A few weeks ago I wrote a piece entitled "The Paradox of Assertiveness for Black Women" and in it I discussed how the widely disseminated myth that Black women are assertive (as juxtaposed to white women) actually harms Black women. The fact is that we do not often have the choices and the leeway to truly be assertive on our own behalf.
I also talked about how many Black women have accepted the notion that we are innately assertive and independent because it makes us comfortable to believe we have more power than we in fact do.
I actually want to extend this argument further to suggest that Black women need to actively learn how to be assertive in a way that is self-focused. Not selfishness, but leadership that centers the needs of the individual Black woman leader and the needs of other Black women. The "feminist" message that Black women do not need to learn how to be assertive and leaders because we are naturally that way serves to keep us in a subservient position where the complete opposite is true.
Black women can be assertive. However, our assertiveness has (mostly) throughout history been for the benefit of Black men. Black women have always had a well-defined place in the anti-racist struggle, even if it has been in a subordinate position to Black male leaders. Black women's activism, organizational skills, and outspokenness has always been accepted if it in keeping with Black hetero-patriarchy.
That is a huge caveat. Black women, in other words, have been used and made to believe that we are leaders if we are leading causes for others. But we have never been accepted when we attempt to lead for ourselves. A very prominent example of this is the presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm. She was despised by white women and Black men because she refused to compromise or divide herself by race or gender.
Black women do not often specifically consider the ways in which we might espouse leadership, assertiveness, and boldness wisely and on our own behalf in everyday life. Mainly because we do not think its possible.
Subconsciously, we know that if we do not capitulate to the controlling image of the Mammy/ Zora Neale Hurston's "mule" that our presence in many spaces where we are barely accepted as it is will no longer be accepted at all.
We know that in many cases we are only able to "sit at the table" because we are sitting there on behalf of others. And we hope that if we stay at the table long enough to do the work of others that one day we will have the opportunity to do work on our own behalf.
But it doesn't work like that. We are fooling ourselves.
We can't apply the trickle down theory to our own lives. It didn't work in the Reagan era and it won't work for us on an individual basis either.
Even as I suggest that Black women consciously uphold and support a Black woman's standpoint in our personal, academic, and professional lives I also realize that this is easier said than done. There are many institutional barriers to this occurring. Barriers that might not ever be eradicated, at least not fully.
But it is also true that in many instances we unconsciously fail to advocate on our own behalf because we do not ever consider that Black women have the right to be leaders for themselves. And it is also true that we are fearful of truly subverting hetero-patriarchal norms because we know that there are high costs.
But I cannot think of a higher cost than always living for others, and never living for oneself.
I have been forced to reckon with this personally as I prepare to finish my college career. I have forced to question the leadership roles I have and wonder if I'm really leading for me and the benefit of my own personal development or if I am leading because I am choosing to do the work of others. When I've been honest with myself, some of what I've discovered has given me pause.
It has been a journey for me to learn how to demand fair compensation for my time and effort without feeling like I shouldn't or I'm undeserving or not properly performing the Strong Black Woman or not being a "Good Black Girl."
It's a continual process. But I am committed. Because I am committed to my own self-actualization and to truly figure out how to own assertiveness in a way that is beneficial to me and other Black women.
Any thoughts on Black women and leadership? Leave a comment!
"Not Your Strong Black Woman Anymore"
"The Good Black Girl Complex"
"The Paradox of Assertiveness for Black Women"