The national center for transgender equality in an article wrote “Most people – including most transgender people – are either male or female. But some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of “man” or “woman,” or “male” or “female.” For example, some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. An umbrella term can be used as “non-binary but pronouns are specific to the person you are interacting with. But as black women the idea of identifying outside of traditionally female “she, her” pronouns can come with the added baggage of stereotypes rooted in anti-black women. These stereotypes and society-wide expectations have created a barrier that I to this day struggle getting through. Like most traumatic and oppressive things towards back women, this discussion can most likely be traced back to slavery. The root of the “jezebel, hypersexual” stereotype placed on us and our bodies as well as the “mammy”, “strong”, “not human nor women” stereotype. You were either extremely womanly or extremely manly, no in-betweens, no compromise. Growing up these images loomed over my head as a constant possibility to be placed on me.
Both were seen as punishments in my eyes. The black women In my family made comments such as
“Don’t work out too much or you’ll look like a man.”
“Don’t wear to baggy of clothes or you’ll look like a man.”
“You need to wear makeup and earrings every time you go out or” You guessed it “will look like a man.”
All in a misguided attempt to help me choose in their eyes the better of the two evil. At least if I was seen as a hypersexual female then I could gain a partner. But to my adolescent ears, these were constant threats, of how easily I could be perceived as masculine and that being wrong. Where one of the many consequences is not gaining attention from males. This grew my already confused gender identity, as someone very uncomfortable with the open sexualization of my still-developing body. many questions were brought up that I still struggle with. “What does it mean to be a woman?” “What is femininity?” “What is masculinity?” “Why can’t i embody both?” as well as “How could I be perceived as a man when I was in fact a woman” this led to hyper-awareness inside of me of performing femininity to a toxic level. I’ve discussed before my violent rejection of the sexualization of my young body through performing toxic masculinity. When I emerged from that endeavor I was left with the same gender questions I had before.
This time. though I was led into an opposite but equally toxic and suffocating performance.
When I had my first job in high school I was a cashier at a burger place. One day a short, skinny, white boy came in with his two black male friends. They approached the register so I greeted them. In response, they all seemed shocked which made me question if I said something wrong or possibly let something slip that I was unaware of. Instead of the glee of his friends, the white boy spoke up “Oh, you’re a girl sorry sir.” This encounter disoriented me for the rest of my 4-hour shift. It was uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t explain. Looking back I don’t think it was the male pronouns that bothered me. Or the nonexistent help offered by two people who had the same skin as I. But more so how the pronouns we deliberately used in a hateful and hurtful way. That night I bought my first set of makeup from the drugstore;
A foundation that in no way fit my skin nor did I have any idea how to use, The cheapest mascara I could find, and lipstick that looked horrendous on me.
Fueled by my mother and grandmother’s threats of being masculinized and left alone because of it. I smeared the products on my face vowing to never be seen without them. From then on I purposefully went out of my way to getting my hair done in long uncomfortable strands. These actions were praised and encouraged by the women in my family as “finally realizing I was a girl”. With my new hormones raging in my teenage years with the desire to be wanted and seen as the height of femininity to offset the worst thing in my eyes.
In equal addition to having been on the receiving end of my family’s disgust. My previous coping mechanisms to the structural oppression of “sexualization” being by performing more traditionally masculine ways.
I was excited to be accepted and even praised for doing something “right”. But just as I didn’t feel completely myself while performing only masculinity, I felt similarly half empty when performing only femininity.
This intense indeed to justify my femininity is nothing new to black women. In 2014, a high-ranking Russian tennis official snarkily referred to Serena and her sister Venus as “the Williams brothers”. After Megan, the stallion was shot rumors resurfaced of her being born a man or being perceived as masculine. In 2018 Hannah Eko wrote for BuzzFeed magazine about how tired she was of justifying her womanhood. In a society that was primed and trained to masculinize black women, “The myth sprang to life in the characters of Mammy and Sapphire, then evolved into the archetype of the coarse, sassy Black girl, a ubiquitous image in popular culture … such images take an immeasurable toll on the psyche of Black women, who in their desire to be seen as ladylike, to challenge the notion that they are less feminine, may affect a way of talking or behaving that does not reflect who they are.” wrote journalist Charisee Jones and academic Kumea Shorter-Gooden in Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America.
