There is a certain irony in starting a blog as a way to express my feelings but also having the blog become so well-known that I start to censor myself (so as to not create undue tensions in other parts of my life). No longer are my thoughts anonymous and, well, that has its ups and downs.
As a result, lately I have not been in as much a talking/writing space as I would like, while I navigate dealing with my own very real feelings on what it means to become a public Black woman. It means walking around wondering just how real I can be, without that realness being misunderstood.
Then a few nights ago, the Oscars happened and Angela Bassett—who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and lost—had a very public, visceral and real moment to that loss. A response for which the mainstream media and white folks en masse decided she was a poor sport.
Having not seen Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance, I can’t speak to whether it was truly Oscar-worthy. But I did see Angela’s performance in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. I teared up watching her; I felt her pain. She did the thing and yeah, I get it: Marvel movies rarely win on that scale but damn, she was brilliant. I also know as a Black woman what it feels like to never quite get the recognition you feel you deserve. Shit, that is every day ending in “Y” for most of us.
The thing is, for most Black women, we are so skilled at wearing the protective mask that hides our truth that we rarely ever allow ourselves to openly feel it—much less show it—in public. It is a safety mechanism. After all, feeling isn’t just about allowing ourselves to be vulnerable or soft. Feeling while Black and demonstrating it carries real risks. We are deemed angry or intimidating or thankless…shall I go on? In professional settings, to emote as a Black woman carries the risk of harming your career, in ways that white people rarely experience.
To openly feel in public while Black is to have our essence reduced to a trope and to be judged. Yet that judgment never is the same for our white peers. I mean, white women crying is a thing. While white women can use their tears as a manipulation and derailing tactic, they are still given the grace to feel. To be hurt, to be disappointed, to fucking feel and not be invalidated in their feelings.
In recent years, the hardest thing for me to navigate is being in anti-racism spaces with white people and realizing that these white people who should know better still expect me to stay masked at all times. Realizing that even in spaces with the people who should get it, if I bring my full emotionality with me, it is too much—I am too much.
It’s almost as if there is a broken switch in white people that renders them unable to deal with the full emotionality of a Black woman. I have rarely encountered a white person with the emotional maturity to examine why they can’t handle that weight without examining their own expectations around the emotionality of non-white people. Of course, that switch is the flip side of the emotional labor that white-bodied people just expect from non-white people.
When I ponder the state of race relations, I realize that while we have some real battles ahead of us as we watch the not-so-gentle return to racism as policy, we also have to address the emotional expectations of whiteness. It all goes hand-in-hand with the rules and expectations of white supremacy culture, which exalt a certain level of emotional restraint but does allow exceptions. Rarely are those exceptions extended to anyone who is not white, though. I mean, who can forget Supreme Court Justice Brent Kavanaugh and his confirmation hearings? Brent was allowed to be emotionally raggedy and he was still rewarded.
But for Black women, there are never any rewards when we show our true selves publicly. We’re lucky if people allow us to feel. Usually, it’s just criticism—harsh criticism and judgment. The thing about Angela Bassett: Yes, her face clearly held her truth, but she was not disruptive in any way. She was a 64-year-old Black woman, who in a moment, said fuck this mask! In no way did her truth and pain take away from Curtis’s win. Two things can be true. (And have we considered that it isn’t just about Bassett herself and how she felt? Think about how few Black people have won Oscars over the long history of this show—her loss was also a reminder to her of yet another moment when white people overwhelmingly reap the rewards.)
White supremacy culture continues to thrive as many unwittingly uphold its tenets that dictate controlling the humanity of others—all through so called “norms” designed to stifle the real complexity of life and emotions.
When we applaud someone—particularly when that someone is either Black or a person of color—for being a “good sport,” it means they play to the script and don’t disrupt the status quo. Often the grace they display is personal harm they are creating for themselves—Don’t upset the white folks. And if they crack, they are a “bad sport” when they might just be someone who chooses to live and stand in their truth and who knows that stuffing themselves down is not healthy. Sorry, but I consider bad sports to be people who make a ruckus over their losses; not those who show their honest feelings on their face. Creating real equity and justice means doing away with all the manifestations of white supremacy culture and that means creating space for discomfort, disappointment, sadness, and more.
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Image by Taras Chernus via Unsplash