Recently, newly elected Representative Rashida Tlaib made the news. Not only because she is the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in Congress, but because of a comment that she made about Donald Trump. There was much consternation about her use of profanity, and whether it was appropriate and acceptable. Many from all sides of the aisle and the talking heads of the media, male and female alike, felt she should apologize… cue the classic pearl clutch… but when asked about it, she stood firm in her statement. Only regretting being a distraction, which to be honest was the media’s doing not her own.
This made me think of all of the many times that women of color are silenced and told to “behave” or simply “shut up.” And as a Black woman I understand this phenomenon to my core. In school, in the workplace, at the store, walking down the street. People believe they have the right to tell me what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and to whom I can say it. And I better use the right volume and intonation lest I be labeled an angry Black woman. All the while people believe they can talk to Black women in whatever manner they see fit.
Before I get into my own experience with this, let’s consider a few other more newsworthy examples… Jemele Hill and Serena Williams. Hill, a distinguished sports journalist and Williams, a professional tennis player (GOAT), are both unapologetic black women. You may recall Hill was employed at ESPN where she was considered a risk because of her outspoken comments and the manner in which she called out racism in the world of sports. One of the final incidences that happened before she left ESPN was when Hill called Trump a “white supremacist” in a tweet. This led to the White House calling for her termination. Again, Hill had to address the situation by acknowledging that she made public a comment that was her personal belief, and that this was not a good look for ESPN. While other public figures, even employed by ESPN, have been caught up in this sort of controversy, the public outcry and swift condemnation of Hill was different, more angry and scolding. Because, well, she is a Black woman that got out of her lane.
And who can forget the 2018 US Open! Williams was beaten by Naomi Osaka but this incredible victory was overshadowed by how the exchange between Williams and the umpire was characterized. Many opined that Williams diminished and embarrassed herself by having a meltdown and overreacting to being penalized. But the conversation wasn’t about how perhaps the umpire just got in his feelings after being called a thief, although it was quietly acknowledged that the umpire probably overreached with the three penalties. Rather it was about Williams’ inability to handle herself. Now this incident could easily have been as much about sexism, considering how male tennis players been allowed to act a whole entire fool during matches, it could also be about racism. Because after all, Williams, a Black woman, wasn’t afraid to confront the umpire with emotion and conviction. She spoke for all women including the one that had just defeated her, whom during the midst of it all she showed the grace and class to congratulate.
My point is that countless times our society seems so easily offended or threatened by any expression from a Black woman that makes others uncomfortable or that is deemed too critical of white people or any other people really. Whether it is a commonly held truth or a personal opinion. I have noticed how in my professional environments, my opinion must be cosigned by someone else, usually a white person, to be valid or valued. There are too many times for me to relay when someone has sought out my feedback about an issue of diversity and inclusion, the work that I am tasked with leading, only for them to cry when I give them an answer that made them uncomfortable, or that they disagreed with. It’s exhausting…
Every day I remind myself of what my mom taught me, you aren’t necessarily better than anyone else, but no one is better than you. I will not be silenced or dismissed, I will not go away until and unless I am ready… I said what I said!