressed straight from hours of fighting with the hot iron to new classmate’s hands and laughter tugging and pulling and….poof, my curly afro emerged again like magic.

But they were just kidding.

Right?

I was the funny girl. The girl who you were “supposed” to be able to ask about slang. The girl you were “supposed” to ask about dance moves. The girl who was “supposed” to sing the gospel solos. The girl who…

was that weird black girl who wasn’t at good at basketball as they had hoped.

was that weird black girl who wasn’t as funny as they had imagined

was that weird black girl who never laughed at any of the Oreo jokes

In my predominately white high school, when I would manage to muster up enough courage to speak my own truth to power, I was labeled as mean and aggressive and, the ever-blossoming catch phrase: ratchet.

This compounded my own awkward inability to verbalize the lack of support I felt from my mostly white friend group. Friends support friends, right? Friends believed friends, right? Why did I have to articulate that being called ghetto wasn’t a compliment? Why did I have to verbalize that touching my hair required a verbalized agreement.

How could I be enough if I had to explain my “enough-ness?”

Once, when I approached a white male classmate, convinced by others that he seemed like he was interested in me, I was told that he and his other friends preferred “Swedish” girls instead.

And that was that. I never mustered the courage to ask him what that meant. My white girlfriends never questioned him because he was a Missionary Kid. He grew up in South Africa. He was supposed to be woke. He was supposed to be Jesus loving. He was supposed to…not be a racist.

Right?

Recently, I overheard my coworkers standing outside of my office with this adorable little conversation:

Becky1: So, what did you do this weekend?

Becky 2: I went to the Harrisburg Walmart. I love that store. I could spend all day there. I just find so many things there and I could watch the people there all day…so interesting.

Becky 1: *laughing* “You mean, you could watch the people in their pajamas and slippers all day. (another colleagues name) calls Walmart Scarymart. Ya know, because of all the Hispanics and the Blac – (looks in my direction) – I mean, city folks. You practically need a body guard when you go there…

Becky 2: *long pause*

Becky 1: Just kidding. I was just kidding *weak laughter*

Becky 2: Yeah, but it is pretty amazing what you can find, don’t you think?

 See, the way racism works is that it shows up in our conversations. It shows up in social circles. It shows up on our bookshelves and in our television and in our churches and in our politics. Racism is not relegated to cross burners and bedsheet wearers and Nazi lovers. Regular people chose to wear them. Regular people remained complicit

When the men came and ….

                                                                When the white people came and…

                                                                                                                                When the racist person came and…

And, this still happens all the time. Consider the people you seek as truth tellers. Consider the people you consider as the “fake news” wielders. Consider the people you have on your bookshelf. Consider the people you listen to on the news. Consider whom you call aggressive and whom you call innocent.

Relying on a culmination of adolescent and adult experiences, I quickly learned that my voice and my body were often relegated to the sidelines in regard to racism and sexual harassment and sexism.

When the men came and… attacked me and sexually abused me, my voice was ignored. My body was sexualized. My story was buried.

When the white people came and… attacked me and sexually abused me, my voice was ignored. My body was sexualized. My story was buried.

When the racist person came and…verbally attacked me and sexually harassed me, my voice was ignored. My body was sexualized. My story was buried.

And, while these experiences are not specifically unique, I have found that these experiences have emboldened me to speak up and out regarding the unique positioning of black women and invisibility.

As a black woman, I am used to thinking about losing things. I think about losing my job. I think about losing my family. I think about losing my friends. I think about losing my church and my community.

But, I also know that as a black woman and as a follower of Jesus, I am convinced that I am empowered to use my voice in regard to racial and social justice. And, I am empowered to use my stories and experiences because I believe that truth telling and speaking truth to power are core tenants of what Christ has radically empowered to all whom choose to follow Him.

How often have I been forced to swallow my feelings in the workplace in order to allow room for white fragility?

How often have I been forced to apologize to a white woman utilizing white tears for her benefit?

How often have I been forced to keep silent in order to maintain the status quo?

How often have I lost myself? How often have other black women?

How often have you?

What if speaking up doesn’t mean losing anything? What if speaking up means finding someone?

And what if that person is great?

You probably know that catchphrase: and still she persisted. Maybe you find the phrase irritating. Maybe you have it glued above your bed, I don’t know. But, I have found that simple phrase to have so much power. Still she persisted. When I look back at my story and I notice the timeline and I notice all the details and elements, I notice a story of persistence. And, some days, I even notice a story of enough.

I wonder, when you look at your story, what you see. I wonder when we look at America’s story, what do we see? I wonder, when we look at when the men came and the racist person came and white person came…what do we see. Because, stories matter. The stories we tell, matter. And the stories that are yet to come, matter.

And, I hope that as we write this story of now, together. It will be the story with the happy ending. It will be the story of reconciliation. It will be the story that finally doesn’t end with…

When the men came and ….

                                                                When the white people came and…

                                                                                                                                When the racist person came and…

But maybe, I’m just naive.

Or, maybe I’m not.

Here’s to hoping.

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