BLACK + WOMAN: The Complications Of Courtesy, Femininity, & Taking Up Space
Sometimes, their faces are nonchalant because they truly couldn't care less. Sometimes they're tinged red, signaling the irrational anger bubbling underneath the skin. Sometimes, the redness is from embarrassment - but it's rare that I hear an apology escape their lips. All of these faces are the ones I see by the people who commit microaggressions against me every day, and I remember each one of them. I saw a couple of those faces today when the people around me reminded me that being a 6ft tall Black woman places me on the lowest rung of their femininity scales.
As the train lurched to my stop this morning, those of us prepping to exit shuffled closer to the double doors, waiting for them to slide open. The White man beside me smiled at the White women around us, then graciously allowed them to exit ahead of him. As I started to walk through the doors as well, he made a great effort to push ahead of me, knocking me off balance in the process. That was one of the red faces, seemingly angry that I assumed his kindness would be extended my way.
Walking through the train station to the doors that led to my office building, I saw another White man holding the door open chivalrously for the White and Asian women walking through. As he saw me coming, he made eye contact, slid through the door, and let it slam in my face. His was one of the nonchalant faces, completely unconcerned with the fact that he purposely chose not to help a woman who had her hands full. The older White woman beside me shook her head and opened the door for me, then chided the man for choosing to rush than to be polite. I thanked her for her help, but didn't bother to tell her the issue wasn't his time constraint - it was that he didn't deem me, a Black woman who towered over him in her heels - worthy of the courtesy he offered to the other women in his midst.
The embarrassed red faces were the ones at the grocery store recently - once, a cashier, once the White woman ahead of me whose child was being rambunctious in the line - who took quick glances at me then referred to me as "Sir" and "him." Height + dark skin = 'man' more often than not, which is why I've been described with masculine terms until the person realizes that I'm in fact a woman.
The creation of the construct of Blackness through slavery matched with colonialism, colourism, and pandering to the perceived fragility of White women (whether they're actually fragile or not) have greatly impacted the perception of Black women and Black femininity. Slavery saw Black men and women working side-by-side in cotton and sugar cane fields, expected to do the same labour. Because slavery denied us our humanity on a base level, you definitely couldn't expect concepts like masculinity and femininity to be recognized, except for the biological purposes of childbearing. Black women serving as wet nurses and domestics in White homes throughout history were occupations still rooted in a denial of humanity, plus an acceptance of Black womanhood and femininity solely for the benefits it provided White families - particularly White women. Colourism has affected these perceptions as well, where lighter-skinned Black women have often been regarded with more value than darker-skinned women, both inter- and intra-racially. We see how this plays out in media today - how often do we see romantic couples represented with a dark-skinned Black man and a light-skinned Black woman? How often do we see darker-skinned Black men play "comedic" and cartoonish tropes of Black women? Darkness has been matched with masculinity, and lightness with femininity - so for me, it's no surprise that my brown tone becomes equated with being "him" or presumes me unworthy of chivalrous courtesy in predominantly White spaces.
The flip side is when I am the benefactor of courtesy. When I am the one holding the door or making space for others, that action is expected. Where the corporate-suited White men in my office building bound onto the elevator and stand, legs spread, in the middle of the space, they look at me with the silent expectation that I will make myself smaller to accommodate them. I notice that sometimes my height is seen as a challenge to their masculinity. Where I've always joked that shorter men are almost insufferable in their attempts to make up for lack of height in my presence, I've come to realize that White men who are my height equals can be worse. The process is usually the following:
- White man ends up standing beside me in a public space.
- He realizes we're eye-to-eye.
- He looks down to see if I'm wearing heels or flats.
- Either way (but especially when I'm in flats), he'll place his hands on his hips or shift until his legs are hip-width apart, in a challenge to take up even more space.
- I laugh internally. And sometimes out loud.
There's really no final thought to wrap this up with a nice bow. I have no words of advice, no thoughts on educating those who let this deep-rooted consciousness colour their interactions with me on a daily basis. Nothing else to add except to bring these microaggressions to light in hopes that it may make someone more aware, or at least make me feel like I'm not crazy. Even while writing this piece I've thought "Am I being too sensitive? Were these situations as bad as they seem? Am I just blowing things out of proportion?" But that's exactly what microaggressions do - they make us question and second guess ourselves, siphoning time and energy from the victim, keeping us silent when we really need to promptly check a motherfucker.
So, as I head back out into the world for lunch, let me fluff my hair, apply some more lipstick, stand tall, and take up space. It won't stop the microaggressions from attempting to chip away at my armour, but it'll help me honour my brand of womanhood, femininity, Blackness, and worth. I'll always honour it, regardless of who thinks otherwise.