Difficult Women: May We Know Them, May We Be Them, May We Raise Them

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 oftenlaugh 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.

When Protecting Yourself isn’t Magical Unicorn Shit or When Setting Boundaries is Fundamentally Life Saving


Alright, so I already know that you clicked on this one simply because the title had “shit” in it.


So, I better deliver right?

Hah.

Sorrynotsorry.

Have you ever read an article and realized it felt like the author had stolen your diary? Okay, super melodramatic, I know, and maybe even super reminiscent of that Lauryn Hill & The Fugee’s song:

I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd,
I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud.

I prayed that he would finish, but he just kept right on…

Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song,


But, that moment happened to me this week. Sometimes when I do self-care it looks like chocolate or crazy-stress cleaning or a mound of books or a hike. And, other times it just looks like mindless stumbling on the internet finding articles from other black women on self-care.

Can you guess what this week held?

5 gold stars if you said something to the effect of: all of the above.

So, because some of my best writing is response writing, this is my response/truth to Taylnn Kel’s piece, “When Protecting Yourself from Racism is The Selfish Choice”  which can be found on the website: The Establishment. 

I’vebeen slowly cutting people out of my life for a while now. (yeah, I know that you’re over there holding your breath wondering if I’m going to cut you out. But this isn’t about you. Or maybe it is. I”m not telling). 

At first I thought I was being super slick. You know, like utilizing that “unfriend” button or even that “delete” button on the phone contacts. But then it progressed, and I thought that maybe it would go unnoticed if I didn’t acknowledge that I was doing this out loud. So, I just…stopped going to certain things: parties, weddings, holiday celebrations. As if I could lie to myself about it (but honestly, I didn’t need to do that, because I was okay with it.)

It kind of started with an extended family’s holiday gathering…which then led to missing other gatherings and celebrations. And, when people asked me why, or let’s be honest – when people asked other people why, no one could really give a good answer. Or at least, not an honest answer. Because that would mean intentionally acknowledging and naming that racism, misogyny and sexual abuse are inherent structures in my family system.

So, usually these “other people” give some glib response or, when they are feeling particularly noble say something like: “well, why don’t you ask her?”

Nobody has asked me to my face yet.
And, this has caused substantial crises within the larger and smaller family units.
Someone will ask me if I’m going to an upcoming extended family event. I will smile and say no. And, usually the conversation dies. Or, someone will ask me when I think I will be “up for it,” and I say something along the lines of:

  
Recently, a family member reached out to me and wondered why they never see me anymore. And, I took a deep breath. The last family event I went to was a wedding. I had been anxious and stressing  in the days leading up to the event because…everything. So, when it came time for the wedding, I  worked hard to make sure that what I was wearing would be inconspicuous and that I could mentally and emotionally handle all the stupid, silly, ridiculous, offensive shit family members and strangers would say:

“You and your husband will make the most beautiful babies,”

“Is your hair real,” *insert hair grab*

“Can black people really get sunburnt?”

            “You look just like Lupito” 

            “I bet you can teach us some fun dance moves”

“Oh, so you were the one they adopted…we were wondering”

So, I went to the wedding. And, I grabbed my purse with the lipstick Mace…and prayed for restraint or alcohol.

See, growing up, when something happened – you know, those incidents (ie: Grandma says something racist), it was always about prioritizing the event:

“well, this is Christmas, we don’t want to ruin Christmas…”

or the other person:

“well, they didn’t know that it meant that…”

“well, they didn’t mean it…”

and I was always supposed to remember that.

And, while it was never really said out loud, my family would hint that certain family members weren’t “particularly bright or socially adept” or, for some… “well, they are just old…” As if this cleared up or explained the situation.

 But see, the comments were always about how I was different and how my difference was a problem. And it was never the right time to address my experience or how these comments, when left alone and unattended, resulted in feeling profoundly isolated and traumatized. 

Being in an interracial relationship and growing up as an interracial adoptee in a Mennonite family also propounds these events because Mennonites are so ingrained with that passive-aggressive type shit.

Heads up: I hate passive aggressive shit.

Family members limit contacts with certain other family members, and while I know that many posture with the false “I love you,” nobody really likes or even knows one another. When I explain this to my parents, I’m caught up in the realization that they often do not understand how offensive the comments are because the particulars are usually so lost on them. And, to borrow from Kel’s piece:

“…in the interest of getting in and out of whatever social obligation pulled me into their orbit, I needed to understand they were limited and let this ignorant shit go because the situation at hand was always more important, and I shouldn’t make things about me. Except this was about me – how this family talks to me – and only I seemed to care about it.”

It was after that wedding and after a whole slew of choice comments made from party-goers and extended family members alike that I decided to just let shit go…meaning, people, go. I should clarify here that I understand and believe that it is important to have friends in your life whom can hold you accountable and can disagree with you on things. But, having friends whom are invested in your life and want the best for you is fundamentally different than continuing to engage in relationship with those whom do not hold your best interests at heart. 

So, I started cutting people out. Specifically, I decided that I could not and would not eff up my self-worth anymore by interacting with others whom fundamentally could not and would not respect my body or my existence. And, that included letting shit go…on both sides of my family.

