Children are not given as much credit as they deserve for how much about the world they are able to perceive. In elementary school I may not have understood the complexities of race-theory and misogyny, but my experiences taught me that I was different in ways I couldn’t fully control. I knew that boys were funnier than girls, and they were mean to you if they had a crush on you. I knew that my mom was the only Black teacher I had ever met, and that African accents were funny, but European accents were fancy. I knew that if there was a Black person in a movie I watched, they were the sidekick — and my favourite character no matter what. I knew these things because they were what I observed, and they were usually proven to be true.
I was one of 3 Black students in my entire elementary school, and all my teachers were White. I loved school; I saw it as a magical place with all my favourite books and best friends. In the fourth grade, I was overjoyed to discover that myself and two of my best friends were in the same class. We were inseparable, and our trio was especially talkative during class. Our teacher that year was particularly averse to our chattiness, and every week, like clockwork, she would leave a note for my mother, “Shetin is too talkative during class time, it is disruptive to her peers”. I remember wondering why she would only ever leave notes for my mom, and never the parents of my two friends. It would be remiss of me not to mention that my two best friends were White.
These notes continued, weekly, for months, until eventually my mother sat me down and gave me a stern talk that I’ll never forget. She told me, “The first thing people see about you in this country is your skin. You stick out already because you’re Black, so if you stick out for anything else, let it be good. They expect you to be bad, so be good.”
This conversation was the beginning of a lifelong journey of trying to navigate White spaces. I was implicitly learning that, unlike my White peers, I represented everyone who looked like me in everything I did. The weight of this wouldn’t hit me fully until later in life, but beginning in my childhood, I became hyper aware of how others perceived me, how others perceived my race.
As I got older, my chattiness reduced but my love of learning remained. I’ve always been a nerd at heart, and going through adolescence during the age of social media and unrestricted internet access meant that I became privy to information I likely would have otherwise had to wait until University to learn. Thanks to Tumblr and YouTube, I was reading and watching content about feminism and racism by age 12. By my early teens, social justice became a core part of my identity, and I began putting the pieces of my upbringing together. Boys weren’t funnier than girls, they were just given more leeway to deviate from acceptable social behaviour than girls were, because there was an unspoken understanding that “boys will be boys”. European accents weren’t objectively fancier than African accents, they were simply associated with refinement because Africa has been colonized and undermined for centuries. I started realizing that contrary to what I’d been taught from movies, I didn’t have to stay in the background if I didn’t want to. Romance and adventure weren’t only reserved for my White peers, and I was allowed to be the main character of my own story.
Even though I understood these things, I was still confused regarding why I continued to experience the things that I did. Why were my Black friends called “ratchet” when they got pink braids, but my White friends who dyed their hair pink got compliments? If I was entitled to my own grand love stories, why was I always the only one in my predominantly White friend groups who never had a date to school dances? How come any time I expressed a deviant opinion on something in class, I was called dramatic and aggressive, while my White counterparts were invited to join the debate team? And why on earth did everyone keep trying to convince me that boys who made me feel bad about myself did it because they liked me? It took me a while to realize that I was existing at the intersection of Blackness and Womanhood — constantly made to feel inferior, while never being encouraged to ask why.
As the years went on, and my research on social justice issues continued, I would come to find out that many of the adverse experiences I had were small parts of the major, systemic problems that proliferated globally.
Most models in magazines, main love interests in movies, and beauty pageant queens never looked like me, and it was for the same reason that I also never got asked out to school dances. The underlying reason was that Black women — especially those of darker complexions — have been denied the same access to femininity that White women have. It’s a known fact that Black people have been portrayed and treated as aggressive, animal-like beings for a long time. This line of thinking was one that justified the Atlantic Slave Trade, and even though the Trade is over, many of those beliefs persist. My Femininity was policed because Blackness is still associated with aggression and primitiveness; two traits that are generally reserved for men.
I was made to feel guilty for expressing my opinions on issues in class because for one thing, I was a woman, a being that our society continuously expects to be accommodating, warm, quiet, and conforming. For another thing, I was Black, a demographic that is viewed as inherently deviant, unhinged, angry, and rude.
Being told that boys were mean to me because they liked me simply followed the long history of women being disproportionately subjugated to abuse and violence at the hands of men who considered them inferior. I came to learn that Black women are statistically more likely to be at the receiving end of such abuse, and I saw these statistics continuously illustrated in my own life, and the lives of the Black women around me.
When I experienced my first case of wage discrimination in University (my non-Black, lighter-skinned male friend was hired at my workplace at a higher wage than I was receiving after 3 years and a raise), I realized that these issues would follow me for life. I could learn, and unlearn, and read, and watch as much as I wanted to about oppression and inequality, but it would be impossible to educate myself out of racism and misogyny. Inequality may be objectively and morally wrong, but the truth was that it was still accepted in my larger communities. I knew that in order to keep my sanity and dignity intact, I would need to find a solid group of Black women friends with whom I could vent to, identify with, and build a sisterhood around. The power of Black sisterhood should never, ever be taken for granted.
Black Womanhood is wonder. It’s curiosity, loyalty, and magnificence. I caution myself on calling Black Womanhood “strong”, because I recognize that far too often in this society Black women have been expected to be “strong” — and this so-called “strength” is almost always quantified by the amount of hatred, racism, misogyny, and micro-aggressive behaviour that Black women are able to shoulder. Yes, we can be strong, and that is a beautiful thing. But we are just as capable of being delicate, and soft, and feminine, and vulnerable. In truth, Black Womanhood is whatever a Black Woman identifies with. We deserve access to define our Womanhood in ways that reflect who we truly are, and not what the world wants us to be. Black Womanhood is loud, it’s quiet, it’s assertive, it’s passive, it’s everything, and endless, and magical, and free.
During this year’s Women’s History Month, I encourage you to broaden your views of Womanhood. I encourage women to define Womanhood on their own terms, unapologetically. And for those women at the intersection of so many beautiful and sometimes misunderstood identities, I encourage you to be bold and confident, and to never let anyone deny you of your truth.
Happy International Women’s Day!