Posted on September 3, 2019
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.
Posted on April 5, 2018
Posted on January 9, 2018
I was perusing the site For Harriet the other day, and immediately found myself clicking on the article titled “How to survive at a PWI if you are Queer, Black and Woman.” While the article was intersectional (and provided some excellent recommendations,) I wanted to articulate another angle.
If you are an interracial adoptee reading this, then you may know that there are a lot of articles/books/magazine opinions that talk about your body. You have been examined and investigated and each time they will label you as this thing that doesn’t fit any required mold. Maybe, if you are like me, you are even used to the words: “well you’re not really…(anything).”
Working or attending a Predominately White Institution (PWI), you have probably felt the microaggressions, heard the “but you’re not really…” or the “you’re not really like them…” and maybe you haven’t completely lost your ish yet.
Here are ten tips and reminders to stay sane, healthy and fully engaged and committed to your own emotional well-being:
1. Don’t doubt your voice. Your imperfect truth deserves respect and so does your body. Allow yourself grace and gentleness (and, I have found that when I take a moment for myself to allow space and grace, I can sometimes allow those, who may not even deserve it, grace and gentleness as well).
2. Don’t argue with crazy. (This is most definitely one of those tips that I have most had to learn the hard way). It is possible to live respectfully and responsibly without engaging every single person whom is committed to critiquing and disavowing your body.
3. Find your group and lean into them for strength. You are not in this alone.
4. Remind yourself that not every battle is yours. Your body is your own unique, important, beautiful body and it it has the same right to engage and communicate as any other person at the table.
5. You are not a corporeal racial translator (unless you want to be).
6. “Be prepared to have microaggressions lunged at you” (I’m stealing this from the “For Harriet” article).
7. Take time to detox. Whether it be picking up a book, taking a long soak in a bath, meditating or exercising, find time for you. You are important, and as a POC, stress is literally causing our bodies to breakdown. Take time to love yourself in a space where you feel the most comfortable.
8. Notice those around you. I’ve found that sometimes I can lash out at those who are trying to be compassionate even when they are saying the wrong things. And believe me, if you are anything like me, you may find yourself with a whole lot of Caucasian friends that say the wrong things. I have found that, when I have the space, I can take a breath and say, “hmmm, their words are not okay, but their heart is working on being in the right space,” when I do this, I find that I usually have enough space to answer with something like: “I’m glad you are trying here, but here is what I’m hearing.” Let me be clear, this is in no way shape or form advocating that you should always be the one to translate the pain. This is not your role. But, I have also found that when I take the time to respond this way, I too experience something that feels a little more like transformation and a lot less divisive.
9. It’s okay to be just who you are, (and, you didn’t even need me to tell you that). Maybe you have heard the you aren’t…whatever. It’s okay. You are a perfect brand of exactly what you are. I am of the mind that no community is perfectly monolithic. Whatever ethnicity you rock, you are unique and you deserve a place at the table.
10. Be prepared to be the tokenized POC. Sigh. Lemme guess, you got there and now it’s the first day. And, just like that nightmare you’ve been having for a week ever since you noticed their “diversity” campaign was really just a copy pasted photo from a google search with that classic: one white, one black, one Asian group hug…you’re the only one. The ONLY POC. And you’re panicking. Wondering why you couldn’t sense it before.
But, there is that sinking feeling at the bottom of your stomach. After all, you knew what it really meant when the tiny font at the bottom of the application read: “persons with disabilities and minorities are especially welcome to apply.” Translation: We don’t have anybody that is disabled or a minority working here and, if we do, they most definitely they didn’t write this little byline.
Probably by now, my dear friend, your brain is working overtime: did I get this job on my merit or on my skin color? What are they actually expecting from me? Do I actually have a voice and a place here or am I supposed to just repeat whatever they want me to say with my POC skin? See, now the words are “ethnic” approved. Maybe your friends and family members start to remind you that the only reason you are (fill in the blank) is because you’re just a token. No credit. Just affirmative action. Just…nothing. Which compounds your personal feelings of anguish and exhaustion.
It is here, that I wish I could stop you. And, if I can, then perhaps it is worth writing this to you.
In the spirit of Mother Theresa, here is a “Do It Anyways” type deal just for you:
People will criticize and demean your body. Love your body anyways.