Finding Black Female Fragility
H. N. Holder
Ten years ago, Sally’s husband asked me out on a date. Bob, Sally (not their real names) and me were part of a university team that developed and ran education programs. Bob and Sally were one of those dynamo academic couples that did cutting edge technology stuff and published widely. Sally was the project leader and I was a senior administrator. When Bob asked me out, I laughed to hide my discomfort and changed the subject. I figured he had a momentary lapse in judgment and, in time, whatever it was would fade. Forgotten. Instead, as I found out later, Bob told Sally that I had asked him out and he was uncomfortable working with me.
At our next weekly meeting, Sally said she wanted to reduce my hours, because, “this isn’t really working out.” Bob sat next to her, stared at his hairy forearms draped along the table in front of him and didn’t look up. I took the high road. I said that I was actually thinking of reducing my hours too. I was in graduate school after all. I gave a time line for when I’d hand over all the project data. Sally seemed stunned and explained that she didn’t mean “this very minute.” “Nothing like the present,” I said and walked (read as sauntered) out of the meeting.
The following day, my heart beat fast when I sent my letter of resignation to Sally by interoffice mail. My salary was reduced, but at least I felt like I had won. I told my story to Dorothy, an older white female colleague. I wrote down what she said in my journal:
“You need to learn to be weak and let other people do things for you. You should’ve cried. It’s harassment and you should’ve cried to the dean and told her that Bob asked you out and it made you uncomfortable. And you wouldn’t have had to lift a finger. The dean would have seen to it that your job was secure. People like to feel like they’re helping people.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“You acted like a Black woman there,” she continued. “You need someone to show you how to be weak.”
I’ve thought a lot about what Dorothy said since then, especially the parts about thinking like a Black woman and letting other people do things for me. I didn’t do weak, as Dorothy put it. I was Dora Milaje long before the movie came out. I was raised to be resilient and to show it, to push back when pushed. You want to fire me? I’d rather quit.
To my mothers, being a woman made me vulnerable, susceptible to physical and emotional harm. This vulnerability is conflated by its intersection with blackness, and the low value of black women in white dominant societies or societies influenced by European values and mores (think former colonies). By Black, I mean people who identify as Black, having roots on the African continent, and those with dark skin, (echoing Du Bois) that persistent prejudice of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Women include the full gamut of female identity
In the West, this vulnerability is rooted in slavery and the treatment of Black women as beasts of burden, servants, surrogate mothers, and unwilling sex partners. I was raised to display overt expressions of strength to protect myself, to present like “a strong Black woman,” a pervasive and reductionist trope in popular culture that has had a devastating effect. Reductionist because it has reduced millions of people from various backgrounds, cultures and religions to a trope, an overused cliché devoid of meaning and context. Devastating because it has reinforced the idea that black women are not in need of care, not susceptible to physical and or emotional harm, not vulnerable. In practice, black women in workplaces, schools, police stations, hospitals and department stores often don’t get the help they need. First, because they may not be perceived as needing care and protection. Second, most are not raised to ask for help. And third, even if a plea for help was made, it will likely not be perceived as such. So powerful is the strong black woman trope that is distorts pleas for help into something else.
I did the strong Black woman thing for most of my life.
Until a year and half ago, I noticed that I was anxious when I had to interact with others. I had a persistent cold and when I went to the doctor to check it out, my cortisol levels were so high that I had elevated blood sugar and my immune system was suppressed. I was anxious because my interactions with others had become a field of land mines that I had to traverse daily. I had few allies. I was perceived as argumentative. People avoided asking me to make adjustments. I had to do something different.
I began to observe the actions and words of people who were perceived as amiable, yet hard working and effective. I read up on on-violent communication and active listening. I experimented with various behaviors to see what happened. In the end, I redefined and expanded my definition of personal strength to include acts, talks and thoughts that I had long associated with weakness. It isn’t Dorothy’s version with the tears and the complaining to higher ups (though it does involve some version of complaining). Mine is a version of weakness, a Black Female Fragility rather, that I could live with and tell my mother, virago primus herself, all about. By fragility, I mean the fragility of fine porcelain, bunny rabbits and new born babies, things of value that need to be protected. Black Female Fragility is an intentional behavioral approach that allows people within your social group to care for you, even act on your behalf. It’s not manipulation or Jedi mind tricks. It’s about silence, stillness and diplomacy. I was raised to see strength as action, speech and triumph in conflict. In the Black Female Fragility approach: Action becomes stillness.
Speaking becomes silence.
Conflict becomes diplomacy.
I’ve been practicing a BFF for about eighteen months and found that my stress levels are lower. I sleep better. My appetite is back (maybe too back). Conflicts with colleagues are at an all-time low of zero. Before I go any further, I want to heed Kwame Anthony Appiah’s warning/advice and declare that I speak for myself, not for some community that happens to share my various identifiers of race, gender, age, SES, shoe size…whatever. We cool? (Wink.) Here’s how I found my black female fragility and some Ahha moments along the way.
Listen rather than talk. Let other speak for you. Sometimes, don’t talk at all.
Listen. Even if someone was complaining about something or someone, I listened and offered support. I never gave my opinion or took a side. People want to be heard. If I had to respond, it was something like, “happy to hear that” or I asked a question for someone to elaborate. I also showed I was listening. I nodded, smiled and kept an open posture with arms hanging at my sides. It’s hard for most people to act aggressively or negatively toward you if you have open, friendly, frequent dialogue with them. Not everyone but most everyone.
