On Tuesday morning, I saw a striking image of Janelle Monáe (wiki) on For Harriet‘s Facebook page, promoting a new song of hers called ‘Yoga’. I wasn’t a huge fan of the song, but I found that image of her invaded my thoughts for a good chunk of the day.
In this image, Janelle stood against a kumquat-coloured wall, with her hair tied up, and her legs crossed. She wore a short black sport top with TOMBOY against it in bold, white lettering. She had hoop earrings on as well as a look that seemed to dare anyone to challenge her and be foolhardy enough to think they could win.
Tomboy. That word to me feels as though it gets most of its traction in whispers and private messages among trusted friends, and yet it was arguably the loudest element of the image. It took the breath out of me.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that I find Black women incredibly powerful, intelligent, creative and autonomous. There are some out there in the world that I will carry love for my entire life. These are a few observations that I have made throughout my time on this planet. Even in times where I may not be able to see someone who resembles my colour out on the street, I can turn to the internet to see what’s on their minds.
It is difficult for me to recall a time when the internet wasn’t full of ire. There is much I pay attention to, especially when it comes to Black women, what their endeavours are, and how they are perceived by others.
It doesn’t look good: there is little to no wiggle room outside of expectations (sometimes developed by stereotypes), and commonly I see many transphobic, racist comments made about them should they strive to do a little living for themselves. They’re not allowed space for anger, anguish or much in the way of assembly without being considered suspicious. The assumption I see a great deal of is that women in general are supposed to be meek, feminine, and appealing to men — even via online comments in allegedly progressive communities!
I enjoyed growing up in the 90s, for the most part. I was exposed to a fair deal of music with Black women at the front, addressing issues of responsibility, sexual independence, and a general sense of women going out and doing their own thing. The songs were catchy, and carried important messages for me as a young lady. I was expressing myself very freely then as a tomboy, which I did not realise until later was rather a lucky thing.
Missy Elliott by far was the most influential rapper of my teens. A talented writer and producer of many popular hip-hop / R&B tracks, Missy always appeared to have a heart of gold, and so much love for her fans, and artists that she was working with. Her videos have been amusing, bright and colourful, and quite often memorable.
Girls, girls / get that cash / if it’s 9 to 5 / or shakin’ your ass / ain’t no shame, ladies / do your thang / just make sure / you’re ahead of the game would often be sung with gusto whenever ‘Work It’ entered the song rotation in my library. Again, messages of women doing for themselves — at least, that’s how I saw it, in any case.
However, the late 90s is when it started: I began to notice the buzzing of judgments. Wouldn’t Missy be nice if she lost some weight? Wore a little something girly? I wondered why these images mattered more to the people talking about them than how incredible it was to observe a lady making it to the top and controlling her image.
Don’t believe the judgments stop at music. This form of behaviour permeates virtually every form of media there is, as well as other fields. Serena Williams, a professional tennis player with several notable victories under her belt, is an example of a Black woman exceeding unexpectedly, and a receiver of various crap comments because her figure isn’t appealing to some straight men looking for eye candy in the tennis world. World class athletes are not exempt from this sort of harm, nor are those of different professions who brave the world as their authentic selves.
In adulthood, I have noticed that there’s loads of work to be done in checking one’s assumptions about what kind of person a Black woman might be, just based on her appearance. These are things battled with on a regular basis. This is absolutely a problem for feminine Black men as well as those who are of colour and fall outside of the binary; it’s almost as though the shaming is intended to magically change a person to suit another’s preferences somehow.
That is not how it works. Some harder conversations need to be taking place about the beauty in diversity among Black people (especially women), which should extend to remembering that each person has autonomy and is deserving of expressing it as they wish without the peanut gallery passing judgment without invitation, or inciting violence.
Respecting people who may differ from you is not a plea, and should not be treated as such. It is a demand.