The Struggle For Black Women To Remain Optimistic
By Candace McDuffie
If, as James Baldwin once surmised, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time,” then to be a black woman in 2016’s America is to know what it’s like to have that persistent rage transformed into a brutal numbness.
Black women have been suffering for centuries. To put it into a historical framework would be to recognize this country’s obsession with the abuse, torture, and inevitable ruination of our bodies. Not only have we been legal property extracted (and sexually assaulted) for labor against our will, it has been reiterated through various laws, practices, and continuous outrageous acts of violence that we will never measure up to whiteness — which is this country’s summation and default for humanity.
The dominant narrative for black men is that they are violent, uneducated, and impenetrable to pain; under the same narrative, black women are considered unattractive, lazy, and aggressive. These stereotypes have trickled down from plantations to Jim Crow to modern-day media. Colorism, which is rooted in the days of slavery, when darker-skinned (field) slaves were held in lower regard than lighter (house) slaves, still runs rampant in a country where black girls and women desperately need to see themselves reflected in the mainstream beauty dialogue.
Today, we see Hollywood’s use of white actresses to portray black characters and placement of lighter-skinned black women to fill roles for those who are actually darker skinned. We also see celebrities confessing to skin bleaching because they, along with society, equate white skin with being not only more aesthetically pleasing, but also more advantageous. And this is to say nothing of the physical destruction of blackness — destruction that has recently been underscored by the executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police.
Yet despite the impact race and ethnicity have on every facet of our existence, we are often implored to remain quiet about racism’s prevalence. We are also accused of demanding unjustifiable sympathy or inciting dubious rage for merely describing/sharing our experiences. We are silenced, both metaphorically and literally, when we are yelling our truths.
The dialogue surrounding how we should behave is often rooted in notions of pessimism (describing how dire the situation is, and understanding that it’s not improving) and optimism (acknowledging the progress that is being made, and believing a more positive future is possible).
As black women constantly stand on the frontlines to defend our culture, our families, and ultimately our lives, how do we keep our heads above water while the world is willing us to drown? Do either of these approaches offer us a better way forward?
Considering the historical and modern forces at play, it should come as no surprise that both black and white Americans statistically remain pessimistic when it comes to race relations in this country. As The Atlantic reported last year, 57% of Americans believe that race relations are dismal; of that number, 56% are white and 68% are black. Four out of 10 Americans — both black and white — believe that they are only going to get worse.
While some believed that having a black president would alleviate racial tension, studies ultimately have shown that that is simply not the case. Tragedy after tragedy disproportionately affecting black communities has made it increasingly difficult to believe that we will ever achieve equality in a society that thrives not only on patriarchal values, but also on white supremacy. Black pessimism is informed by sociopolitical, economic, and cultural forces that reinforce a disenfranchised state while emphasizing dangerous stereotypes.
In a piece for American Prospect — “Black America’s Promised Land: Why I Am Still A Racial Optimist” — Randall Kennedy argues, as many black Americans have, that while it’s easy to lose heart under current circumstances, forgoing pessimism in favor of optimism is crucial to racial progress. “Hope is a vital nutrient for effort; without it, there is no prospect for achievement,” he writes. “The belief that we can overcome makes more realistic the possibility that we shall overcome.”
On some level, this approach makes sense — but it’s also fraught with issues. For one thing, this approach requires the unnecessary pitting of “black pessimists” (Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Stokely Carmichael) against “black optimists” (Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, Barack Obama), with the latter apparently achieving success by acting more docile and less threatening than the former. In reality, the former camp has always been necessary for change; it’s just often had its victories downplayed because they don’t sit as well with white America.
Emphasizing the importance of optimism can also work to devalue stark racial realities. In his piece, Kennedy uses the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of law enforcement — which sparked the unforgettable protests in Ferguson — as some sort of martyrdom for staying positive in spite of gross injustice. “Never in American history, in analogous circumstances, has there been a higher level of interracial empathy,” he says. But how much empathy can there possibly be when a black person is still killed by law enforcement every 28 hours in America?
Still, despite these issues, I’d argue that it’s critical that we find the fortitude to remain on the frontlines to fight another day, understanding that change is possible if we do.
We’ve seen this play out with movements like Black Lives Matter, which was founded in 2012 by three women (Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors). BLM has become more than a hashtag and social movement — it’s become an evergreen affirmation for the vitality and importance of black life, at once drawing attention to the dire state of violence against black Americans and, rather optimistically, calling for society to do better.
This can also play out on a more personal level. In order to maintain my own sense of optimism in bleak times, I remind myself that the greatest ally black women have is, in fact, other black women. We must continue to work together to ensure that our voices are heard, our experiences are accounted for, and that meaningful discourse is being created around our truths. I do this through my work with young people as well as through my writings. It is exhausting — I am exhausted — but black women need to continue to fight to be heard even though we have been fighting our whole lives. We are in dire need of more mainstream representation; we are also in need of having stories told that don’t portray us in a one-dimensional manner.
Although we can (and often do) feel powerless to absolve racism (because it is not our responsibility to relieve the oppressor of their burden), we still must find ways to act against it. It won’t be, and never was, easy — but it is necessary if we want to do more than merely survive. It must be done so that we can actually live.