International Women’s Day 2022: Race and Mental Health Edition
Updated: Sep 19
Photo and Art Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan
I’m currently reading You Are Your Best Thing, edited by #MeToo Founder Tarana Burke and Vulnerability and Shame researcher Brené Brown. There’s a part in the Introductory chapter where Brené and Tarana are in conversation with one another. In it, Brené acknowledges that as a white woman, she can get away with dressing sloppily to stores without being accosted by security, read as mad, or getting arrested.
Brown writes, “I’m in sweats and have dirty hair and I’m running up the Nordstrom escalator with my daughter to exchange some shoes […] I’m overwhelmed because I look and feel like shit, and there’s all these perfect-looking people giving me the side-eye” (xiii). She goes on to explain that her daughter breaks out into dance (the robot), and she has to choose between policing and disciplining her or to show up for her daughter in her moment of unabashed joy. She opts for the latter and admits that this would have looked very different for a Black woman and her daughter.
Brené adds, "I’ve shopped with enough Black friends to know that if I was not dressed up- even if I was dressed up- and I was in a department store and my Black daughter broke into a dance, there would be a whole other set of variables to consider. Including being hassled by security, possibly separated from my daughter, even arrested” (xiv). These are Brené Brown’s words, not mine.
That same day, or some days later, I stepped out looking less than put together. Having just read that chapter, I was even more hyper-aware of how I was being perceived by others, real or imagined, paranoid or not. In 2022, I'm taking many things less personally, including how strangers who know little about me, or even the long-time folks in my life perceive where I am at this very moment in my life. The assumptions about who I am and my potential based on my current status as a blacklisted cash-poor precarious student no longer get to me.
I remember now that I am temporarily unhoused, reframing homelessness as a digital nomad. That all my belongings are locked up in storage, living off very few items, mostly chosen because they are light or easy to carry from place to place. I have to remind myself that at my highest and fullest potential, I am swaggy and well-dressed. Ask around the Ghanaian Catholic community and you'll know that I come through for church service on Sunday's because sitting pretty is my birthright. I get it from my mama, who got it from Dorothy, her mama, who got it from Ma Rose, my great-grandmother. I'm usually over-dressed and extra and eccentric with it. I remind myself that I am the Founder of Mina Danielle Designs, a whole Creative Director of an African clothing line, who only stopped running her business because she was running the show pretty much alone, burned out, pursuing her Ph.D., and could not afford to build a team to support her passion and dream.
All to say, my appearance and skin colour speak for me before I do, leading others to create all sorts of wild stories in their racist anti-Black classist imaginations, and yes, this includes Black folks who internalize these messages. I get the sense that this is not the case for most white women.
When I was an undergrad, I often noted white women attending class in pajama pants and Ugg boots, unimaginable for me, though I did try to pull off the look, much to the dismay of others. We’re just held to a different standard, Black women, I learned that early in life. I was raised by my mother and aunties to iron my clothes daily, wear a slip under my dress or skirt, an undershirt under my buttoned-up shirts, often tucked in. I’ve thrown caution to the wind in my adult life and don't even know where the iron is these days. But I learned very early in life that appearance was important, that first impressions mattered. They were, essentially, make or break.
This was the respectability politics that I was indoctrinated into. Mostly for my own good. In a later chapter in You Are Your Best Thing, by Prentis Hemphill called, The Wisdom of Process, they point to this as a "matter of decorum, it is a rule about safety," they write. "Safety that is contingent on your being less yourself, and therefore, it is also about shame" (44). As a shame researcher, I could go on about this element of shame, but for now, I just want to highlight that respectability politics in my Black home served as a protective mechanism meant to shield me from a classist, racist, sexist, and anti-Black world. The difference between life and death, upwards mobility, or not. Or so we were led to believe.
I was also having a hard day that day, overcome with grief I had been bottling up and repressing. On my way downtown, I sat on the bus trying not to cry, keeping myself from blinking so the tears wouldn't fall down my face. At one point I looked up at a billboard, literally holding the tears back. I knew that coming undone was not an option for me, not unless I wanted to risk a visit to the psych ward. Real or imagined, I knew to be cautious.
