The words of tennis great Billie Jean King ring true here: “When a woman is emotional, she’s 'hysterical' and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s 'outspoken & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same." After reading racist comments in which some linked Serena’s anger to her blackness, I thought: “And how many of us, as black women, have to hide our anger and outrage about workplace discrimination we’ve experienced because we do not want to be labeled as angry and black? How many of us, as black women, have to strategically reveal pieces of ourselves when we experience sexism and racism?” Reflect on those words - pieces of ourselves. Now, reflect on those words personally - pieces of me - while I tell you a story.
When I was 18 years old, I was a freshman at the College of William and Mary. As is the case with most first semester college students, my grades were not the best. In fact, during orientation, professors and college administrators often remind first year students that everyone will need time to adjust to college life socially and academically. Failure will happen. I had a meeting with my college advisor after the first semester. He did not know me at all. He only had a file of information about me, which included my high school grades (I graduated Valedictorian) with test scores, and a picture. He also had a copy of my first semester college grades which were terrible.
The advisor met with me and said without compassion or grace, “You need to get acclimated to William and Mary’s standards or you won’t graduate. You graduated Valedictorian? Well, that was at your high school.” Now, I was not sure if he had said these words to other students. I do know that I left the meeting - a meeting with someone I thought was going to help me and give me other academic tools to use - feeling discouraged, defeated, and filled with shame. I learned that, as a black woman, I am not necessarily permitted to fail, a central human experience. I also learned that, for this reason, I could only reveal certain pieces of me - my failures, my anger, my disappointment, my sadness - in safe, nurturing spaces.
But, while this strategy is wise, it does not allow for others to see me - a black woman - as a human being. It allows others to paint a caricatured picture of me seeing only parts of me, and not my whole self in all of my humanness and complexity. When we only see pieces of one another, it flattens us all. It makes us into human beings in the eyes of others, rather than human beings created in the image of God. When we only see pieces of one another, we fail to see the work each person has done and is doing on themselves - everyday - to become complete, whole, and healthy. When we only see pieces of black women - the parts that make us feel comfortable, pleasant, and safe - we dehumanize and racialize an entire segment of humanity God has created and blessed.
The way I resist others seeing only pieces of me everyday is to show up and be present. I look others in the eyes when I am speaking with them. When I fail, I take ownership of my mistake. I accept that there are limits to my capabilities and ask for help. I boldly use the gifts, skills, and capabilities the Divine has given me to work, live, and play. I boldly share my experiences with others claiming the identity God has given me. To some, this form of resistance may sound pedantic and silly. However, to those for whom showing up and being present is painful, frightening, and endangers our lives, this form of resistance is radical, courageous, and hope-filled. Sometimes, I think I have a choice to show up and present. And I do. However, as a mother and life teacher to four future black women, I do not have a choice. I must show up, stand the way God made me with God’s strength, and be present - be present in all I feel, experience, think, and do each day. Because they are watching.