One night in my second year of university, I snuck into the school’s newsroom with two of my older friends, Black women who I’d met at school. We came prepared with a collection of junk food and hours of interviews that needed transcribing. What started as a plan to work on assignments digressed into a night of cracking jokes… and warnings about which professors had anti-Black tendencies; we were shit-talking and sharing stories of grief within the same conversation. I remember feeling so lucky that they invited me, that I was welcomed into this secret little world where Black women laid themselves bare, because for so long, I was disconnected from Black sisterhood.
When I was younger, I admired the examples of this sisterhood that I saw in real life—the heartwarming laughter of a group of Black girls, the knowing smile an elderly Black woman would give a young stranger. But it was always from a distance. I grew up in a mostly-white neighbourhood in north Toronto, so I’d only witness these moments in passing when I was downtown or around my larger extended family. My mother and her sisters were part of this sisterhood; I could see it in the way they protected one another. But I didn’t think I was. At the time, I wrongly believed that geographical barriers created cultural ones.
I didn’t always feel like I was lacking something, but then I’d overhear a joke and not possess the innate cultural knowledge to “get it” or I’d be overwhelmed with a general sense of unbelonging around other Black teens. I think that’s why I imprinted so deeply on the Black female friends I made in university. I wanted to be surrounded by them constantly and I giddily updated my mother every time I connected with someone new. There were only a few of them, but they satisfied a longing for Black sisterhood that I didn’t even realize I’d had until it was fulfilled.
My Black female friendships are a source of solace and protection
I did my journalism undergrad at Ryerson University in a predominantly white program, although it was more multicultural than any other educational institution I’d attended before. (Go figure.) It didn’t take long for me to pick up on the ways Black women congregated together and stuck up for each other in tutorials, out of both necessity and unspoken devotion.
Necessity, because Black women in academic spaces experience entrenched hindrances that can prevent us from prospering. According to a 2006 study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, when Black female students experienced racism and the intersection of racism and sexism, it increased their stress and decreased their self-esteem. In my program, we’d have class discussions about safe spaces for Black students on campus, specifically ones that the student media couldn’t enter, and I recall having to explain why these spaces were necessary. My fellow students didn’t always understand that post-secondary institutions can be very isolating for Black students, or the need for have a place where we felt comfortable and safe to express ourselves without worrying about being observed. In fact, these arguments were often diminished as overly emotional by faculty and other students.
And unspoken devotion because daily microaggressions can wear a person down slowly, and that stress has real consequences—a 2017 University of Massachusetts Boston study found that covert racism is directly linked to mental health and leads to depression, anxiety and trauma. So, Black sisterhood is necessary for survival. Black women feel an implied responsibility to support one another; that’s how we combat misogynoir and how we navigate the gaslighting that often follows any attempt to discuss our experiences.
Put simply, Black sisterhood is the eye in this violent storm, providing moments of solace, escape and protection.
No one else can understand what it’s like to experience misogynoir
For me, one of its most important functions is providing space where we can commiserate and validate each other’s anxieties and insecurities. I think most Black people in Canada are hyper-aware of how they are perceived. It’s what W. E. B. DuBois called double consciousness—the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” As a Black woman, I move through spaces cognizant of how people interact with me, the level of service they extend to me, the level of compassion they express and how it’s all informed by the Molotov cocktail of racism and misogyny.
The sisterhood is there for me when I experience overt racism, of course, but it’s often the more subtle variety that I need help with. When someone doesn’t sit beside me on the subway, cuts in front of me when I’m clearly ahead of them in line, speaks condescendingly to me as if I’m incapable of grasping simple concepts or overlooks my contribution, I tend to assume it’s because I’m a young Black woman. But then I’ll gaslight myself into thinking these injustices only exist in my mind—because that’s what I’ve been told so many times from non-Black people, and I’ve internalized it. The only thing that helps me in these situations is the deep friendships with other Black women who grapple with the same problems. With them, I never need to explain why a microaggression was racist; instead they substantiate my experiences, which makes me feel less alone.
Another key function of the sisterhood is to provide mentorship and a sense of community. Last year, I reached out to a woman I knew on the internet, asking to meet up. A year later, she’s one of my closest friends. We were open from the get-go about trauma, double consciousness and the elusiveness of happiness. Older Black women have this incredible tendency to take younger women under their wings, which is exactly what she does: checking in on my mental health, hyping up all my accomplishments and ensuring I always know my self-worth.
It’s not overstating things to say that these women are crucial for my survival
No matter our ages, though, Black women give each other the confidence to survive a world that is inherently anti-Black and misogynistic. Without this kind of empathetic support and care-taking, the world is a scary, isolating and sometimes violent place for us. So, it’s no wonder we feel innately responsible for one another—we know that society wasn’t built with us in mind, so we have to look out for each other.
To start off my 2019, I invited three friends who had never met over for dinner. Over a four-course meal and heavy-handed pours of merlot, we shared one of the most fulfilling conversations I’ve ever had. We spoke about love, joy, the effects of intergenerational trauma, the future. It’s the most safe I’ve ever felt opening up.
In fact, it was a lot like that night in the newsroom. More than being engulfed in love, I felt seen and understood; I felt that together we are so powerful. And I finally understand that the sisterhood was always there, waiting for me to make the first move.