Recently Colleague Y embarrassed me by email and cced the entire office. I didn’t respond and I didn’t bring it up in conversation. Other people did. They brought it up to me, opening the dialogue, and I was able to have a conversation about it. In those convos, I focused on how I felt about the email, as opposed to saying disparaging things about Y. (Ahha: Even if someone “deserves” to have mean things said about them, if you say these mean things, you will be diminished in the eyes of others even if they agree with you. You said those things. Everyone else was thinking it.) Colleagues took the issue to HR on my behalf. This happened because I had a history of frequent, friendly dialogue in which I listened and offered support (see above). I had amassed the social capital needed for people to want to act on my behalf. To end the story, HR called me to talk about the issue, and we agreed on a strategy for dealing with the situation.
I don’t have to contribute to every conversation. It was the hardest behavior to practice. It became easier when I accepted that most people come to understand things in their own way and in their own time. My jabbering on (formerly referred to as explaining) had nothing to do with it.
Sometimes, don’t act. Think things through. Ask for help.
Don’t act in the direction of the person or thing that’s causing you trouble. Like fire, difficult people and situations need fuel to persist. Someone sends a nasty email don’t respond. Report it to HR if you’re at work. If it’s personal, definitely do not respond. If you think it’s harassment, report it. In the past, I would have tried to persuade (Ahha: Rhetorical argument is not a superpower. It’s only useful on K-12 debate teams.) the sender of the email that their actions were immature, bad.. a proper scolding. It never worked to change any situation. I just made enemies. (Ahha: Adults don’t like to be scolded. Kids don’t either.)
At one point Y kept submitting accounting paperwork incorrectly. Before the BFF approach, I would have asked (formerly called “being assertive”) Y to fix and re-submit. I fixed them myself and re-submitted. I thought it through. By submitting the paperwork incorrectly, Y was trying to force me to engage. I didn’t. I was still and spent 10 minutes resubmitting rather than 10 minutes arguing and increasing my cortisol levels.
Another was to be still is to think before or instead of acting. I try to anticipate possible scenarios before I act. How could this possibly turn out? If I’m unsure or think that something I do or say may create conflict or make others uncomfortable, I don’t do it.
Ask for help. Ask and while doing so, share how you feel. Use some of the tenets of non-violent communication, where you ask if a person is willing to do a thing. You are specific about the actions you want a person to do. And you share how you feel using positive language. Here’s a recent ask I made to my supervisor:
“Will you be willing to spend a few minutes with X to explain to them how the things they said in the meeting made me feel like my contributions were not appreciated?”
Pre-BFF, I might have said something like:
“I need you to tell X that they’re being disrespectful and that I don’t appreciate their tone in meetings.”
The BFF approach is a way easier ask.
I am still surprised by how people react to me when I share how I feel. I get an immediate positive response. (Ahha: It isn’t obvious to everyone how you feel. If you don’t share how you feel, you may be perceived as cold or not having feelings at all. Say things that my seem obvious like, I support you. I am happy with what you did, but I’d like to see… you get the idea. People can’t read your mind).
I’ve never regretted diplomacy. Diplomacy involves dealing with people in sensitive and effective ways. Diplomacy has to be effective, which implies that there must a goal to diplomatic actions like negotiation, subtlety, tact, discretion and patience. As you go through your day to day interactions, you need goals, goals about the types pf relationships you want to have with others and the type of self-care you want to give to yourself. Even if you haven’t articulated self-care and relationship goals, these goals will manifest themselves through your actions. The actions you perform become your manifested goal, whether you like it or not.
You keep getting into arguments with others. Relationship Goal: I endeavor to not get along with others and be widely disliked. Self-Care Goal: I want to have stressful days and sleepless nights. Instead let actions proceed from goals. What do you want in your inter-human relationships? What’s your self-care goal? I decided that I wanted to get along with others. I wanted the stress induced glucose levels in my blood to be normal again. So I changed the way I did and said things. Diplomacy is the thread that runs throughout Stillness and Silence, and neither of these behavioral approaches can be effective without careful attention to what you want from your various relationships and how you want to feel, in mind, body and soul.
Now, this all seems like a lot of work. It’s the same amount of work (less actually) as having a fitting response for the verbal indiscretions of others, arguing and carrying around that big sword engraved with the words: I am Strong. Strength is having clear goals and acting on them in effective ways that take less energy and maintain positive relationships with others.
This isn’t going to work in every situation either. Humans and inter-human dynamics are complex and unpredictable. There are times that you’ll need to assert yourself to get some persistent carbon-based organism to back the eff up. You can still be diplomatic here. (Ahha: F-bombs are never. Ever. Diplomatic.) Another time, you may need to demonstrate your expertise and have everyone follow your lead. Treat the BFF approach as guidelines. Articulate your relationship goals and self-care goals then use these approaches to be still, silent and diplomatic. Tweak these approaches to suit your life to create your own version of Black Female Fragility. A Black Female Fragility approach allowed me to meet my relationship and health goals. As I write this, I’ve never felt healthier and stronger in my life.
H. N. Holder: "I was born in Trinidad and Tobago and write poetry, fiction and non-fiction. In 2015, I was a LinkedIn top Voice in Education for an education blog on math, diversity, race and teaching. I’ve published short stories in Caribbean Writer, Small Axe and Aster(ix) Journal. I’m the 2nd prize winner of the 2011 Small Axe Literary Contest and was short listed for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. My debut short story collection, Archetype, is out in late 2019."