The presumed lack of black women’s femininity often finds itself the subject of interrogation, mockery, and invalidation and this perception has invited many people, a lot being black men, to write Twitter dissertations and spend hours recording and editing videos explaining to black women how to be women. These men tell us to lose the attitude and the weight. They compare us to women who are often white/nonblack (funny how that happens) and to strive to embody their expression of femininity. This same thing happened earlier this year when Jeannie Mai made public her plans to submit to her fiance Jeezy once married. In a time span of five minutes Mai, like many other non-black women, was set on a pedestal by black men as a template for black women to follow. Once again Black women found themselves on the bad side of Black Twitter as we were demanded to submit and be feminine. Once again black women were told to model the behaviors of non-black women to be deemed worthy and lovable.
But instead of resorting to the knee-jerk reaction of assuming that these men were right and wondering how I can best fix myself to appeal to black men, I looked on at this display with apathetic intrigue. This is not the first time black women had been accused of being masculine both by black men and by society at large. But this was the first time I began to deeply question and analyze the merit of these accusations. The femininity that these men were discussing was femininity that has been applied to white women for hundreds of years. The ideals of submission, fragility, docility, are all relics of the cult of domesticity and have been the blueprint of womanhood. The problem is that the blueprint of womanhood has always been white.
Before I dive in, this is not another article in which I detail the nuances of dating politics within the black community and more particularly in regards to black men. But interesting enough, many of the reasons that black men use to justify their aversion to black women can serve as openings for long-overdue conversations. Like why black womanhood is considered devoid of femininity, or how the pressure for black women to conform to white feminine standards has kept us from asking about what femininity looks like within a black context. But more importantly, being honest with ourselves about how black women aren’t and never will be considered feminine…. at least within the context of whiteness.
One thing that the existence of white supremacy has always depended on, is the inferiority of blackness.
Many times I find when black men say that “black women aren’t feminine” they’re basing their assessment off of femininity within the confines of whiteness and white standards. For centuries, mainstream media has shown the feminine white woman as a docile, weak, emotional, delicate, pure, submissive, and subservient creature and in time, the feminine white woman has become the ideal woman.
But not without the help of white supremacy.
Contrary to popular belief, expressions of femininity have existed within black female communities for thousands of years. In African civilizations, Orisas like Yemeya and Oshun have been worshipped as nurtures, healers, and manifestations of divine femininity and womanhood. In African tribes, the way a woman’s hair was worn was used to symbolize a variety of things like fertility and marital status. Body decor, like waist beads, was used to measure the growth of girls in countries like Ghana, and over time they became markers of womanhood and a symbol of sensuality and femininity. When African women were taken from the continent and made into slaves in the Americas, new forms of femininity manifested amongst black American women centuries later. Debutante balls or Cotillions were started in black communities when white Debutante balls and cotillions worked to keep black people out. These balls occurred amongst the black upper class and elite and engaged in the practice of formally presenting young women into society and prepared girls to be wives and women by teaching them good behavior, dining etiquette, dance, and how to dress. Hair remained a significant part of black femininity culture and self-expression. But as the saying goes to the victors go the spoils and with the spoils goes the ability to rewrite history and the people that occupy it.
The Divine Feminine
We fight for equality today and have a women’s history month because the stories of women have been neglected and…
Despite the long, rich, and spiritual history of black femininity, we found it contested and our womanhood challenged when upon entering the African continent, White people considered the dark skin, strong build, and wide hips and noses of African women as animalistic and resembling the features of apes. As time went on, this language became more gendered and comparisons were made between black and white women in order to legitimize the superiority of white womanhood and the inferiority of black womanhood. No longer could black women exist in our womanhood on our own terms as white womanhood became the standard for us to strive to meet. This, coupled with the comparisons to monkeys, was not only used to strip black women of our femininity, but to dehumanize us. The belief that black people are inherently more animalistic and aggressive gave birth to the more gendered belief that black women are more masculine compared to other women. Stereotypes like the mammy, jezebel, and sapphire were used to portray black women as emasculating divas, hypersexual sluts, and self-sacrificing martyrs in order to highlight the soft, submissive, and modest nature of white women in order to uphold white supremacist notions of feminity.
