Being “well-spoken” and “acting white” doesn’t protect me.
Originally posted on Rookie Mag and reposted here with permission.
When I was 13 years old, the most striking aspects of my appearance were a blue weave, thick eyeliner, and a wardrobe full of dark band T-shirts. My peers had conflicting ideas about me: I didn’t fit the image of how they thought a black girl was supposed to look and act. My white friends often reminded me that I was “above” most black kids because I spoke “proper” English, but they were quick to exclaim how ghetto I was whenever I raised my voice or expressed my opinion on a heavy topic. My black counterparts let me know that having colorful hair made me ratchet, because “only white girls can get away with that,” and felt I should’ve been listening to Lil Wayne instead of All Time Low. The only thing both my black and white classmates could agree on was that I’d always be ratchet, which meant I’d never be worthy of their full respect.
Because I listened to alternative music, people tended to pit me up against “urban” black girls, who enjoyed rap music and spoke AAVE more than I did, as though I deserved more respect for being interested in things that aligned with white people. My aunts and cousins had always advised me not to be like “those girls in the hip-hop videos;” I was supposed to be “classy.” They were enforcing a specific type of respectability politics: the idea that if black girls “behave,” we won’t be set back by white supremacy and patriarchy. As long as I was “respectable,” I was better than more urban girls. By seventh grade, I had internalized those concepts and avoided hanging around black girls who exclusively listened to rap and weren’t afraid of enthusiastically expressing their opinions. I was conditioned to think I was better than them. You would never have caught me in a tight dress or short bottoms because I was trying to distance myself from being volatile and hypersexual—aka, “that black girl.”
What I didn’t know back then: The intersections of racism and sexism, known as misogynoir, make it impossible for black girls to appeal to the standards white supremacy has set for us, no matter how we dress or act. As well as disallowing me from choosing my own identity and tastes, this kind of bigotry put me in bodily danger. My sexuality has been joked about since I was in elementary school, and at 19, I’ve noticed that as I get older, unwanted commentary on my body becomes more aggressive, and men often follow and threaten me if I don’t respond to their catcalls.
It wasn’t until I started paying attention to the way my white friends spoke about street harassment that I realized what they went through was totally different than what I experienced. When they complained about being catcalled, some of them bragged about telling guys to “fuck off.” What happened to them is terrible, but it made me realize that the street harassment that I and other black girls experience is a lot more aggressive. Being considered a well-spoken, “alternative” black girl didn’t stop boys from telling me, “Black girls are good at sucking dick, cuz they got them DSLs,” meaning “dick-sucking lips.” Street harassers, particularly black men who have internalized white oppression in a way that causes them to devalue black girls in turn, think because I am a black girl, I should be grateful that any man is giving me attention, and they take it as an insult whenever I reject them. This is an obvious form of misogynoir, as I discovered through @feministajones’s hashtag #YouOKSis, a thread where black women discuss their experiences with street harassment. Before I found that hashtag, I thought it was completely normal for men to curse me out or grab me when I didn’t reply to their advances. I quickly learned to smile and respond back when they said hi so I wouldn’t be yelled at or shoved.
One of my worst experiences with street harassment took place when I was 16. I was on my way to the beauty supply store when two boys came up to me and asked me to perform fellatio on them in the nearby park. I was deeply offended and told them no. They continued to follow me for 10 minutes, asking me why I wouldn’t, and how I looked like I’d be great at it. Every time I tried to walk faster, they sped up, too. I was scared and uncomfortable, and it wasn’t until I saw a coworker sitting on her porch that I found safety. I screamed her name and ran towards her. As I approached her, they yelled, “God gave you those big, beautiful lips to suck a big, beautiful dick!” Heat surged through my body; their words stung like acid in an open wound. At that moment, I understood that wearing revealing clothes wasn’t relevant to how men treated me on the street—I was wearing a peacoat over a sweater and jeans that day.
Black girls are some of the least protected people in this country. We don’t come close to being as viewed as worthy of defending as white women do, so it’s easy to harass us without consequence. Being hypersexualized is part of the “angry black woman” trope, thanks to which black girls are perceived as overbearing, sassy caricatures. Many people who are neither black nor female love to brag about how they have a strong, independent black women living inside of them—but of course they don’t, because they’ve never had to slap on a smile in the face of racism and sexism, or been demonized for complaining about pain when someone hurts them the way black girls are forced to. They have never had to show the kind of strength and independence we have to exude every day.
