Strong Black Women are Women Too

Ironically, I’m writing a post decrying ‘angry black women’ because I’m feeling bitter and black tonight. It’s been a tough couple weeks for American Blacks with both Mike Brown and Eric Garner joining the scores of black people killed at the hands of police. On a depressing episode of the Read the hosts tried to keep our spirits up with news of Black Excellence. To support beautiful black women, I went out to buy the new W Magazine with Iman on the cover, but it wasn’t out yet, instead I bought a copy of bitch magazine with an article on ‘the Myth of the Strong Black Woman.’ In it, Tamara Winfrey Harris describes the myth of the sassy no-nonsense ladies, “the cold, overeducated, work obsessed woman” who is “half as likely to marry as white women.”

I just finished reading Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah,’ which lived up to all the hype, as far as I’m concerned. I was excited to hear what my Slate friends had to say on the Audio Book Club (like all podcast listeners I have an imagined relationship with them) and was so disappointed to hear their criticisms. While I loved the book, I think there are many things you can criticize it for. I too felt like the romance was not the strongest part of the book. But The Audio Book Club argued that it wasn’t believable that such a strong female protagonist would do something so weak, selfish and cruel. Emily Bazelon, friend to the blacks was the strongest champion of this opinion. I am so disappointed that these critics, even after reading a book that exposes and challenges these stereotypes, could not get past the idea of the strong black woman. It was unebelievable to them that a woman could be strong in her sense of self, but be ‘weak’ or vulnerable. Haven’t they seen the new stereotype of a woman who has it together in her work life, but can’t get it together in her personal life (have they missed Mindy’s character on the Mindy Project)?

What will it take to convince people to stop thinking of black people as animals? We are strong women, we have to be to withstand the racism and sexism of this culture. Some American blacks come from a line of women who survived the middle passage, who survived the back-breaking work of slavery. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain the same as whites. We are independent and capable, but we aren’t invincible. Strength should not be the only positive attribute a black woman can own, we are sensitive and vulnerable too and this is not weakness, this is powerful, this is what it means to be human.

Updated 10/13/14:

In which other white people on slate have trouble understanding why black people idolize white people (hint: there are a lot more white people in the US to idolize than black ones):

from the Gawker Review of Books Interview of Charles Blow:

First comes the recognition that we are devaluing black and brown bodies. And that that is not even a new phenomenon, that that is an extension of an American phenomenon, in fact it is even a world phenomenon. There is a mountain of social science that ranges from doctors not prescribing pain medication to black kids at the same rate as they do for white kids with similar illnesses to spanking being more prevalent among black boys. When you think about that body, and the violence that it must endure—

Right, like the word Ta-Nehisi Coates’s constantly used in his reparations essay, “plunder.” It’s similar to what he was getting at. I keep thinking about how there is not only always something coming at us, but something being taken from us.

Right. And endurance becomes this ambient thing in your life; it becomes your constant. It is not just to play and grow up and fall in love, but it is to endure. It becomes the paramount motivation in your life. The tragedy when you hear young men say, Oh I never thought I’d be 18 or 21 without going to jail or being in the grave. I’ve heard this too much. If that is being drilled into your mind, what kind of psychological damage does that do to you, and to your relationship to society? And in addition to that, whatever damage is being done, society is amplifying the damage by misconstruing the data and concepts so that we overestimate black crime, we overestimate black hostility, we overestimate black aggression. We ascribe it everything dark and negative. In that kind of hostile milieu of black bodies that have been tortured in a way, in a system that is designed to destroy it, these concepts of black being dangerous and wrong, you can have the unfortunate crossing of those wires and you get shootings. I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that.

Maybe not “fix,” but you’re in a very powerful post at the Times. You have a platform every week to talk about whatever you want, or at least what’s topical in the news, do you—

Well, my job is to shine a light. Illuminating and educating as best I can is the tool that I have. Other people have different tools. And hopefully they can use what I do in their advocacy, in their boots-on-the-ground sort of work in neighborhoods, changing minds person to person. Other than that, I’m not sure how it changes.

