What came to mind when you read that title? Suspend whatever your natural inclination is for the remainder of this post. I promise you can pick it up when I am done.
I am a black woman. But you know that, even if you don’t know me. The color of my skin goes before me. When I walk into any space, you can clearly see. But where does that observation go? How does my presence make you feel? If I took a few more steps, would your heart beat faster or maintain its steady rhythm? If I don’t smile, do you think it is because I am always angry? Or do you think I am an otherwise friendly person who just happens to not be smiling in that moment? If I smiled, would that make me come across as more human, more inviting? Do you think it’s my job to make you feel at ease? Do you assume a role as gatekeeper of whatever public space we are in, your eyes focused on my every move? Do you think I will steal something or cause a scene? Or do you just mind your own business since you’re busy existing just like I am? Do you see me as a fellow comrade? Would you give a look or nod of solidarity if we were the “onlys” in this space? Or would you just dismiss me?
I am a black woman. When you hear my voice, does it surprise you? Does it not match up with what you think a black person should sound like? Would you think I am trying to be better than you, trying to sound like “them”? Do you simply think I speak well or I speak well for someone that looks like I do?
I am a black woman. I don’t wear my hair natural. Do you see that as a betrayal, a denial of myself? Do you think that means I hate my natural hair? Do braids make you think I must be African? Did you think I was African anyway? Does relaxed hair make you think I want to fit in with “them”? Does it make you view me as being “professional”? Or do you just see it as me doing what I want with my own hair? When you think of the word “beautiful”, does someone with my skin color come to mind as a possibility? Does it not? Do you think my shade should be embraced on the shelves and magazines? Or do you think I need to be a few shades lighter to be attractive? Are my features fine for you on someone else but not on me?
I am a black woman. Do you think that makes me cool? Do you “love [my] culture”? I do not like watermelons, hardly eat fried chicken, and listen to house music far more than I listen to hip hop. Is that not what you were expecting? Are you surprised that I have a passport with some stamps in it? That I live in Asia and speak an Asian language? That I like spelling bees and almond milk? Do you think I’ve achieved anything? That I am capable? That I have awards and honors? If I were not dressed for the office, would you question my character? What do you think my job is? Do you think I worked hard for it or was just the diversity hire?
I am a black woman. Do you think of me as tough? Do you think of me as soft and feminine? Do you think I dominate a conversation? Like to argue? That I’ll swirl my head and point my finger in your face? Do you think maybe I prefer to avoid conflict? That I aim for diplomacy? Do you think I can handle more work than others? That pain doesn’t strike me as hard? That I don’t show or have emotions? That I am “too quiet”? What if I said, word-for-word what a colleague who isn’t a black woman said? Would it somehow sound different? When you stare at me the way you do, do you think it’s harmless or like daggers piercing through my skin? When you feel the need to comment on a small thing I do, do you think it adds anything or attempts to take something from me?
I am a black woman. Does that provoke you? Does it sound unnecessary to say? Does it empower or move you? Does it not move you at all? Do you want to roll your eyes and think, “Of course she’s gonna talk about race”. Do you think race is something I want to think about or I am forced to think about? Do you think I have people around me who look different from me? Or do you think I blame them for what other people who look like them did, insisting I only be around similar-looking people?
I am a black woman. What about the tone of this post? Do you think it is an angry one? Do you feel attacked? Concerned? Emboldened? Pensive? What if I told you I was reclining as I wrote this, taking in the daylight and feeling calm? Was that explanation necessary for you? Was it not?
Words are not “just” words. Actions can intentionally or unintentionally be slights. Don’t reduce my essence into a flat “black woman character”. Find out my character for yourself and see all that I am all these things and also a black woman. Maybe you already did this and are part of the supportive presence in my life. Maybe you will start to do this.
As promised, you can pick up your natural inclination now. Or you can leave it.