Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Shenita Ann McLean: "Politics of Black Superwoman Otherness"

After focusing on the plight and struggle of Black men this past week, I'm going to spend the next few days focusing on Black women. This is not a topic I've addressed specifically on this blog as much. It's not because I don't think about and teach about it. I'm aware that Black women -- and women of color, in general -- have two burdens: White Supremacy and the patriarchy (the system that puts men in the dominant power position in the world on the premise that men deserve it). I teach entire separate courses in gender and sexuality, as well as race. And in doing that, I often bounce back and forth to demonstrate that oppression is oppression.

But the intersectionality that will ever bind race, class, gender, sexuality and all other forms of oppression makes the situation of women of color so painful and so nuanced and so close to my woman's heart that I haven't felt confident to present it as fully as it deserves to be presented. I have to change this and the way to do so is to give women of color and Black women, in particular, more regular and specific attention on this blog. The only way I feel able to adequately do this is by taking the opportunity to give Black women the space to make their own voices heard. This has been too long in coming and for that I apologize.

For starters, I'm re-posting (with permission) Shenita Ann McLean's essay entitled, "Politics of Black Superwoman Otherness." It was originally posted on January 1, 2014, at Buckle up. This one's gonna take you for a ride.
"Politics of Black Superwoman Otherness"
by Shenita Ann McLean

I am a poor Black woman in America.  I have privileges, yes (e.g. cisheterosexual, able bodied, education). But let’s understand something here, privileges aren’t linear or additive so its not some easy equation where you add them with disadvantage & they just spit out your statistical likelihood to get fucked over or get over on someone else.  So let me say this again, I am a poor Black woman in America.  And quite frankly, I’m pissed.  But a number of the components of my identity don’t allow me to be pissed/angry/dissatisfied or hell, even tired.  You know why?  Well you probably do.  There is a politic to being a Black woman.  There is a kind of superwomanly otherness associated with such being.  Many of you see “superwoman” & either begin signing that Alicia Keys song or for some odd reason think it’s a good thing.  It’s not.  Strong Black Woman (SBW)! Oh, I’d be rich if I got a penny for every time I have been called that shit. It’s not a compliment either.  Being called an SBW is practically equivalent to Superman being called Kal El.  It’s within the same complexity and otherness of superwomanhood.  You got the regular name/alias, you got “superwoman”, then SBW hailing from some distant planet that imperialist White supremacist racist cisheteropatriarchal capitalism deems odd where Black women are these Amazonian, freak of nature beings who suffer the pain of their lives & others all with a smile on their face.  The superwomanhood of Black women is not a compliment, honey.  Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant states, “And herein lies the problem. Because the idea of strength appears to honestly reflect Black women’s extensive work and family demands, as well as their accomplishments under far from favorable social conditions, the concept seems to provide a simple and in fact honorable recognition of their lives” (2009:2).  Let me help you understand why.  Let us go to the book of sister Michele Wallace to define the definition of SBW:
Through the intricate web of mythology which surrounds the black woman, a fundamental image emerges. It is of a woman of inordinate strength, with an ability for tolerating an unusual amount of misery and heavy, distasteful work. This woman does not have the same fears, weaknesses, and insecurities as other women, but believes herself to be and is, in fact, stronger emotionally than most men. Less of a woman in that she is less “feminine” and helpless, she is really more of a woman in that she is the embodiment of Mother Earth, the quintessential mother with infinite sexual, life-giving, and nurturing reserves.  In other words, she is a superwoman (1990:107).

Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant makes it plain and simple: “Unlike white conventionally feminine women, who are prized, pedestaled, and able to enjoy race and often class privileges, the strong Black woman is a 'female Atlas' (Gillespie [1978]1984, 32), invoked and expected to carry the weight of the world on her sturdy shoulders…Characterized as emotionally resilient, physically indomitable, and infinitely maternal, this superwoman is endowed with those very qualities that preclude her exploitation. Because she is not simply a woman or a human being but a 'superwoman,' she cannot be victimized and therefore does not suffer under her circumstances, no matter how extreme” (2009:24-25).
So yeah, like I was saying, this is not a compliment.  It is not flattering.  What superwomahood is, is debilitating, dehumanizing, and overbearing.  Zora Neale Hurston said that Black women are the mules of the world. We carry the physical, social, political, economic, and emotional weight of the world.  And quite honestly, this shit can kill you (figuratively, literally, etc.).  And in many cases we have Black women who are shells, shadows of themselves, crushed by all of the weight because no one thought that “female Atlas” needed any help with the many loads she was bearing.  Put in more “academically political” terms, this is a consequence of intersectional oppression. SBW is where imperialism, White supremacist racism, cisheteropatriarchy, and capitalism all meet.  It’s a four way stop.  This past semester I had a White transgender woman on campus tell me she doesn’t believe in intersectionality and she said “Intersections are where accidents are most likely to occur.”  While she laughed at her own comedic statement (*yawn* *files nails* *side eye*), I responded, “My life, my existence, my identity is a pile up at an intersection, that is the perfect way to state it.  Why would anyone assume that when systems of oppression intersect it doesn’t result in a cataclysmic mess?” She wasn’t laughing anymore.  According to Patricia Hill-Collins,
Intersectional paradigms view race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age, among others, as mutually constructing systems of power. Because these systems permeate all social relations, untangling their effects in any given situation or for any given population remains difficult (2005).

