2015 has definitely been the year of the Black woman. In virtually all arenas of life, Black women have been shattering the glass ceiling, leaving a wide trail of the accomplishments and accolades in their wake and showing her rivals what #Blackgirlmagic is truly all about.
In business, Black women are the leading and fastest growing group of entrepreneurs and business owners of color. American Express Open’s State of Women-Owned Business Report estimates that our businesses generate $52.6 billion in revenue, making us economic powerhouses. Black women CEOs, Rosalind Brewer of Sam’s Club and Ursula Burns of Xerox, rank as the top 20 powerful women in business and are leading influencers in capital industry.
We are thriving in academia as the most college educated group by race and gender, surpassing every other group; becoming first generation college graduates like myself, ivy-league theoretical astrophysicists like Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, or leading oceanographers like Dr. Ashanti Johnson.
We dominate prime time television as Olivia, Mary Jane, Cookie and Annalise; multidimensional and complex leading lady characters that are more dynamic than your mother’s Claire, Weezy or Florida. We are crafting our stories as Ava and Dee Ree behind the scenes, and owning an entire night on major network television like Shonda.
Amandla Stenberg, Beyoncé, Ciara, Kerry Washington, Misty Copeland, Queen Latifah, Serena Williams and Willow Smith slayed across the covers of eight major fashion & beauty magazine publications in their September issues. As September is the most highly regarded month for print publications, these #MelaninMonroes undoubtedly showed the world that Black has always been beautiful. Don’t forget that while Miss Serena was serving on the cover of New York Magazine, she was also serving on the court winning her 21st Grand Slam singles trophy, sixth Wimbledon championship, and fourth consecutive major title. *snap, snap, OK!*
Even within this age of advancement and success in 2015, Black women still grapple with our personal agency: the choices we make and respect for those choices from others. There is an assumption that we have to live our lives set by the expectations of others for their comfort. We grow up being told how our hair, dress, speech, behavior, femininity, sexuality, feelings, etc. should or should not be to gain another’s acceptance. When we fail to meet these expectations we are almost instantly criticized and pathologized as a collective and linear thinking body. It’s almost as if the choices we make for self are not seen as products of our individual and capable thought processes, but rather the beginning of a negotiation process of how much they can comprise us to a reach a “win-win” situation.
A young student at Spring Valley High in Columbia, South Carolina and a pool party attendee in McKinney, Texas are examples of what happens when your choices do not fall in line with the expectations of others. Both are young women who were in completely different environments, where they, unfortunately, met the same painful result. Where the student decides to remain defiant against a request to leave a classroom, and the party attendee decides to leave an area where a pool party was being held upon request, both are met with unnecessary, excessive violence at the hands of White male officials who dismissed their choices. Quickly, they became vilified as brats, disrespectful, angry, bitter, attitudinal, loud, ghetto and deserving all because someone else saw fit to challenge and bargain with their agency.
The Minister Louis Farrakhan penned an open message to rapper extraordinaire Jay-Z. The message was not about Jay’s music or his ownership of Tidal or his astute business acumen, but surprisingly about his wife and the way she presents herself in public spaces. In his Facebook message to Jay, he posts his radio interview with the following caption, “As much as I love and admire you, I want to see my sister Beyoncé beautifully covered… You’re responsible.” He goes on in the interview expressing his thoughts on the sexualization of Beyoncé and other Black women artists, stating, “Today we strip women of their clothes. How can a man think straight looking at the beauty of Beyoncé?” He goes on to say that Jay has his wife on “display” and asked whether he wanted “men looking at your woman, being tempted by your woman, to make advances at your woman?”
Nowhere in his address about Beyoncé does Farrakhan actually address Beyoncé. He directly communicates with her husband on the assumption that he is the one making her choices or at least he’s the one allowing her to make the wrong choices for herself. He completely fails to recognize that Beyoncé has complete sovereignty over herself and how she decides to present herself as a woman, daughter, sister, mother, wife, entertainer and fashion icon in public spaces. He essentially has failed at recognizing her humanity along with her agency. He not only felt it was necessary to engage her husband in a conversation about what she does with her own body but also to hold her accountable for the behavior of lusting men while saying she’s not even responsible for herself.
Earlier this year, I was working in a division at an investment bank where I was one of three Black women on the entire floor. I was the only one with natural hair, and I changed up my hairstyles a lot. I’ve worn wigs, weaves, my natural kinks, cornrows, braids, etc. in many different textures and colors to the office, but I’ve always looked like a corporate professional. On this particular day, I sashayed into the office with my newly installed 24-inch Peruvian weave, completely feeling all of myself; as I typically do after getting my hair done. No one could tell me anything! But then, somebody did.
Director (White male): Wow, I like this new hairdo you have going on there.
Me: Thanks! I wanted to try something different. *Thinking, please do not ask me how I got my hair like this*
Director: It looks good on you… you look a lot more tame.
Me: *Thinking, did he just say ‘tame’?… Think…. What to do now?* Well, I wanted drastic change, so it was either this or the Homer Simpson hairdo you’ve been wearing for the past seven years. This style was the safer choice, but that look still looks good on you, though!
This was the first and last exchange we had ever had about my hair. However, it had a long lasting impact on me. In that moment, I was incredibly uncomfortable and second guessing who I was and what to do next. It wasn’t easy, but I had to find a way to be clear with him that I was not concerned about his opinion of my natural hair (untamed) or his expectations around my new hairstyle (tamed). I had to be confident in the choices that I made as to how I wear my hair in a corporate environment and not be burdened with not being accepted by him because of his discomfort. I learned that I had to be comfortable with the fact that there will be people who will not agree with my choices, and that I would have to respect that. But, I should demand the same respect in return from others for those choices.
To be like the Serenas, Queen Latifahs, Kerrys, Avas, and Violas of the world, we must be bold and willing to stand firm in who are as Black women. We must unapologetically love ourselves, be confident in how we define ourselves, and do it on our own terms. Some of the ways we can do this is by:
1) Creating safe spaces where we can freely express ourselves and support one another
2) Fostering relationships with like-minded women and build our own networks.
3) Always seeking or asking for help when we know we need it.
Our daily reality is that we walk a fine line in embracing who we are without trying to impose on others, but we can’t be afraid to live on or beyond the fringe. In 2015, to be ourselves as Black women, embrace our flaws, love them and to then say our flaws are perfect is revolutionary. Therefore, being authentic and owning our personal agency, the choices we make and respect for those choices from others, are considered to be acts of radicalism.
Be radical. Be you for the sake of you and no one else. This path will lead you much further to your own greatness.