These ideologies evolved and continued to manifest in insideous ways during slavery when black women’s dehumanization continued to destroy the perception of our womanhood. Even though black women were considered to be female from a biological standpoint, we weren’t seen as women because we weren’t seen as people. This genderless existence allowed slave owners to reap a better profit as they could expect the same amount of labor out of black women that they expected out of black men because without our womanhood, we couldn’t reap the benefits of being fragile beings whose honor was in need of protection.
Today, white women have been upheld as the standard of femininity to a point where femininity and whiteness are almost inseparable. White femininity is the standard that black femininity is compared to and according to white mainstream society and many black men, black femininity and black womanhood fails to measure up to the golden standard of white womanhood. Not because black womanhood is inherently devoid of femininity but because it is black.
One thing that the existence of white supremacy has always depended on is the inferiority of blackness. Black womanhood has always been something that has been portrayed as inferior to bolster the superiority of whiteness and keep black women from challenging a white patriarchal status quo. But the success of this ideology hinged on robbing black women of our womanhood and our ability to define it for ourselves, giving to those who were neither black nor woman. Without our womanhood, the world had no reason to defend our honor, bodies, and wellbeing in the way white women were defended and protected. Without the agency over our own womanhood, black womanhood was decimated and corrupted into something that was dirty, deviant, impure, and masculine by white society. Robbed of its dignity and humanity, our womanhood existed to highlight the dignity and humanity of white womanhood and to justify our disrespect.
That is the tragedy here. Not that black women are masculine, not that black women are not submissive, but that black women have had our womanhood, and our agency over it, stripped because of the loss of our personhood.
When I see black men deem black women too ugly or masculine or aggressive I can’t help but draw similarities between them and the white men who said the same things about black women in order to justify the atrocities against us and support white supremacist notions of femininity.
As a result of racist and sexist regimes that black women have lived under, our femininity has been forced to grow around them. Instead of weakness, our femininity emphasized strength. Instead of helplessness, our femininity emphasized self-reliance. Instead of meekness, our femininity emphasized one’s ability to voice our needs and desires. All while simultaneously valuing traditional aspects of femininity that include devotions to one’s family and community, beauty, and what one would call ‘ladylike behavior.’
Because of historical contexts and circumstances, Black women’s femininity has evolved to be unique, valuing the qualities that allowed us to survive for so long while also incorporating aspects of ‘white’ femininity. As black women gain more power and influence in American society we also gain the ability to redefine, reshape, or expand the definition of our womanhood that seeks to empower us rather than degrade us. I believe that black womanhood is incomparable to white womanhood, not because it’s superior but because it’s different. Black womanhood is something that is powerful, nurturing, and life-giving. It is soft but firm, gentle but direct, kind, and beautiful. It is supportive, comforting, and warm. It’s resourceful, smart, creative, ingenious, and determined. Black womanhood is just beautiful.
When I see black men deem black women too ugly or masculine or aggressive I can’t help but draw similarities between them and the white men who said the same things about black women in order to justify the atrocities against us and support white supremacist notions of femininity. I’ve come to find their ignorance of black womanhood and the idea that it’s devoid of femininity hilarious. To me, these are men who do not care to understand black womanhood and its beauty, complexity, and the femininity that expresses itself in a unique and beautiful way. They are only interested in weaponizing white supremacist notions of femininity against black women in order to disparage us.
What’s even more amusing to me is how these men will perpetuate racist and sexist narratives against black women while demanding submission and femininity from us all in one breath. Well, sir, if that’s the case you need to take several seats. Black women are not obligated to express our femininity for men who are quick to disparage us. Although I understand you live in a world that is comfortable with making demands of black women with no intent to reciprocate, I’m afraid that relationship won’t work this time because femininity isn’t something that you can force out of a woman. It needs to be earned, nurtured, and more importantly given freely by her, on her terms. So maybe if you spent less time manipulating femininity out of black women, and more time investing in black women, learning about black women, developing empathy for black women, you’ll realize there’s no need to force something that already exists.