With this framework is it any surprise how hard it was for a young black girl to learn her gender identity healthily. When I was opposing one thing society placed me nonconsensually. I involuntarily participated in toxic masculinity, but when I tried to oppose another thing society labeled me as (once again nonconsensually) I participated in toxic femininity. This just leaves me now a 22-year-old black girl with trauma, lots of questions, and innate fear to explore the spectrum of gender identity. Because to even acknowledge the possibility of using pronouns outside of traditionally feminine ones, is to acknowledge that I have masculinity in the side of me. This brings thoughts of not being a proper woman, not being able to find a partner, and being rejected by my family as well as my community. This tug and pull of black women’s gender is not a single experience just as the stories of being maliciously misgendered in an intentionally hurtful fashion. The threat of exclusion and rejection on the basis of gender identity is not just regulated to the women in my family. Though they were openly outspoken in opposition to my rejection of feminine things So were the males in my family and similarly, they still are. Which shows the deeply rooted commodification of black women’s bodies and by extension their expressions using them.
During quarantine I began to sit down to take time for myself. Working through unpacking and acknowledging triggers. Finally participating in self-reflection that was not offered with the fast pace life of trying to survive college. I began to find interest and comfort in makeup, and fashion. Much to the joy of my father who continually made comments in praise to my now more “girly” aesthetic. Proud that I was “acting like a woman” because “that’s how you get a man”.
These comments made me uncomfortable on many levels. Why does a man feel empowered enough to tell me how to properly present as a woman? What is femininity? What is masculinity? Why is gender identity so binary?and where can I find a black woman to explore these questions without toxic influences and voices? Since clearly it was not in the safety of my family’s own home.
“I’m supposed to go to frustrating lengths to “prove” I’m feminine and offset my blackness (keep my hair long, my voice soft, my clothes appropriately girly), while women who are white or lighter in appearance are given more latitude for experimentation. Diane Keaton and Cara Delevinge “play” with tomboy styles. When a white movie star cuts her hair to pixie length or shorter, she’s gamine or elegant. To be sure, black women can and do don these sort of androgynous looks and hairstyles, but they are often read differently on our bodies: Elegant transforms into militant, boyish into manly.” cite.
To be completely honest,
I don’t have an answer.
at least not a straightforward neatly quoted one.
With the rise of asking for pronouns, people have begun to be openly in favor and against it.
While I’ve had to ask myself,what are my pronouns?
I love acrylic nails and brightly colored eyeshadows but I equally enjoy shopping in the male resection of websites. I prefer my hair shorter cut much to the dismay of my mother. And frankly everyday isn’t a full glam day for me.
I have two contrasting identities inside of me that both ask to be recognized with my pronoun usage. But still I’m learning more about them and what parts of myself they fill up. All this while still harbouring uneasiness towards the public acknowledgement of one side. Non binary is defined as an adjective relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female. and it’s different for everyone who chooses to fall under it. I’m going to struggle with how it looks for me probably for some time. Due to the conditioning of a toxic strictly binary society. It’s going to take unlearning some things in addition to relearning some things.
Being more than one thing is okay.
Isn’t that us all? Nobody is just one thing.
My mother is not just a mother, she is a friend, a teacher, a sister and so on. My father is not just a father, he’s a husband, a detective, a fraternity member. So I’m not just long hair, breasts and bright makeup. I’m also dark colores, male cut suits and so on.
And that is all okay.
It should be normalized when raising children.
It’s disharting that we only allow that duality to be embodied by certain people while others have to professly ask “ain’t a woman” because honestly. What the fuck does that even mean.
Some black lgbt+ foundations