Black Things

This week I did 3 black things; I read Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black, I saw the Questionbridge Installation at the Oakland Museum and I went to a talk by Remi Omodele about her new book Weighing the Cost of Pin Making. Although there are many aspects to my identity, this week I engaged in the black part of it, and it felt good.

In his book, Thurston talks about how no one is the perfect amount of black, some people are accused of not being black enough, others of being too black, no one is ‘just right’. For him, he grew up in the inner city without a father (his “hood had everything The Wire had except critical acclaim and the undying love of white people”), but he has a degree from Harvard and also likes computers, camping and classical music. My ‘Negro credentials’ are that I grew up with a single mother in Oakland, and my father is Nigerian (actually from Nigeria), but I too have a fancy degree and a love for computers, camping and classical music. I had a great time reading this book, laughing out loud and thinking about when I first learned the term oreo, the differences between being a black friend and being a black employee and what it means to be black in America.

I went to see the Questionbridge Installation because my friend’s brother was involved in it. The installation is as simple as it is effective, it’s just black men asking and answering questions. Questions like ‘How do you feel about White Women? Why do you University educated brothers think they’re better than ones in jail? What would you do if white people didn’t exist? among others.” It was a very diverse group of men, many viewpoints represented. Being a black man is obviously different from being a black woman, but the issues raised about black identity were relevant and important. It brought up some questions I wanted to ask, can something be both true and racist? How does biracial identity change demographic and political trends?

Last night I went to see Remi Omodele, a family friend, talk about her new book. The book is about the life of Ulli Beier a teacher who had a huge influence on the Nigerian educational system. The title of the book comes from a saying that the British had about the ‘Natives’, that they were so uncivilized that they couldn’t even make a pin. This colonialist attitude was internalized by the Nigerians and they had begun to discount their own traditions. Beier helped them to document and embrace their own traditions. I went to the talk with my father who is from Benin City. Although Beier was in Yorubaland there are many linguistic and cultural similarities between the Yoruba and the Edo people. The message seemed to be that in order to combat the divisiveness and strife of modern times we need to look back to our traditions.

What does all this mean to me? I’ve spent most of my life in school; I’m quite good at being a student, in fact I’m starting again in the fall. I have never really been in a class that had more than 1 other black girl. I’m used to being the token Woman of Color. There are many different aspects of my identity that make me unique, I don’t think that being black is the most important part of my identity, but I do think it is very important, if not for myself, than for the way that other people see me. Black people make less money, have shorter life spans, higher health risks and lower economic prospects in this country. When people see me, they see this history and these statistics as well. I think if America survives this present crisis that there will come a time when race is less important to the way that people see me in this country, but this time hasn’t come yet. Most people see me as a Black Woman, and I’m happy with that.

Street harassment

I have been wanting to write this post for years, but street harassment is difficult to talk about and I didn’t know quite how to do it right. Part of what makes it so hard to talk about is that the type of harassment I’m talking about is couched in a compliment. In fact the behavior is so ingrained in our culture as a positive message (what I’m talking about is essentially this Michael Jackson Video) that it was difficult to figure out why it bothered me so much. Why did this make me feel so scared and alone when it had no effect (or the opposite effect) on others? If this is harassment, what rights were these people violating? I’ve recently been able to identify it, these people were violating my Right to be Left Alone. As a black woman, walking alone, I do not have to give up my Right to be Left Alone and no one can take it from me. This attention is unwarranted, unwanted and inappropriate, and I’ve been getting it for my entire life (not a #humblebrag).