My choice to let people go has been difficult. Not only because I believe deeply in relationships but I also recognize my own propensity to stay in shitty relationships and do all the work even when that means sacrificing my own body for people whom are not invested in my own intrinsic and inherent self-worth. Kell expresses it this way:  

“Our culture is inundated with images of Black women sacrificing themselves in every way imaginable for whatever greater good is in vogue. And when we collapse from the strain and die from the stress, people look around for the next martyr for the cause. But I’m not a martyr. I’m a Black woman trying to live her life under ridiculous circumstances, in a society that tells me I’m not enough. I deserve better than sacrificing my physical and emotional safety to support anyone.”

For me, these expectations of the sacrificial black-woman-lamb-for-slaughter is not just relevant in familial circles, but also in religious and business community’s ones as well. This idea has institutional backing and creates very real, physical, emotional and psychological damage. As I’ve begun talking about the microaggressions and racism that I’ve experienced within family systems, I have often run into the following, but ubiquitous type of all kinds of shitty phrase:
Remember that dreaded middle-school phrase?

 As if sensitivity is somehow a reasonable dismissive tactic for expecting reasonable, respectful, responsible relationship.

In my commitment to self-worth and self-care, I’ve been accused of:
  • Having an “agenda”
  • Playing the “race card,”
  • Intentionally and maliciouslly creating divisive relationships 
  • Being too militantly black (whatever that means?!) 

And, being in an interracial relationship, I have often been told to slow down, or “not bring up” race-related topics, because it was always about saving his feelings.

**News flash: if your relationship relies on tiptoeing on eggshells in order to save one another’s feelings, that is not a relationship. (To clarify, this should not be mistaken as a flippant response meant to usurp the idea of committed, loving relationships. However, my commitment to my husband relies on our commitment to be honest with one another. For me, this does not mean avoiding race related conversations).**

For most of my life, whenever I have confronted people about something that I have experienced as racist, my experience is reduced to something emotional, irrational or hormonal. You know, those fun little trite sayings:

            “Someone’s on her period.”

            “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed”

In past family situations, I was often expected to roll over and accept the abuse in order to maintain the peace…to maintain the holiday gathering.

No.  
“I’ve lost count of the myriad of ways people will tell me to put my well-being and emotional and personal safety behind the needs of others, be they the men in my life, the white people in my life, the good of the family, the good of the company…the reasons are limitless.”

While, society has conditioned us to believe that prioritizing my body and black women bodies and my well-being (and black women’s well-being) equates with selfishness, I am convinced that instead this makes me responsible. When I say ‘no’ to situations in which I know that I will not be respected, I allow myself to acknowledge the reality that some communities cannot and will not give a damn and, as a result, I am no longer putting energy into persons whom are not invested in my inherent value.  

It is important and responsible to choose yourself. 

Go ahead – call me selfish, if you want.

As I have begun to opt out of emotionally tiring and traumatizing situations, I have begun to notice an interesting pattern emerge involving my husband. Instead of asking me about why I have opted out of specific events, persons whom are curious about my life decisions now ask my husband.

Remember how I mentioned that I hate passive aggressive shit?

Already, my husband has been fielding emotional attacks from both his family and mine. And, while he has become an expert on flippant comebacks, I am often reminded how easily my body has become weaponized. And now my very being is a black threat “[some]feel the need to manage and can’t.”

I’m reminded how easy it would be to just let shit go. You know, the side comments about “the illegals,” or the comments about “black-on-black-violence” or police brutality.

There almost seems like there is this unspoken expectation that if only I could let that shit go and accept it, everything would “go back to the way it was.”  

No.  

It is reasonable and acceptable for me to demand and expect respect. 

It is reasonable and acceptable to expect civil disagreements in loving relationships with others.

It is reasonable and acceptable to set boundaries that protect your ability to function holistically.

It is reasonable and acceptable to realize that the word “friend” has been tossed around like free candy, and that even within family systems there will be some people whom are not your friends. And, this is okay. 


Additionally, there are things on which I cannot compromise because:

  • There are people that are dangerous for me.
  • There are people who intentionally and maliciously mean me harm.
  • There are people who expect me to roll over and keep the peace.
  •  There are people who expect me to keep my angry black woman rage to myself while simultaneously sharing the #blackgirlmagic
  • There are people who expect my back to be the bridge for racial reconciliation
  • There are people who expect me to be expendable and to accept this reality
No.

As a follower of Jesus, I have often struggled to follow Jesus and value my body because the rhetoric peddled by many Jesus followers is often one in which follows a colorblind script or a racist one.

No.

That is not Jesus.

So, I’m cutting shit out and choosing me. 

How to Survive at a PWI if you are Black, Woman and Interracially Adopted

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.

I won’t lie to you. We know that it probably won’t get better. In fact, it might even get a lot worse. What’s that teacher every POC has had say? What is the “(choose your POC) opinion here…” See, we know that people are going to say ignorant stuff. But you got options, right? Wait it out and see if anything materializes. Start to look for new jobs on the side. Hope that if something happens, you can complain to a group of actual change makers.

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.

People will tell you you are not worth anything. Know that you are valuable anyways.

People will assume negative things about you because of your skin color and your hair. Walk  with your head straight and your truth poised anyways. 

The world may tell you that you will never amount to anything. Know that you are capable anyways.

People will tell you that you aren’t really anything. Know that you belong, that you are enough and that your body and voice deserves respect anyways.

You may some days feel as if no community will ever accept you. Dig into your community anyways
Take courage, dear heart.
Shalom,