Black women learn from other Black women in our families and communities (e.g. blood, play cousins, close friends, ya’ll know what I mean) that we must construct a concept of self that is to prepare us to, “…withstand the all-too-common experiences of male rejection, economic deprivation, crushing family responsibilities, and countless forms of discrimination” (Sheila Radford-Hill, 2002, 1086).  And so we are socialized.  This superwomanly otherness is learned.  We go throughout our lives just dealing with everything from family life, personal life, professional life, to spiritual life and we think that it's normal to go to hell and back every day without an inkling of complaint, exhaustion, sadness, or disappointment.  Because, after all, those characteristics are for mortals/humans.  They told us that we weren’t human, and we believed them and it comes at a cost (social, emotional, psychological, spiritual, economic, political).  So, for many Black women who cling to the SBW name tag & for those who don’t (whether we like it or not, people hold us up to this SBW paradigm), self-care does not exist.  Self-care is foreign to us.  We just don’t exactly understand how someone could tell us to take care of ourselves since we are so busy taking care of everyone else.  And we were raised to believe that self-care is selfishness.  So we continue on, carrying the world on our shoulders, tending to the wounds of others while we bleed internally.
It is not that Black women have not been and are not strong; it is simply that this is only a part of our story, a dimension, just as the suffering is another dimension — one that has been most unnoticed and unattended to. — bell hooks, Talking Back

Black superwomanly otherness is a performance of strength, and a costly one for that matter.  We bottle everything up as we struggle silently like we are told and eventually the pain, hurt, frustration, and anger that is bottled up is consumed by us and leading to more pain.  Drinking the poison, and expecting the enemy to die.  It doesn’t work.  Silence is a killer.
If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it. – Zora Neale Hurston

So for me, this past year of 2013 was pure and absolute fuckery. I was assaulted by a White woman who wrongfully tried to tow my car and then called the police and told them I assaulted her. The police showed up and threw me against the police car, pushing me around, I was almost arrested. Then I was told there was no way I could press charges. I was assaulted in class this semester by UB’s chair of Global Gender Studies (Gwynn Thomas), a White female professor who didn’t enjoy the fact that I spoke up for women of color, PoC LGBTQIA, and anti-patriarchal masculinities in class. I came to the cold and painful understanding that my best friend is a benevolent patriarch, an Ashy Anhk, and I lost that friendship over this past year. 2013 has been a year of misadventures in micro & macroagressions. But what hurt the most is the fact that I was told I can’t complain about it. My own Black community has spent the past year shooting verbal microagressions in my direction because I spoke up and against my oppression. I spoke up this past year, yes, more than ever before. But I still silenced myself and allowed myself to be silenced by others, put others before me. I female Atlas shrugged my way through 2013 and whenever I shook uncontrollably from the suffering, I was poked and prodded and told that I am not allowed to access nor express that spectrum of emotion. I was deemed ungrateful, told to just think positive thoughts, etc. Oh and my all time dismissive favorite: I’m go’n pray for you.

I didn’t wake up & just have a MA degree, I have worked 7+ years relentlessly with no break, no vacation, no days off.  I wasn’t born with my MA degree, I didn’t even simply get it via going to graduate school. I had to fight for it & work for it all at once. & to make it worse I have loads of debt because of it. There are people who do less than 10% of what I do & they have 200xs more than what I have.  The mediocrity of my White cohort frustrates the hell out of me.  No, I’m not happy with simply being alive, because I deserve more than to be alive & barely keeping my head over water (we all do for that matter). I deserve better than what I have.  I work hard every day &get nothing in return. We all need to stop acting like if you work hard enough shit will change.  I’m frustrated because I haven’t received the returns for my work academically or personally.  Two years later & I’m basically still at the mercy & whims of some White people who don’t like me just like when I was in undergrad. I don’t call that progress. – Me

