Are you lifting up Black women or harming them?

I recently held a public dialogue with my colleague, collaborator and friend, author Debby Irving. In the course of our talk, I shared about my experiences with society rarely creating space that allows Black women to be vulnerable or specifically to be human or, dare I say, sometimes even weak. An audience member took offense at my words (claiming erroneously that I had called Black women inherently weak) thus kicking off a bit of a shitstorm that I have been dealing with for the past several days. Some of the details of that incident can be read here but what’s been sitting with me is the humanity of Black women. How we see or perhaps more importantly don’t see Black women.

Black women were brought to this country to be breeders and workers. Period. Ours is a womanhood that was denied and still continues to be denied in part due to the harmful tropes that have been created to define us. Whether we are the sassy Black woman, the angry Black woman, the hypersexual Black woman or the strong Black woman, there is little in the average mind that sees us as simply women who deal with the joys and sorrows of life as our other racial counterparts. 

When we think of today’s iconic Black women, we marvel at their strength and their ability to uplift. Michelle Obama, Oprah and Serena Williams are a few who immediately come to mind.

We live in a culture that is in love with the idea as Black women as saviors or those who rise above adversity but rarely makes time to see the very human side of Black womanhood. Rarely are we exposed to Black women as soft and vulnerable and even when we are, too often we equate Black female vulnerability as a type of strength. Instead of an expression of what it means to be healthy and human.

Rarely do we think of the high cost of not seeing Black women as imperfect people who struggle as all people do. Rarely do we look at the toll that feigning that endless strength (or being bullied into being stronger no matter what) takes on Black women. While our minds may even buy into the myths of our strength, our bodies don’t lie. Our material living situations don’t lie. Racialized health disparities are real and the economic wage gap is real. We often work ourselves literally to death being strong, thanks to high blood pressure, unrecognized mental health pressures, and so on.

Too often our womanhood is denied and devalued and it takes a toll on us, I know because that is my current struggle and I am reminded in the moments when I talk to other Black women regardless of age that this is their reality as well.

Recently my work allowed me to hold space with several Black women and the denial of our humanity was really driven home when a young Black teenage girl told me how she struggles not to be seen as an angry Black woman. An older Black woman thanked me while breaking down in tears for giving voice to our struggles. Another Black woman told me that finding my writings gave her the vocabulary to understand and describe what her life is like in New England. Anytime I am blessed to hold space with other Black women, I am acutely aware of how much of our real selves are in hiding because the world has no space or place for us and especially not our feelings.

Even our sorrows and tears have no value and are not seen in this society, compared to our white female counterparts whose tears are multi-purposed and can range from a true expression of emotions to highly effective (and often racialized) tools of manipulation or derailment.

As I settle deeper into my middle-aged life, no longer having a life partner, I am constantly battling with the reality that rarely do I have the space to take my mask off and lay my burdens down. Instead I am forced to confront the reality that for most, I am nothing more than a resource bank, skilled manager and juggler of life and occasionally a desirable sex partner. In my less mindful moments, it’s been easy to buy into others’ visions of me and put myself in a less-than-healthy space whether physically or mentally.  

My resolution this year has been to work toward wholeness and health by actively pushing back on the labels and tropes that are assigned to me without my consent and instead become an active participant in creating a whole me. But the struggle is real because there is little in the way of support for my actual desires.

In part, this is because misogynoir is real: anti-Black sexism directed at Black women. We live in a world where anti-Blackness is real and to be a Black woman is to be a double target. Allies and accomplices, while skilled at grasping the basics of white supremacy, rarely have the language or skills to combat misogynoir and often end up continuing to harm Black women. Instead Black women are all too often asked to join the sisterhood without the recognition that our solidarity and sisterhood is not that of the mainstream and until our white sisters have deconstructed their own internalized beliefs about us, they often do more harm than good.

Are you supporting and lifting up Black women? Are you seeing Black women as full humans at the table of humanity? Or have you compartmentalized them thus denying their agency and humanity?

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10 thoughts on “Are you lifting up Black women or harming them?”

  1. At this very moment, I’m in my car intge parking lot of a towing company, waiting for my daughter to retrieve her belongings from her impounded car.
    We’re two Black women, Chicago-
    born, now living in Phoenix, ages 50 &70. We were just talking about struggling with being too available to too many, when few are available to us.
    Your piece was like cool water for us out here in the desert. Many thanks, sis!!! ❤❤❤❤❤

  2. I felt the same wayI generally agree with what the article was conveying (and feel that I try to do all of what is suggested) but the tone was not my style and made me not trust her. I love your blog so I find it interesting that you like this woman”s style of writing as I found it upsetting the way she interprets “womanhood. The “are you winning by a gentle & quiet spirit made me sad for all of these suffering women and her rec”s to them.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I found it very thought-provoking: I’m thinking of the ways that I continue to perpetuate the trope of the [insert] black woman when I work with students or colleagues or friends. I’m constantly inspired by black women (both those I know, and those that I don’t know) and their work/ art/ community– but I also don’t want to make that the “currency” of our relationship, nor do I want to make it an expectation of their being. I will continue to consider the ways I engage in this and work to dismantle this conditioned behavior. In the meantime, I made a very small (it’s what I can do!) contribution– thank you again for doing this work, reaching people in New England, and beyond

    from a New Englander living in Michigan

  4. I really appreciated reading this piece. It’s given me a lot to think about. Mostly it makes me sad because I’m not sure how to help. I certainly hope I lift people up, and I never intend to hurt anyone. Thank you for sharing your experience so I can consider ways to do better going forward.

  5. Thank you for a reminder I needed. I will continue to notice and acknowledge the importance of understanding the impact I have when my sensitivity lags behind my good will. I appreciate this being called out.

  6. Harsh, and beautifully real. I am kind of obsessed with this blog and this essay is one of the reasons why.

  7. This was one of the most impressive pieces that I’ve read in 5 years. It was the truth in every sense.

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