I’m every woman.
It’s all in me.
– Chaka Khan
– Tami Winfrey Harris
So, I finally read The New York Times article that’s causing the the black femisphere to pulls its collective hair out–the Alice Randall opus about how black women want to be fat. Now, I don’t doubt Randall’s experience or that of her friends. But one of my biggest beefs with the article, along with Randall associating body traits like big hips and thighs with fatness and unhealthiness, is that the writer extrapolated these personal experiences to cover a host of black women. Randall is not every woman. Neither am I. Neither are you.
Sometimes even black folks need to be reminded: We are not a monolith.
The impulse is strong, I know. The majority culture doesn’t make it easy. One function of our race-biased society is that individual people of color are often seen as representative of their cultures as a whole. Why do Chinese women do X? Do Latinas eat Y? Tell me more about how black women don’t care about their health.
And like E. F. Hutton (Look it up, youngsters.), when we talk as supposed experts on all blackness, people listen. If one more non-black person on the Internet claims to “know all about” black women and our hair because she watched a Chris Rock movie, I will do something rash, I swear. Would anyone believe that a white, male comedian–say, Adam Sandler–should be listened to as a prophet on white women and beauty? Likely not. But Rock is a black person talking about mysterious, black things, so…
But, you know, the real damage created by simplistic ideas of how black people are isn’t to our reputation within the majority culture. The damage that pains me most occurs within individual black men, women, and worse, children. Prescriptive notions of blackness are exclusionary and encourage black people to narrow who they truly are to fit into the tribe. A wonderful web series called “Black Folk Don’t” takes aim at both external and internal stereotyping:
Most African Americans share some cultural touchstones, have some shared experiences and histories. Some common beliefs about blackness are based on assumed shared experiences. But, today, there are more ways to be black than ever. Each of us is defined not just by skin color, but also things like gender, geography, class, age, education, sexuality–just like everyone else. Making bold statements about how black people are, based primarily on what you, your friends and family do is awfully dangerous. There’s a fair chance that the people you hang with are like you, with similar beliefs and backgrounds. Birds of a feather and all. But not every black person is.
Alice Randall writes about pining for thick thighs as a young, black girl. Well, it took more than three decades for me to come to terms with my naturally big hips and thick thighs that remain juicy even when I’m at my most fit. And I’m a black woman, too.
Once, a long time ago, a black co-worker said she could tell I “wasn’t raised around black people.” Why? Because I greeted the office at the start of the day with “Good morning.” Black people, in her view, don’t do that.
True story. If I’m lyin’; I’m dyin’.
Our society is going to have to move a long way on race matters before singular black folk stop being viewed as ambassadors for an entire race. But we can help advance the process by rejecting the job of official black spokesperson when it is offered and not grabbing for the title when it is not.
I suspect Randall’s article would have gone down easier if she stuck to discussing her personal struggles in relation to statistics about black women’s health. Indeed, Randall later said, “it is one woman’s opinion. I am not speaking for all black women but I am speaking for a group of middle-aged women, out of the experience of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama where I have deep roots.”
Fair enough. But the NYT article with calls for a “revolution” and the need for black women as a whole to “do better” felt like generalization. And, when it comes to black women, the media is ever eager to abet generalization. As Randall’s article roared around the Internet, the headlines weren’t “Group of middle-aged black women in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama want to be fat,” but “Black women want to be fat.”
In truth, black women can’t be summed so easily on this or any other issue. (Nor can black people.) We’re simply too diverse a group. And so, when you feel the urge to hold forth on what black people do or don’t do…Just don’t.
Speak for yourself.