Cover photo from Sister Citizen, Shame Stereotype and Black women in America, by Melissa V. Harris-Perry
I spent the last few years curious about what it means to be vulnerable. This is way before Brene Brown’s Ted Talk. I am grateful for her book Daring Greatly. I grew up learning that showing vulnerability was a sign of weakness. I later intellectually embraced the idea that vulnerability is indeed a sign of strength. It was Dr. Brown’s description of vulnerability that turned the lights on for me. “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.”
I love a badass – I am all in.
Daring Greatly reminds us that life is a series of opportunities to be vulnerable. Because of shame, we would rather mask the opportunity to be vulnerable by hiding behind anger, passive action, fear, and judgment. The takeaway for me is, it is how we handle these opportunities that make all the difference in our ability to stand in greatness. We can either suffer through circumstances under the mask or thrive in life by living authentically and uncovered in our truth.
Here is the thing, Brene Brown talks about her experience in vulnerability when she gave her first Ted Talk on Shame. She is so free, so supported and safe in life that she had to search for moments in her life where she felt that vulnerable. I then remembered that I was reading the works of a White woman of White privilege America who interviewed her community to complete this work. It is fortunate for all that despite her narrow point of view, her overarching message is relevant to all demographics. To quote Oprah “what I know for sure”, is as a Black woman, allowing myself to be emotionally open is not only a practiced skill set, it is an act of faith.
In Sisters of the Yam, bell hooks, explains how and why black girls are given their mask at an early age. “Don’t you cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about”, a closing tag line to a pep talk by either parent. bell hooks explain that Black women grew up in anti-vulnerability training. We are taught to be “tough”, stand tall despite the circumstances, “mean mug” if you must. Showing up tender, in need or too soft one could be considered a weakness and a disgrace (more of a concern than judgment) to the members of our community. To show you are suffering in any way is to reveal the crack in your armor -which leaves an opening for further shaming. Your first infraction is that you are Black, now you are Black, and you are weak.
The truth is African Americans live in cognitive dissonance. We are forced to alter our natural ways of being to ensure that we are tolerable, acceptable or manageable for the greater population. All while living in a country that propagates degrading and shaming messaging. These biases are woven throughout every American system – all of them, including the “woke” ones. We are vulnerable while banking, while working, while healing (in the hospitals), walking into our homes, in the parks, drinking coffee at Starbucks, driving, raising children and the list goes on. To be black in America is to be vulnerable in America. Even more confusing, we are taught to be strong without being threatening within a world that chooses to see us as both disenfranchised and ominous.
Passing down the mask is the unceremonious ritual to protect girls from emotional trauma. “Keep your chin up,” “don’t let him see you sweat”, “big girls don’t cry”, “be the bigger person”, “be the example”, “stiff upper lip”, “I’ll give you something to cry about”, “your too big to be crying”, “turn the other cheek” (thank you very much, Dr. King). We learn from our mothers how to appear stoic and unflappable, to be present without connecting, to be trustworthy without trusting. Even with controlled emotions, we are still labeled as angry, difficult and self-righteous. Perhaps that is because when needed, despite the shame and oppression, we know what it takes to ensure that we are heard when it is time. And it is always time – the unlawful killing of our children, missing children, the abuse of our elders is when we get to step out from behind the mask to wake the world up with blood-curdling screams for equality – a raw conviction that invites the world to pay attention.
In this search for clarity, I stumbled upon a construct called a culture of dissemblance. After listening to Melissa V. Harris-Perry, a reporter for MSNBC and the author of, Sister Citizens: Stereotypes and Black Women in America, I realized that I am late to learn this phrase. In Sister Citizen… Perry explains the culture of dissemblance through an example that she coined the crooked room. The “crooked room” is symbolic of the space shared by the majority that culturally subscribes to the concepts and ideology that creates their prototypes of black women. These stereotypes are so deeply woven in the narrative and expected in the social construct that we (Black women) align ourselves with these concepts to feel upright in the crooked spaces.
In other words, to appease and provide comfort for our white social circles and colleagues, we morph into the stereotypes to feel balanced within these social circles – even when it means being internally out of balance. The mammy, angry black women, magical negro, the jezebel, the savior – carry the world on her shoulders (Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks) strong black woman, the broken, the needy, disenfranchised black women are all ways that we have been pigeon-holed within the crooked spaces. It is our mask and willingness to align with the slant that affirms and perpetuates these perspectives.
I started the quest to stand courageously in vulnerability because I became very much aware of the internal destruction that the masking strategy has had on my soul, my health and the health of my family and community. I realized, after some decades of socializing in these unbalanced spaces, that no matter what I do to feel upright in the “crooked room” while out of balance in my heart and soul, I am doing a disservice to myself and anyone of the community that occupies that space.
To let go of my mask means to surrender my fears of being shamed. I am committed to letting go of the need to be embraced, accepted or tolerated. What I learned by surrendering to vulnerability, moment to moment, is that I get to stand grounded and upright in a power that is essential to know that I belong in every space that I occupy, even when this crooked world believes something different.
March 21, 2020