“Your hair is so neat . . . how’d you get it to do that?” Yes, unfortunately, that question was posed to me by a female colleague upon returning to the office with a freshly braided ‘do that was created over the weekend. I walked in feeling fly; sitting on top of the world, and poof! This one question caused my I-know-I’m-cute balloon to deflate—quick and loud. The inquirer, of course, was not a person of color. She is whom I like to call “Becky.” Surprise, surprise. I’m not even sure why I still feel a little twinge of anger anymore when these things happen; at this point, it’s an old hat. However, it still doesn’t stop me from dreading the upcoming Monday following my daylong appointments at “the shop”—that ubiquitous place that turns us from what we see in our heads into what we see in the mirror. Just thinking about the questions and comments to be hurled my way would cause me to cringe in the salon chair.
“How long did it take?” “Does it hurt?” “Now, is that your hair?” I’ve heard it all. And the Beckys love asking in a rapid-fire manner. Each pink face lines up to corner me until their burning desire to gain insight into my world is satisfied. Early morning break room, executioner style. No matter how polite and articulate I try to seem, disdain is clearly written all over my face. (Damnit! So much for debunking the angry black woman myth.)
But, you know what’s even more interesting—it’s not just hair they want to know about, oh no! It’s virtually everything deemed as black culture. From my “unique” gold bamboo earrings, to the music library on my iTunes player (which I now refrain from sharing)—they’re just so darn curious. Natural curiosity is one thing, but it’s the mystifying ignorance that permeates each question and makes me wonder, “Did you know any black people growing up?” So with that being said, it is with little regret that I officially resign from my post as the unofficial black woman’s tour guide. It’s a job I neither want nor feel is necessary in order to keep them “in the know.” It was my cross to bear, but I’ve happily laid it to rest.
Sometimes, when there’s a lull around 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, I sit at my desk and daydream about an imaginary land of inappropriate actions. Here, I am crass, I am tactless, and I am definitely not a team player. I make funny faces when they mention “laying out” by the pool on Saturdays. I announce that Jennifer Anniston is not exceptionally gorgeous when overhearing a conversation about last night’s rerun of Friends. I even throw away their carrot sticks and hummus when I see it in the fridge, just because I don’t understand how that is considered a filling lunch for a person over the age of ten. Since this is my dream world, and in real life they indeed find it necessary to candidly search my “soul,” I then imagine myself calling all the Beckys into a meeting in the large conference room, standing at the podium, turning the up the mic and asking very matter-of-factly, “So, Beckys, what do you think of black girls?”
OK, so it’s a little far-fetched, but I’m sure at some point, you’ve wished you could do the same. I am, in all honesty, deeply curious as to what is being talked about when women of color aren’t around. I’m not looking for politically correct answers—I want real, hard, in-the-comfort-of-your-own-home truths. I want to know what comes to mind when they see us, lone soldiers, sitting across from them in boardrooms dressed like we’ve stepped off the cover of WWD. Or when we pushback at the office, questioning the effectiveness and efficiency of the workload we’re asked to bear. Or when we mention picking up reading material that isn’t from a collection written by best-selling “urban” fiction writers. I’m entitled to a few burning desires of my own, you know. But as much as I hope for the best, and unlike my temporary lapses into a land of make believe, I am very much a realist and already know what they’re thinking. (Blame it on my upbringing in a household with two Southern born and bred, Civil Rights-era parents.)
1.) “Where did she buy that bag . . . It’s probably a fake.”
Or “I bet she spent all her money on that outfit.”
2.) “I knew she was lazy; they all are. And the attitude is sooo uncalled for.”
3.) “I wonder where she heard about that book. Surely not on BET . . . guffaw, chuckle, hardy har har.”
Becky = 1. Black girl = 0.
And don’t get me wrong. I do sincerely hope in every inch of my being this is not the case. I really wish for those phantom, progressive Rebeccas—that truly see us the same as them—to end up in the break room with me. I hope the next time I’m with a group of colleagues and we’re discussing music, someone doesn’t find a way to throw Beyonce—the ultimate poster child for “pretty black girls”—into the conversation. Or if I happen to hang out at a club of multicultural patronage, groups of drunken, tiny-waisted Beckys wont ask me to show them how to “drop it like it’s hot.”
