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Young woman whispering to friend, third woman sitting alone

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Walking into the locker room at the gym one afternoon, I saw a Black woman sitting on the bench right in front of the spot where I had put my things in a locker. I smiled and made eye contact as I approached, and I said “hello.” The facial expression I received in return could best be described as a grimace; not quite a scowl, but worlds away from a smile.

I thought “oh, well,” and went on about my business unlocking my combination lock. There was another woman, also Black, on my other side, and I offered her a similar spoken greeting. Again, neither eye contact nor a “hello” were offered in return for mine.

Again, I’m a figurative big girl and a literal grown-ass woman, so I certainly wasn’t going to fret over these two chicks choosing not to greet me in the way I had greeted them. I was unpressed and unbothered, until I turned away and caught them mocking me in my peripheral vision.

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They hadn’t been sitting anywhere near each other, but the visual shorthand with which they rolled their eyes and mouthed my “hello,” their heads bobbing around as though I had come across to them like a ditz or a child, indicated that they probably knew each other. Now, it’s one thing to be minding your own business, or just not care to talk to strangers, or be absorbed in your thoughts, etc. But to go beyond your unenthusiastic response to mock someone simply saying hello? C’mon sis.

I considered saying something in the moment, but I had someplace to be, so I grabbed my bag and left. The encounter stayed with me, though, not because it was that awful or that odd, but because it was familiar.

“Mean Girls” was not just a great movie of the early aughts. The Mean Girl is real and sometimes she grows up to become the Mean Woman, and she exists across all racial and ethnic delineations. There is a particular type of meanness, however, that sometimes exists between Black women, and we’ve got to kick that mess to the curb. Now.

“She think she cute.”

When I was in junior high and high school, that statement alone sometimes preceded a punch to the face that possessed said alleged cuteness, or, in more extreme cases, a razor blade. It was spat from one Black girl to another, an insult and a threat all rolled into one, as though thinking you’re cute is the worst offense one could ever commit in this life.

Of course we all know genuinely conceited girls and also rancid, rotten chicks. I hope for those gals the type of self-reflection, support, and love that can affect real change in one’s personality and choices. But I’m not talking about them.

I’m talking about the girl who simply dared to smile, who shines like we know we can, and alternately the girl who dulls that shine out of fear or insecurity. These troublesome emotions plague so many of us in youth, but here in our 20’s, 30’s, and beyond, have you not yet learned that A) Sis you ARE cute, and B) It’s OK to think you are?

I didn’t feel victimized in that locker room, but it was eerily reminiscent of high school, especially given the setting. A few days later, I was at a professional event, and was introduced to the only other Black woman there, whose impressive reputation preceded her. I greeted her enthusiastically, and she hit me with a glassy-eyed smile that showed all teeth and no emotion.

I ate my finger foods and sipped my signature cocktail and observed her interactions with other, non-Black women. She seemed warm and kind, so I figured that maybe her thong had just been itching her at the moment when we were introduced and I tried again. I congratulated her on a particular move her company had made, and the fake smile returned. You know the one. It’s what Nene Leakes looks like when she’s mentally ended a conversation but is contractually obligated to keep filming a scene with the other Real Housewives of Atlanta.

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Like most of us, I don’t care for perkiness—if I had been chirping in these women’s faces like a Disney cartoon bird, I would probably understand their apparent desire to smother me with a pillow. And I reject the notion of cattiness and jealousy of that sort expressed toward strangers at our age and grown-assed woman-ness. What’s clear, however, is that me rejecting a notion doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

So, I’m asking you to reject it too. Most of you reading this are already on board with honoring how much we rock, and I hope you’re passing on the message to our sisters who haven’t gotten it yet. I understand those who haven’t, and the impulse to shut others out—my West Indian elders taught me to mind my business, to not trust anyone and if something doesn’t feel like a struggle, you’re probably doing it wrong. That’s awful advice, but there’s an ugly nugget of truth hidden under that mindset of misery: we’ve struggled, and it’s rough.

My particular (un)role models are of the curried variety, but as Black women, we have particular struggles in common across the diaspora. I’m not suggesting that we describe the experience of Black womanhood in terms of pain only, as some try to, but rather that for many of us at many points in our lives, another Black woman smiling in our faces arouses suspicion, not joy.

I go out of my way to smile at my fellow Black women, for a few reasons. One, I spend much time in public combating street harassment, which pre-empts or takes away my smile, and I often see stranger-sisters as co-defendants in the trial of The People vs. Black Women’s Public Joyfulness. I want to be a safe space for them, and it’s nice if they are in return, even if that “space” only exists as a passing glance on a busy street.

(It bears mentioning that street harassment comes from women as well, not just men. Though far less frequent, someone’s stud auntie hollered just the other day in a way that did not inspire me to smile brightly at her, to say the least.)

More importantly, however, I’m encouraged by the increasing acceptance of Blackness as the Beautiful that we’ve always known it can be. Not that we need mainstream media’s permission to shine, of course, but representation matters, and as we see so many more shades of us being celebrated, I want us to celebrate each other as well. You can’t cheer Lupita and Bey online all day and then roll your eyes at [random sister saying hello] or [young sis working at your local Starbucks].

We’ve historically been pitted against each other, particularly in professional situations where it felt like there could only be one, and then another of Us was introduced into the ecosystem. That’s so much foolishness. As we break down the fallacies that we’re always 100% Strong Black Women and here to take care of the world like everybody’s Mammy, let’s break down these crusty walls between us, too.

Our strength was never in question; it’s our vulnerability and humanity that I want us to show and feel more and more. I can remember being told “Don’t smile too much; you’ll seem simple.” Simple, of course, meaning “slow,” in all of its hideous ableist glory. Warmth and kindness are not detrimental traits, especially not when expressed between each other.

The gang of Black Womanhood shouldn’t be one that you have to be jumped into. We’ve collectively been through enough. Let’s cut each other the slack others often don’t, and embrace #BlackGirlMagic, rocking out, and being carefree.

Be cute and think it, and tell someone else they are too. Say it like it’s a good thing, because it is.


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