I grew up in an upper-middle class white town. My family was the only black family on my street and I was the only black girl in all of my classes. Being a black girl-child in a conservative white town exposed me to deep pain that I shouldn’t have had to experience in the tenderest years of my life. I learned very early, even if erroneously, that to be quiet was to be safe.
I can remember feeling anxious in my day-to-day life for as long as I can remember. I was a nervous kid. I was shy but I had friends. I hated confrontation and was careful to never rock the boat in elementary school or high school. I didn’t speak in class because that would mean that I’d be putting myself in the spotlight and I couldn’t entertain the thought without slipping into an intense state of anxiety. Getting called to the chalkboard to solve a math problem would catapult me into an anxious oblivion.
Fast forward to my adult life. When people meet me, their first impression of me is that I’m ‘quiet’. For some people, its more comfortable for them to be sharing space with a quiet black girl who doesn’t take up much space but for others, it is extremely uncomfortable that they don’t have immediate access to my inner thoughts. They can’t place me. They can’t read me. I am not the transparent body that they want me to be. They don’t know what to make of me and the statement “gotta watch out for the quiet ones” has been said to me more times than I can count.
As I came into political consciousness and begun to spend more time in anti-racist feminist academic and activist spaces where I thought I would find community, I instead found more isolation. I had read enough black feminist literature to know that the fetishization of verbal communication would be real in these spaces. Speaking is considered crucial on the path to liberation so I would force myself to speak, but it never seemed to be enough. I began to be hard on myself and impatient about my quietness and introversion and about the anxiety that I knew drove it. I had internalized the stereotypes about black women being loud and thought that if I could just gain the courage to speak and be “normal”, that everything would get better. The activist spaces that I was frequenting to search for community paradoxically reinforced my increasing feelings of distance from community. I constantly felt like an outsider. I felt as if I would be judged for being solitary, for being quiet, for being introverted. And I was.
To be clear, I don’t consider myself shy. Quiet, yes. Shy, no. I’ll speak if I have something I feel like sharing and am happy to meet new people. Otherwise, I’m more than content to quietly observe a room. I glean more information from watching people than through talking with people. While I need to connect with the people I love and make new friends to feel happy and whole, large groups of people tire me out and I spend a long time recovering from socializing. Superficial conversations and small talk are insufferable for me. I would rather not talk at all than waste my energy engaging in meaningless social niceties for propriety’s sake. If I choose to engage with you then forget superficiality. It’s going to be intense, deep and genuine.
People tend to be threatened by my quietness. A sense of threat that is amplified by my black womanhood. My quietness and my sensitivity somehow make me less of a black woman and I am looked upon as strange. I experience frequent silencing and my ideas are often not taken seriously because I don’t constantly talk about how much I know. Friends think that I don’t speak up for myself, which is of course not true, and take it upon themselves to do so for me in restaurants and public spaces in paternal acts of “kindness”. My quietness and my softness are mistaken for weakness and ignorance.
Audre Lorde said “Your silence will not protect you” and while speaking is important and powerful, some of us are finding other ways to express our truths whether that be through writing, through art, or through action. It continues to sadden me that my biggest gifts and most potent sources of power — my quietness, my tenderness and my introversion — are deemed socially unacceptable, considered antithetical to the movement and remain bound up in complex matrices of racism and patriarchy.
At the present moment in which I find myself, I’ve managed to carve out a space where I am okay with being quiet. I relish my quiet time and feel no more pressure to perform extraversion in social situations. I don’t feel a need to constantly take up space with inane chatter and will speak when I am ready. I am more at ease with my quietness and with peoples’ mis/perceptions of it. I understand and acknowledge the power of being an introverted black girl. When I speak, I am steadfast and deliberate with my words and that is power.