But we can’t lay all the blame at their doorsteps, can we?
I’m guilty of a little interoffice backsliding myself. For instance, when I talk to a black colleague, I let the colloquialisms surface a bit more throughout the conversation. I linger a tad longer than usual on the ummm-hmmm’s. My concurrence goes from “I see what you’re saying” to “I know that’s right!”—almost as if we’ll slap hands to seal the understanding. I once heard someone say “sass can bite you on the ass,” and that is a truism, my friend. As soon as they overhear or catch wind to a little black girl banter, the floodgates open and the “hey, girlfriends!” come pouring through—immediate discomfort sets in and my smile goes south in less than sixty seconds.
So, the question is this: are we guilty of leading them to believe it’s cool to think of us as head-shaking, finger-wagging, don’t-nobody-bring-me-no-bad-news (a la Mabel King in The Wiz) attitude-laden minorities of the fairer sex? Maybe. Maybe not.
In the book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, authors Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden state, “While most people of color, and African Americans in particular, are perceived through a distorted lens, Black women are routinely defined by a specific set of grotesque caricatures that are reductive, inaccurate, and unfair.” In other words, no matter how many marches we’ve shuffled through, barriers we’ve broken or glass ceilings we’ve shattered, in many instances we’re still seen as the stereotypes produced by the Jim Crow south: the Jezebel (sexually promiscuous), the Mammy (domestic workers), and the Sapphire (sassy, headstrong, and opinionated)—with a new millennium twist. One dimensional characters occasionally thrown into professional settings to satisfy some sort of quota; never there solely on merit or ability.
Girls, it’s time to take back our image.
For years the media has perpetuated these stereotypes through advertising, movies, and music. When it’s cleaning products advertisers are pushing, who do they turn to? A jolly, round-face woman with hands on her hip. To us she’s nothing unusual: beautiful, nurturing, no-nonsense . . . at times, resembling many of our own mothers. To them she’s just another ideal: a plump black woman scrubbing floors and washing dishes. Or how about when there’s a new rap video in constant rotation, touting fast automobiles, gaudy jewelry, demeaning lyrics, and indulgent lifestyles—who’s typically the one gyrating on the hood of the car? The hypersexual, scantily clad sistah. At face value she looks like our homegirl, cousin or someone from the neighborhood. But when displayed in a manner such as this, she’s just another promiscuous black chick. And when a television or movie script calls for the ONE brown female cast member, who do Hollywood execs want to see? The loud, boisterous, in-your-face sidekick; usually the comic relief, seldom the heroine.
Ladies, it’s time to take back our image.
Now, there are the exceptions. Not every video, movie, and commercial displays these disrespectful ideologies, but that isn’t the point. Just because one or two media initiatives are tastefully produced and marketed shouldn’t warrant us turning a blind eye on the others.
Sisters, it’s time to take back our image.
A couple years ago, an emerging young filmmaker named Kiri Davis, created the seven-minute, award-winning documentary, A Girl Like Me, which explored beauty standards in America. Davis interviewed other high school-aged girls, such as herself, to discuss why decidedly “Black” features are deemed less attractive than European features. During the film she revisits an experiment conducted in the 1940s by African American psychologist Kenneth Clark, where small children were asked to differentiate between black and white dolls by choosing which were “good,” “bad,” “pretty,” and “ugly.” Out of the twenty-one children who participated, fifteen associated the “bad “and “ugly” characteristics with the black dolls. Unfortunately, her research discovered not much has changed in the past sixty years. When I watched these young black kids (boys and girls) select the white doll—test after test—as the more desirable of the two, it was infuriating . . . and quite sad. Media attacks us when we’re young, shifts and shapes our mindset, which ultimately affects the decision making of everything we do.
Women, it’s time to define who we are.
I guess with all my anger, my ranting, my sadness, it’s time to look inwardly instead of pointing fingers. We can answer all the black girl questions thrown at us, speak articulately when “they’re” around, and do everything we can to show them that we’re not who and what they think we are. And it’s improbable that we’ll ever actually stop wondering what it is they think of us. But the real question to ponder, I believe, is what do we think of ourselves?