Performing The Role of The Black Woman

By: Michelle Kitange

Simply being both black and a woman demands a social performance in which we are forced to wear stereotypes as if they were costumes tailored for us. This is rooted within the belief that black women are not individual human beings, and although the erasure of this problematic belief is slowly arising, it is far easier to pigeon-hole the black woman, it erodes deep socio-economic problems faced and instead delivers our existence as merely a performance, as kitsch entertainment.

This is exercised within all social areas, it openly exerts itself within what one would perceive to be the personal spheres of our lives, such as relationships, both platonic and romantic. In the friendships we form, there’s an expectation, although not clear at first, as soon as the comfort settles into the foundations of the friendship, expectations appear in the form of questions such as “so, is your hair weaved” and ‘jokes’ such as “wow you’re a coconut”.

This inevitably comes with being a black woman, the moment you’re born your identity is formed, it’s almost like taking on a job title that you didn’t apply for. The worst and also the simplest problem with this, is the way in which to those around you who naively enforce these stereotypes perceive them as jokes or as light hearted humour and so to try and explain yourself appears bitter… reinforcing other stereotypes, such as the ‘angry black woman’. So, you may be asking, what is the resolution to this problem? Luckily, the resolution is just as simple – be yourself. Unapologetically, unashamedly, simply be. Be black. Be a woman. No shame.

The exhaustion that comes with surrounding yourself with people that are unable to respect your individuality isn’t worth whatever ‘mad parties’ that girl invites you too, or the ‘incredible connections’ that guy claims to have. Your friendship circle and those that surround you in your free-time? That’s supposed to be your care-free zone, that is supposed to be your element of freedom. If it’s anything less than that then respect yourself enough to walk away.

If anyone makes you less than happy, remove them from your space because in a society that goes out of its way to belittle black women, those around you are supposed to uplift you. When surrounded in a negative space, it becomes too easy to let yourself go, and to forget who you are and what you will and won’t stand for. It becomes too easy to internalise these issues or to normalise those jokes because the wider implications are never as clear as the jokes, or the stereotypes that are presented to, and about black women.

The issue with attempting to educate individuals is that these jokes are such a common feature in society, from the fat black woman or the feisty black sister on TV. The continuous reinforcement of these images presents them as the image of the black woman. Stereotypes aren’t held against white individuals, in the same way that they are towards black women, for example a white woman can easily make her way through life under the ‘interesting’ name of August or Clementine, however the minute an employer reads ‘Lakeesha’ on an application form?

Either consciously or unconsciously they place the metaphorical label of ‘Ghetto’ next to that applicant. Even worse, these labels are enforced on young girls who are told growing up that they can be anything that they want to be, anything that they aspire to be, that they have the right be their own person only to have that stripped away from them. When I was younger, my parents told me that I could be anything, anyone, they encouraged me to challenge their views, they encouraged me to think for myself and argue with anyone who’s views didn’t sit well with me. Yet, I don’t remember when it happened or why, but all of a sudden those stereotypes and those performances that society demands of black women?

Those didn’t sit too well with me. I acted against these, not realising that I had somehow managed to internalise anti-blackness, actual anti-blackness and not just what society attempts to portray blackness as. I tried to be the complete opposite of that angst-filled black woman… I tried to perform the role of what is known as the ‘common white girl’ and then I was told that I ‘acted white’ and had the term ‘coconut’ directed toward me, one too many times.

So what did I do? The opposite… I attempted (and failed) to play the role of the so-called black woman and I was told I was ‘aggressive’ and ‘short-tempered’, and you know what? I was. I wasn’t the image of the ‘black woman’, I was merely aggressive, and I was short-tempered… but I was also young, and confused about who I was and who I was supposed to be. I was convinced that I didn’t belong because I couldn’t and didn’t wish to perform these roles. It took me years to understand that I didn’t have to be anyone or anything other than myself.

That is why these jokes or these humorous stereotypes, aren’t funny in the slightest, especially not when they’re telling a little girl that she isn’t allowed to be herself because our society tells her so. I understand that there are plenty of little girls out there just like I was at the age of 13 and there are also plenty of grown women, just like me who are equally as confused and as lost as those little girls.

The performance becomes exhausting and it makes you forget who you are, who you’ve always been. It makes you… me… us… as black women forget that the colour of our skin or our community, that our blackness does not define us, that we are ourselves both despite it and because of it. It becomes too easy to allow something to define you, especially when the fight is exhaustive and it is against an entire society. It’s too simple to play up the performance or play against it when it is forced upon you so heavily, and you’re almost convinced that it is who you are and that it does define you.

If there is one message that I could send out to every black woman out there, it is that you are allowed to love your blackness and embrace it without allowing it to define you, and it is possible to side step and reject the image or the performance that society attempts to force upon you without rejecting yourself.

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