Monday, February 10, 2014
The Paradox of Assertiveness for Black Women
Last summer, I attended a college women's leadership conference. Everyone was high on Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In and I listened to a keynote speaker who talked about how women are socialized to be meek and quiet in comparison to men.
And then after her speech was over she for some reason felt compelled to mention that Black women are the exception because our culture encourages us to be assertive and in charge.
The "assertive" and "angry" in control and independent Black woman is a myth. It was disappointing to hear a well-known (white) feminist act as if this stereotype is factual and uphold it in front of hundreds of people.
Black women deal with the paradox of assertiveness. In order to be respected as a human being we all need to assert ourselves. We need to let others know how we want to be treated and given the space to control the direction of our own lives. Because assertiveness is a derisive label plastered on Black womanhood it necessitates that Black women give up these basic human necessities in an attempt to avoid further mockery.
Because Black women are dealing with the threat of being accused of unnatural levels of assertiveness and independence whenever we in anyway defend ourselves we don't defend ourselves. We are always threatened by the possibility of being perceived as putting down Black men or stepping over others. So we stay quiet. We often even police each other and encourage each other to remain quiet.
If a Black woman is doing anything but lying prostrate on her back she is accused of being "too independent" and assertive. This breeds meekness and docility. Black women are always concerned about taking up too much space for fear of being labeled as "loud." Always afraid of being too forward about her accomplishments for fear of being viewed as too assertive. Never demanding for fear of being labeled as a "gold digger" or uppity.
Black women are encouraged to shrink themselves, to limit themselves. This goes unacknowledged when people insist that we are naturally (or culturally) primed to be assertive and independent irrespective of whether or not they frame it as a positive or negative.
Many of the Black women listening to the keynote address at the college women's leadership conference enjoyed when the white female speaker claimed that Black women were above and beyond many of the lessons taught in books like Lean In because we already knew how to be assertive. I believe it's comforting to think that we have control over our lives and our images to a greater extent than we actually do. However, it's not realistic.
Our high rates of intimate partner violence and poverty and femicide tell an entirely different story than the notion that we are in control and complete charge of our bodies, our careers, and our lives.
It makes no sense that women further marginalized by race could ever be the most assertive and in control. And yet, this is the myth propagated by many white feminists and even Black feminists. At the expense of Black women.
I want to feel like I am in control of my life. But I also don't want to lie to myself. I know that I am beholden to pervasive stereotypical images of Black women whenever I step outside of my home and into interaction with communities beyond my own. I know that I can't wholly control how others view me and that much of how I am viewed is dictated by my race and gender.
I know that I am maligned for apparently being independent and assertive even though I have less opportunity than other women to be those things because of my race and socioeconomic class.
I want to deal with this reality instead of pretending that things are different.