I remember the first time I was praised for being a virgin. It was in comparison to another Black girl. The boy in question said I was actual "girlfriend material" because of my virginity. He didn't mention any other characteristics. Just that. And he compared me to another girl who didn't have that quality.
Even "pre-Black feminist" me knew there was something wrong. But I didn't have the sociological or feminist jargon to explain what was wrong to myself. And besides, like most people I enjoy attention that seems to be in my favor. I might guiltily enjoy it if it's at the expense of others but I'd be lying if I said that "pre-Black feminist" me found what the boy said insulting.
This moment was poignant. I remember the confusion of being praised for something that I had never considered to be important or consequential. I remember feeling happy that he liked me but disappointed that he compared me to somebody else. It seemed like less of a compliment.
Women learn from girlhood to take arbitrary characteristics, that don't in fact mean anything substantial or make them a better person, and believe that these things make them "good." There's so many messages floating around about how to be a "good" Black girl. And the fact that many of these messages are contradictory doesn't stop many Black girls from trying to fulfill them.
Good is not having sex. Good is always wanting sex. Good is a long weave. Good is natural hair. Good is make-up. Good is naturally flawless. Good is being able to cook and clean. Good is being educated. Good is not being opinionated. Good is never letting a man play you. Good is being a ride or die for a man. Good is never calling yourself a bitch. Good is not getting mad if a man calls you a bitch. Good is being independent. Good is not being too independent.
I remember what it was like being a teenager and trying to figure all of this out. I desperately wanted to make choices that would work to redeem the two strikes I had against me: that I am Black and I am a woman.
In the process, I learned to see other Black women as my competition and to think less of other Black women. Sometimes for male attention. But mostly just to feed my own sense of worthiness that was built on no more than self-hate.
Patriarchal culture is all about making women feel unworthy. We redeem ourselves through men, education, money, capitalistic notions of success, Eurocentric beauty standards.
We redeem ourselves by reinforcing a hierarchy among Black women and ensuring that we are not on the bottom. As long as we're not on the bottom it's okay.
We don't think to abolish hierarchies all together. In fact, we are taught to feel most comfortable with them. The allure of being categorized as "good" does that to us. If there were no "good" there would be no "bad." And if there were no "bad" then how can we stand above and on our more marginalized sisters?
We don't realize that everybody would win if there were no "better than" or "less than." We don't realize that the mere fact that we are Black women makes our attachment to hierarchies ironically self-defeating as Black women (due to a conflation of race, gender, and class oppression) tend to be on the bottom.
Growing up as an American Black girl I was given many subliminal messages about what it means to be "good." I learned through "positive reinforcement" to be quiet and docile and always seeming strong and happy and carefree. I learned to put on this show all in an effort to be "good" and favorable.
I thought that being good would save me. I thought it would rescue me from racism and sexism and classism.
I only learned to recognize that being "good" is a burden when I discovered that I could not speak up for myself without being viewed as "bad." I couldn't make my own decisions without being viewed as "bad."
That is when I learned that being "good" is more about knowing how to stay in my place.
For a long time I was fooled into thinking that I was in the privileged position because in many ways I fit neatly into the "good" Black girl category. But that's exactly why it wasn't a privilege. Being good is a box. A small, narrow prison that strips away any humanity. It teaches us that being good and respectable trumps autonomy. Instead of living for myself I was living to somehow beat stereotype threat and conform to Black hetero-patriarchal expectations.
The "Good Black Girl Complex" alienates us from other Black women and from ourselves. It makes us believe our worth is dependent on our respectability. It refuses to allow us to have pride based on who we are as individuals. Instead we must take pride in fitting the arbitrary and ever fluctuating standards for Black femininity.
There is a certain freedom that comes with disavowing the "good" or "bad" labels which control so many of our lives. I've found that accessing this freedom requires being okay with being even more outside of respectability than I already inherently am as a Black woman.
It's scary deciding to take the step. But every day that I grow bolder I find that it's all worth it.