Well behaved women rarely make history.— Anonymous
It’s a common phrase: well behaved women rarely make history. As a Black woman, I have found that “behaving badly” is often synonymous with terms like difficult, rude, unprofessional and aggressive. And all of those are fodder for the biggest and baddest word: unemployable.
Historically and disproportionally underemployed and, ironically, also the fastest growing most educated demographic, Black women are vastly knowledgeable in the attractiveness and importance of employability.
We know what it means to keep our heads down and to ignore microaggressions.
It’s why I have historically kept my mouth shut when coworkers pet, touch and grab my hair.
It’s why I have historically swallowed my anger at work when people ask me if I eat a lot of stereotyped southern food.
Or when white coworkers only use black GIFs when messaging me.
It’s why my girlfriends tell me not to change my hair too much – keep a brand. It’s why there are specific coaching groups for aspiring Black female politicians that teach you the importance of hair and respectability politics. We know what is at stake. And yet, Black women have historically burnt down bridges so that others can find their way by the fires we have set.
Celebrity Gabrielle Union is a pro at this.
In case you missed it, a few weeks ago Gabrielle Union, two months into a 3-year contract, was reportedly fired from her position as a judge on America’s Got Talent. Yashar Ali from Vulture reported, “A source close to the production disputes that Union was fired, and specifically that she was fired for being perceived as “difficult,” saying that she was “rotated out.”
In Rachel Sklar’s Medium essay, The Power and Danger of Being a Difficult Woman, she asserts:…Here’s what was “difficult” about Union during her stint as a judge on the performance contest show: The wildly popular actress’s three-year contract was cut short after one season, according to multiple press reports, because she complained to NBC higher-ups about comedian Jay Leno making a racist crack about Koreans eating dogs; the decision to cut the 10-year old black rapper Dylan Gilmer in favor of a white group from Texas, because they were an act “America can get behind”; and an incident where a contestant imitating Beyonce pulled on black gloves, which Union saw as imitating the singer’s skin tone. There was also apparently friction about Union asking drag performers for their preferred pronouns, and repeated criticism of Union’s choice of hairstyles as being “too black.” Oh, and then there were Union’s complaints about Simon Cowell, the show’s creator and executive producer, persisting in smoking indoors, despite Union’s allergy to smoke and California’s workplace laws.
Union was difficult. And, I’m willing to bet that it was because she was “difficult” in ways that were unapologetic and bold, she was also fired.
In my experience, being a “difficult” Black woman often means drawing attention to the ways in which white supremacy shows up in everyday spaces. It means speaking up about my right to personal space. It means speaking up about my right to speak in ways that defend my right to exist. It means calling attention to racial injustice. It means challenging traditionalism when traditionalism is linked with supremacy.
And, being consistently difficult in PWI’s is hard. Some would even call it stupid. Because there is always a cost.
I’m willing to bet that almost any member of a marginalized group can relate to an experience in which they were deemed difficult for speaking up about a specific oppression.
As a woman employed in male dominated spaces, I know what it is like to be encouraged to smile more often, laugh more and to be complimented on having a “pleasant tone.” When was the last time a man was complimented on his tone or smile? As women, we know this experience.
As a Black woman, I know what it is like to be complimented on having a professional hairstyle, a professional demeanor and a professional attitude.
For some Black women, being difficult sometimes means showing up with their natural hairstyles.
It’s why in 2019 states are still passing laws that make it illegal for employees to discriminate based on the style of their employee’s hair.
We know the cost.
In her 2018 piece, “Do Not Move Off the Sidewalk Challenge: Holding Your Space in a White World” by Hannah Drake, Drake urges Black women to hold their space. Specifically, she states: I challenge you for the next 24-48 hours to be aware of your body in spaces and do not move for a White person or make any apologies for physically occupying any space. Be mindful of how you navigate sidewalks, who moves to accommodate you and who doesn’t. If someone infringes on your space, do you speak up or remain silent? Make a mental note of any time you feel you were “expected” to move and the reaction of the other person when you didn’t. Take note of how people accommodate others in spaces. Was it frightening or empowering to hold your space? Do you think people felt you were intimidating? How did you feel at the end of the day?
As a Black woman, I know the cost of being difficult.
But I also know too intimately the cost of not being difficult. I am convinced that sometimes our greatest detriment is not being our greatest ally.
Difficult women get that. Nasty women get that. Badly behaved women get that.
Folk that stand around and rally for those who can’t do it for themselves get that.
Self-allyship. Get into it.
We are all out here in these spaces asking for allies (which is important and critical) but not always showing up for ourselves. I’m learning to show up for myself.
And, sometimes when we show up for ourselves, we find transformation in the unexpected. For me it has meant that sometimes a coworker listens and gradually gets it. Other times it has meant making space for new voices at the table. Our voices will not always be heard. But on the off chance they will be – we have to try.