When I was 9 years old I stopped wearing shorts. Every Saturday, from 1st grade through 5th grade I took piano lessons. My piano teacher lived about 5 miles from my house and my mother worked weekends so every Saturday I would walk 3 or 4 blocks to the bus-stop and take the bus to K’s house. (Just now I actually had to look up how many blocks it was to the bus stop because that walk was so terrifying to me sometimes that I thought it must have been at least 8 or 10 blocks.) The whole trip only took 30 minutes or so but I left myself an hour, sometimes more, and often would show up at my teacher’s house unexpectedly early. It must have started out fine, but at some point it became fraught with peril. One summer day, I wore a pair of roll-up jean shorts and a striped t-shirt to my lesson, on the way I ran into a group of boys. They were just teenagers, talking to me, one of them said they liked my shorts, that I looked cute, etc., I said thanks or and in response two of the boys blocked my way with their arms and feet. ‘Talk to me for a minute,’ they said, ‘Give me your number,’ I tried to decline as politely as I could and explained that I would be late to my lesson. They eventually let me through, but it felt like I held my breath until I was on the bus, I never looked back at them. After that I vowed never to wear shorts. As a child I was convinced it was my fault, but if I could just wear the right thing that no one would bother me. I began to feel like little red riding hood in my maroon hoodie all summer dodging dangerous wolves on my innocent mission to my piano lesson.

While I know that this is a problem for women across the board, a part of pretty much any woman’s coming of age story, I can’t help but think of the parallel to this list of rules for black men that came out recently related to Trayvon Martin. Black girls develop quicker than other girls, (though everyone is developing earlier these days) and I think I am more likely to be assaulted in a black community) so I think it does make sense to talk about it as a racial issue, though I respect the fact that it is also a feminist issue. The list of things black boys shouldn’t do included running in public, if I had made one when I was little, the list of things black girls shouldn’t do might include;
-not wearing shorts (unless you’re looking for a certain kind of attention)
-not buying into the Christina Aguilera induced backless shirt trend of the 90s
-leaving as early as possible in order to avoid groups of teenagers (who sleep in on weekends)
-avoiding groups of men
-wearing headphones and a hood
-walking with others if possible

What’s confusing as an 8 year old, and still confusing to me now, is what the appropriate response is to such a situation. ‘Ignore them’ is probably the most common response to such assaults, but this conflicts with the idea of being polite to strangers. Don’t make eye contact, but if I don’t look them in the face, how do I even know it’s a stranger and not someone I already know? When you learn social mores you learn how to behave in different situations, but this one blurs so many lines. Though they may not have known it, these boys were older than me, so do I treat them like an elder? But they were strangers, do I treat them like the homeless derelict? They were friendly, should I treat them like friends?

If I chose to treat them like a sexual predator I risk offending them, and thus prolonging the interaction some responses include:
‘I’m just giving you a compliment,’
‘Kids these days have no manners’
‘You know you’re allowed to smile, no shame in a smile’
‘Oo, I like em frisky’
You can read experience them yourself in this viral documentary

If, however, I chose to engage with the person and say thank you, or smile, this can be misinterpreted as a tacit approval of the assault, allowing it to continue. What is a 9 year old to do?
As a child I was faced with this quintessential feminist dilemma: What percent of my life is making people happy by being pretty or pleasant?

I’ve always been jealous of people in the summer who could wear less clothes, for years I stuck to my uniform of baggy jeans (or overalls) and oversized t-shirts and sweatshirts. That way no one could say I brought it on myself. Over the years I’ve found that it really doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. I’ve also found that other people are purposefully seeking the attention I dread. I have no solutions, I’m just stating a problem, as clearly as I know how.

For further reading please check out this racialicious article.

Updated 5.24.12 Please read another woman’s story and learn more about International Anti Street Harassment Week

Updated 7.6.12: Noticed this great article on clutch magazine via Black Snob

Updated 7.9.12: Another recent racialicious article on the same subject.

*Given my recent travels you may be wondering what street harassment was like in Kabul. In fact, when I went to Kabul I had a post like this in mind. But it’s difficult to compare the two situations because in Afghanistan I was never walking alone. Because of this I never knew whether peoples’ reactions were because I was black, because I was western, because I was traveling in a group, because I was so tall, or whether their attention was meant for my beautiful blonde companion. That said, I think unlike in the states, the way I would be treated in Afghanistan would really depend on what I was wearing. If I was walking alone and wearing a burqa I think people would likely have left me alone. Though a woman walking alone with a burqa on in Afghanistan is generally thought to be a widow, so they may try to give me their loose change. I can’t really speculate as to what would happen if I was walking alone wearing just a hijab or less, I think this would vary a lot depending on where I was in Afghanistan and what I was doing.