Black Superwomanly Otherness is an overbearing monolithic oppression that tears apart the woman that upholds its respectability politic while also tears asunder the woman who resists its respectability politic.  Keeping up the appearances and performing the strong Black woman role and living the lie of Black superwomanly otherness and embodying the respectable “womanhood” brought me to my knees in distress at the end of 2013.  I can’t take it anymore.  There is nothing wrong with that.  I am human, I am vulnerable.  Yes, I was persecuted because I expressed this distress.  I have spent this past year working tirelessly within my community, to help those around me, fighting for political liberation and I forgot about myself.  I forgot about me.  I invested so much in friends who weren’t there for me when I needed them, invested so much in family who had no interest in changing and showing me consideration, care, and love.   All I had was people who would police my emotions, identity, and then beg me for love, care, concern, money, attention BUT give me nothing in return.
 Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. – Audre Lorde

I was told by two brilliant Black feminists on Twitter (@thetrudz; @EvetteDionne) that self-care is a MUST.  If you don’t take care of a car, eventually it will break down.  The same concept goes for us, ourselves; whether that be physical, mental, social, political, economic, emotional, psychological, whatever.  The politic of Black superwomanly otherness tells us that we don’t need self-care, that if we fulfill the performance of the SBW that there will be an applause waiting for us at the end.  Little did we know, they planned on killing us off in the second act of this performance.
This past year I have dealt with a lot of shit, all of us oppressed people have.  But speaking from my personal experiences it hurt, they poked, they stabbed, I bled.  I was exposed to micro and macroagressions from every community I entered and especially the ones that I belong to.  What hurt the most is the pain of being oppressed by my own people.  Dr. Lulot called microagressions “death by a thousand cuts”.  I fought this year to express the complexity of my identity, to do the counter hegemonic scholarly work I want, to be me, to embrace my Black womanhood, to acknowledge the complexity of my Afro-Latina heritage.  I lost some of those battles.  I lost friends along the way.  Making the decision to end unhealthy interactions was good for me but that doesn’t mean that the loss of those friendships hurt any less.  But I am glad I fought at least.
Your strength is the half-told tale of your existence.  There is pain there, vulnerability, weakness, joy, sadness, indifference, there is more to you than some socially constructed monolith created to maintain your subjugation.  I had to learn that, I’m still learning, I am still decolonizing.
What I want the readers of this piece to understand (especially Black women) is that it is okay to take care of yourself.  Its more than okay, taking care of you is absolutely positively fucking necessary.  I learned this past year that nobody else is going to tend to your wounds.  The SBW paradigm is not only upheld by Black women and men.  This society upholds us to that ideal and if we don’t resist it, we will fall victim to its vicious strikes.  Self care, self preservation, self love is revolutionary.  I learned that this year.  The politics of Black superwomanly otherness are deadly.  Shedding such a politic is quite painful but its better for you along the way and in the end.  We always discuss our oppression, but I want to share what I have learned in regards to putting myself on a path to healing from that oppression.  I spent a lot of this past year engaging in discourse about the construction of anti-patriarchal masculinities.  But I think its time for us to talk about anti-racist anti-patriarchal femininities as well.  We have to construct masculinities, femininities, and streams of human existence that are not oppressive, these will be our sites of healing.
So if you are mad, upset, happy, indifferent, angry, feeling weird, whatever it is, you express it!  If you need to take a step back from some people, do that.  If you need to walk away, go head.  You express it through the means that make you feel liberated.  Do not silence yourself, do not subjugate yourself.  Ain’t I a Woman?  Ain’t I a human?  Acknowledge the spectrum and complexity of your existence.  If you continue to attempt to perform the role of the SBW, you will never know the rest of your story, only a costly performance will be shown.
A woman is not free while any other woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different – Audre Lorde

My intersectional oppression is not the same as yours.   But you can be damn well sure that I will fight for your political liberation from your oppression even if I may not completely understand it.  I’m not really one for New Year’s Resolutions.  I will say that I want to begin to construct a healthy anti-racist anti-patriarchal femininity for myself (as well as masculinity; humanity is masculine & feminine), one that frees me from the shackles of the politics of Black superwomanly otherness.  Take care of YOU.  I deserve that, we all do.
Excerpt from Rhinocerous Woman
…Black woman. Baad woman.
Wear your bigness on your chest like a badge cause you done earned it.
Strong woman. Amazon.
Wear your scars like jewelry cause they were bought with blood.
They call you mad.
And almost had you believing that shit.
They called you ugly.
And you hid yourself behind yourself and wallowed in their shame.
Rhinocerous Woman -
The world is blind and slight of mind and cannot see how beautiful you are.
I saw your light.
And it was shining.
– Assata Shakur

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