I decided to gel down my typically unruly hair.
On any other day, I would have worn it in a ponytail, perched high on my head like a crown, but I was getting ready for a job interview and I had to make a good first impression. I needed an outfit that wasn’t too form-fitting—Black women’s bodies are often hyper-sexualized, even when we’re children, which is one reason why I often hide my figure. But my attire also couldn’t be too baggy, because that would make me appear unprofessional. I knew that how I looked spoke volumes—sometimes more than the actual words that came out of my mouth.
Great Black women, like writer and activist bell hooks and Audre Lorde, focused their scholarly work on the links between Black women’s race, gender and sexuality. The three are not separate; they shape how people view us, leaving little room for us to be judged as individuals or based on our merits. This understanding of who we are and the space that we take up, or are perceived to take up, is read under a microscope and we can sometimes find ourselves mediating if we’re “too much” in any given moment.
So really, preparing for that job interview wasn’t really about my hairstyle or my outfit. It was about a question that Black women like me are constantly having to ask themselves: How Black can I be today?
We should never have to negotiate our own existence
The looming question of whether Black women are going self-police is primarily rooted in our need to survive living in this racist, sexist and anti-Black world. It’s deciding whether or not you want to address micro-aggressions steeped in misogynoir in your workplace, understanding when it’s necessary to code-switch depending on your environment, or internally deciding how much you are willing to assimilate or go against the grain. It is present in strategic moves like whitening our resumes—attempting to hide our race—so we can get a job in a market where we’re paid even lower than our colleagues. As writer Hadiya Roderique explained in her “Black on Bay Street” piece in the Globe and Mail, we are faced with the emotional turmoil and labour of assessing where we fit in, how to mediate our Blackness and how this all functions in the overwhelmingly white corporate world. And these are just examples of the methods Black women employ to grant us the ability to move within and around the spaces we occupy.
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But we should never have to negotiate our own existence. For those of us who do and have done it, it means acknowledging an unfair standard—which we didn’t create, yet spend our lives maneuvering through—regarding what Black womanhood ought to be, and how those rules conflict with our reality.
I am more than a hairstyle
While Canadians may think that we live in a post-racial society where all people are treated equally no matter the colour of their skin, we don’t. Whether it’s being conscious of form-fitting dresses, opting for a weave because our box braids will be interpreted as “unprofessional,” or worrying that our dances will be deemed “ghetto,” Black women and femmes are constantly being told that parts of us are just not acceptable. It’s exhausting, trying to figure out when to turn on or off my Blackness, especially since I truly just want to live my best life—in whatever form that takes.
What hurts even more is when we hear negative ideas of our Blackness being reinforced from our own. A video clip recently resurfaced from Cycle 3 of America’s Next Top Model. The models were tasked with assembling their own outfits, and when it was contestant Yaya DaCosta’s turn in front of the judges, they told her she had an “intensity to prove her African-ness” and that it was “overbearing.” When DaCosta tried to explain herself, Tyra Banks told her that she was being “defensive,” that it was “not attractive” and that she needed to express her culture in a “fashion way.” It’s one thing to have someone who’s not a member of the Black community challenge how you choose to articulate your Blackness, but to see these harmful thoughts internalized by someone who looks just like you—and for them to reinforce these ideas by humiliating you on national television—is another story. DaCosta had a difficult time moving past this particularly traumatic moment. As she expressed in a recent Instagram post, “It took a lot of work to heal from that experience, and looking back, I feel so much for that eager, vulnerable young version of myself.”
Learning to stop negotiating
I am forever indebted to my mother, who ensured that I was familiar with Black Canadian history. Our house was always filled with literature from Black authors and writers and most, if not all, of my toys looked like me. In university, I saw Black women stand firmly in their identity and politics and, coupled with my own experiences, they inspired me to be unapologetic, too.
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I spent my time as an undergraduate focusing my research on the intersections of Blackness and digital media, like social media, to understand how Black women were using the web to create community. I’ve found that hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic and #CarefreeBlackGirl or shared accounts of personal experiences that have been published online have been key in affording Black women, girls and femmes more examples of what being unapologetically themselves is all about. For instance, last September, Whitby Liberal MP Celina Caesar used her platform in the Speaker’s House to, first, rock her awesome braids (Yas, queen!). She then advocate for women and girls who have been body shamed in any capacity, using her own hair as an entry point into her speech. Her approach was prompted by the news story of a 13-year-old who was removed from her school because her hair was “too poofy.”
Celebrating Black excellence
I’m still learning to stop asking myself, “How Black can I be today?”, but I have definitely embraced taking up space in more purposeful ways and stopped caring about what people think. Everything is political: I wear my hair in its natural state, I’m usually the first person to call out problematic behaviour in any professional or academic setting and I don’t feel ashamed about it at all. I do this not only for myself, but for young Black children who deserve to see Black women as truly free to express themselves, rather than attempting to fit in a mould that was never made for us.
The truth is there is no universal Black woman. Black womanhood exists on a dynamic spectrum and no matter what kind of Black woman or femme you are, you’re not obligated to alter your essence to appease anyone. We are more than the expectations people put on us.
This article was originally published on January 31, 2018.