It’s happened to me before, crying in public, and I was mortified. In one particular moment, the day I found out that Dr. Maya Angelou had died actually, I cried while on a treadmill or some other machine at the gym. Luckily the tears blended in with my sweat, and I quietly slipped away to the change room. Being vulnerable in public is not a luxury I am afforded, not even in private, actually.
When I got off the bus, as I ventured to run my errands, I ran into a white homeless woman who broke into tears on the street. Admittedly, I felt some type of way. I had just held my tears in because it was dangerous for me to do what she was doing. And here she was, having a full-on panic attack, sobbing uncontrollably in public.
I asked her if she was okay, something so few people do for me. She and I had some communication challenges. I wanted to help, but I didn't know how to. In the end, I resolved that we both needed pre-rolls, so I told her I’d be back and went to go buy some. I ended up getting distracted and thrown off, never did go back to her. But I learned a lot that day.
We both needed to release tears and were struggling to keep our composure in public. Yet we had two completely different experiences. Crying and being vulnerable as a Black woman does not get the same reception as white tears. Black tears are seen as emotional manipulation, rarely comforted, always villainized, or seen as disgusting, drawing more hatred than kindness, rarely empathy.
Because You Are Your Best Thing is an anthology, it shares the stories of many people, including Tanya Denise Fields, Founder of Mama Tanya's Kitchen and the Black Feminist Project. In her section called, Dirty Business, she shares a story of surviving intimate partner violence, almost being killed by an old partner in front of her kids. Going public about the abuse was difficult for her. Tanya writes, "I believed that in doing so I would seem weak, stupid, and fraudulent. Smart women, physically large women like me aren't victims, and on top of that it would seem like an admission to the very loud detractors that I was in fact a walking mess of a stereotype" (27). I felt this. This is the racial difference that Brené Brown was touching on. Even as a white woman, she get this demarcation.
I can’t even cry in the safety or privacy of home without being made fun of, called a cry baby, and gossiped about. I'm seen as sensitive and emotional, rather than just doing what normal human beings are meant to do. Which is to express their emotions, pass through moments of sadness and grief, feel, be, live. Imagine that.
What if I had laughed at her, walked away, told her to get it together,stop being so weak, took a video, and posted it on social media. I no doubt would have been framed as a monster, unkind, inhumane, and rightfully so.
But that’s just it. As a Black woman, I’m already stereotyped as these things. While I extend empathy and have compassion for the lived realities of a white homeless woman, keenly aware that our intersections are different, and that we both have access to different sets of privileges, so rarely is empathy reciprocated or directed at me. If I point this out, I'm told that I'm being divisive, emotional, hyper-sensitive. "pLaYiNg ThE rAcE cArD." (Just shut up. For your sake and mine).
These thoughts sit with me in the wake of International Women’s Day this past week (which I wasn't feeling this year, felt hypocritical, sad even, but that's for a different blog post). I champion all women, yes, but I have an affinity for the experiences of Black women because our realities while similar to others, are so textured in comparison to other women, including other women of colour who are not Black.
It's not about “playing the race card,” but attending to these conversations with awareness and attention to the nuances that colour our realities. I’m grateful for white women like Dr. Brown who are able to use their platforms to raise the differences among us; because they are real. Whether you want to believe them or not, irrespective of how you minimize and dismiss them. My tears and pain are not received the same way as most white women, including those who are homeless, never mind the affluent well-to-do white girls.
Here's to us creating a future where all humans are met with empathy and compassion for their struggles and pain, including Black women and men, Black boys and girls. We’re not there yet, I know, and may never be in my lifetime, but Black people deserve so much better. So do white cash-poor homeless women too. It’s the structural and systemic that needs a redo, not those of us living in neurodivergent mind-bodies.
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Until next time, in solidarity.