Being pigeonholed as strong can and does backfire on black women: Our so-called “resilience” keeps others from helping us when we need assistance, or, sometimes, we think it’s beneath us to ask for help. I definitely have trouble reaching out to others when I’m in need, due to this conditioning. In high school, I was bullied by a pair of white girls who mocked and threw things at me. My Italian teacher became aware of this behavior and advised me to report it to the administration, telling me he would back me up. However, when I reported it to the dean, he looked at me and said, “Well, what did you do to them?” even after my Italian teacher told him that he had watched me closely and I had done absolutely nothing to provoke them. The dean even went so far to call my father in front of me, saying, “Your daughter is not well, and she’s probably being affected by what’s going on in class or at home,” then wrote me up because, as he kept insisting, “You must’ve done something.” I was humiliated. When I got home, my father told me to just “tell them to cut it out” and ignore it. An accumulation of moments like that have caused me to remain silent when I’m in pain. This notion that black women must be strong and silent is a part of the reason why we suffer from such high rates of depression that usually goes untreated.
Black girls are supposed to be tough, but not intimidating, and I was supposed to be able to deal with the bullies without actually defending myself, because that would get me into trouble. Being black makes means you can’t be a victim, no matter how fragile you feel. As a black girl, if you get justifiably upset about anything, people tend to see it as your bullying them, rather than trying to figure out how they upset you. Where I grew up in suburban New Jersey, as with so many other places, white girls are the standard for what is feminine and delicate, while black girls are viewed as wild brutes. My friends and I became almost numb to having our emotional needs ignored.
This didn’t stop once we left high school. When Sy, a close friend of mine, began art school in Manhattan, her suitemate Kadie (not her real name) refused to clean their kitchen. She repeatedly blew off her turn among their suitemates and acted like Sy was being hostile and unnecessary whenever Sy kindly asked her to clean. Later on in the semester, those tensions blew up into a huge argument. Sy expressed why it was disrespectful for Kadie to not clean, and Kadie still claimed to not understand, so Sy called an RA to mediate. When the RA arrived, Sy’s nonblack roommate, Shelby (her name has also been changed), said she agreed with Sy. Kadie claimed she understood, now that Shelby had said it, because she wasn’t as mean about it as Sy had been, even though Shelby had asked her in the exact same manner that Sy had.
I know that what I, Sy, and other black girls go through when we have to put our safety, happiness, and well-being on the line to avoid being persecuted is common, to this day, and I still grapple with voicing my frustrations and hurt in the fear that I might be punished for it. It’s something that I hope to overcome one day, but, for now, I’m just happy that I know it’s wrong. It took me a terribly long time to register that I don’t owe anyone an explanation for who I am and why I deserve to be treated with respect. I spent too long trying to cover up and quiet down to make others comfortable, so I now have no problem wearing tight and short clothing and wear them as much as possible.
My white friends who appreciated my punk aesthetic didn’t see me as a whole human being who’s allowed to express herself in any way she’d like without being called “ghetto,” but I no longer fear what people will think if I use black slang or brazenly discuss black issues, because I understand my personality and tastes as my own. Just because a black girl is loud and listens to Young Thug doesn’t mean she’s stupid or lacks emotional depth. She can enjoy reading just as much as a suburban or “hipster” black girl. We’re human beings with our own autonomy. If you think I can’t throw it back with my girlfriends at a party and still graduate college, that is your problem, not mine. I’ve decided that I’m not going to limit myself from enjoying my youth because people lack critical thinking skills.
Teaching African American girls that we can fight misogynoir by covering our bodies and regulating our behavior more than white girls is pointless. It’s not a black girl’s job to prove that she is worthy of humanity. That’s supposed to be our human right. We’re trying to fit into a society that doesn’t want to see us thrive, so we might as well say “fuck it!” be as loud as we want, cry as hard and long as we need to, and dance however we like. To deny black girls these things is to deny them room to grow and make mistakes—to strip them of their adolescence. ♦
Thahabu Gordon is a badass wonder-womanist from central New Jersey who writes and goes to concerts in her spare time. She is currently a student studying communications/ media, and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram.