My hair is big. She takes up space.
My hair is wild. She is all over the place.
She does what she wants
When she wants.
How she wants.
She has a mind and a spirit of her own.
She will not
Be easily contained or tamed.
She is who she is.
My hair is loud. She makes noise.
And you hear it.
My hair is bold. She walks in the room.
Brilliantly and confidently.
And you see her.
You feel her.
And you never, ever forget her.
She makes an impression.
I am my hair.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself right now, what does your hair have to do with equity, Sharla? Isn’t that what you do? Well, kind of. My job is actually elevating humanity. My job is helping educators and school leaders create spaces where every student feels seen, heard, and valued so they can thrive academically and non-academically. My job is helping organizational leaders understand and promote antiracism and belonging in their organizations. My job is ensuring that educators are racially conscious and culturally competent so they can teach and lead our kids in ways that affirm them and build them up and promote opportunity and joy for all. My job is helping organizational leaders understand and promote antiracism and belonging in their organizations. And in a society where Black girls make up 6% of school enrollment but are suspended from school six times more than white girls and where 45% of Black women report experiencing racism in the workplace (Essence Magazine) more than anyone else in society, this work is crucial. Because clearly we have a problem with Black girls and Black women. Clearly.
Back to my hair. This is it. This is the way she shows up in the world. And I am my hair. This is the way I show up in the world. Assertive. Bold. Confident. Passionate. Sometimes loud. Almost always discombobulated. And this is the way so many Black girls and women show up in the world. For far too many people, the way we show up is either way too much, or it is never enough.
“You should smile more.”
“You should watch your tone.”
“You are too passionate.”
“You are too loud.”
“You are too bold.”
“You are too direct.”
You are too much of this. You are not enough of that.
You should be more of that. You should be less of that.
In other words, don’t be you.
Because as you are, you are either not enough, or you are way too much.
And neither is okay.
Now, listen. I get it. I realized that there are professionalism standards. There are acceptable ways of “being” in society. I also know that most often, these standards are rooted in white culture and all but ignore the individuality, the uniqueness, and the cultural realities of the people who don’t - or won’t - or can’t - conform to them. I was written up on my last job for my tone and presence and told that I was “unapproachable.” When I asked for clarification and specific examples, I was told that maybe I “should just smile more” so people would know that they could engage with me. It's apparently that simple. Black women should Just smile more.
If you haven’t realized it by now, this little blog is not about hair. It’s about this very clear and painful reality: the world is not kind to Black women. Black women are policed in school. At work. In the grocery store. At church. Online. Offline. Here. There. Everywhere. Because essentially, though no one dare says it, the world hates Black women. So, how do Black women and Black girls exist and thrive in a world built for whiteness?
And by whiteness, let me be clear: I do not mean white people. Whiteness is a set of norms, behaviors, practices, beliefs, expectations, and values that privilege some and oppress others.
Well, what exactly do you mean by privilege and oppression? I can just hear it now. Someone somewhere is saying, “It’s 2021. No one is oppressed. Slavery is over.” And, “I am not privileged; I worked hard for everything I have.”
Okay. That may all be true. But it is also true that people can work really, really, really hard and still have lived experiences that are radially different - in the worst ways possible - than yours.
By privilege, I simply mean providing access, advantage, and acceptance. And by oppression, I simply mean denying access, advantage, and acceptance. And all of this is whether it is intentional or not. Whether it is in school, or at work, or in pretty much any context in society, Black women and girls are not free to just be. We are routinely and systematically oppressed - denied access to opportunity - because of our tone (which has yet to be quantified) or unwelcoming facial expressions (generally as perceived by non-Black folks) and “unprofessional” hair (whatever that is) and, my all time favorite, attitude - a completely subjective catch-all descriptor that is typically used when nothing else fits.
Most Black women are generally not raised to be “quiet.” Well, to be honest, my parents tried, but being loud was just in my genes (talk to my Creole aunts about it!), so they never stood a chance with that one! We are taught from early on that we can be what we want to be, to protect ourselves, to stand up for ourselves and those we love, to be seen and heard in a world that tries to make us invisible and silent. For that, we are called aggressive, bossy, intimidating, mean, cocky, and difficult. And we are shunned and criticized for being so. Oppression. Meanwhile, white women who display similar characteristics are dubbed assertive, strong, and confident. And they are rewarded and celebrated for being so. Privilege.
So, I have a question for you. When will Black women be enough? When will it be okay for us to just show up - at school, at work, at church, in the store? My challenge to you today is to leave Black women alone. Leave Black girls alone. Don’t label us. Don’t rank us. Don’t try to explain us. Let us be.
If we are angry, let us be angry. Maybe it is righteous indignation.
If we are loud, let us be loud. Sometimes when you are not heard or when you are tired of being silenced, you speak louder - because you know you deserve to be heard.
If we are passionate, let us be passionate. When we really care, we really care.
If we are not smiling, let us not smile. After all, it’s hard to wear a smile when you are the constant object of micro-aggressions, ridicule, criticism, abuse, and societal neglect.
Before you write up that assertive and vivacious little Black girl for “having an attitude” or for being bossy, ask yourself this question: Who or what is she hurting right now besides my ego?
Before you have a corrective conversation with that confident and capable Black woman for her tone, ask yourself this question: Why do I get to decide what tone this adult uses? And who says my expectations and values get to be the standard?
Before you tell a focused Black woman that she needs to smile more, ask yourself this question: How have I contributed to a school, a workplace, or a society where Black women don’t smile? And who am I to say she has to smile?
Before you judge, correct, or criticize a Black girl or woman, ask yourself this question: What right do I have to project my beliefs, values, standards, norms, and expectations on this person? Why is she not enough as she is?
Before you call a Black girl or woman intimidating, ask yourself this question: Is she intimidating, or am I intimidated? There is a difference. What is it that I see in her that I wish I saw in myself?
Before you say anything to a Black girl or Black woman that is not celebrating her, uplifting her, honoring her, or protecting her, ask yourself this question: Do I just hate Black women? If so, why?
Then walk away, and reflect on that for a moment. And instead of imposing your ideals and norms on her, let that Black woman live in her total, complete, authentic, free Black woman self. It's a freedom that can change the world if you let it.