You’re not good enough and you never will be and we need to remind you of this again and again. Do not get comfortable. What you’ve done matters little. For every act is just an act, existing in a vacuum, not representative of the whole, or even a part of who you think you are.
This is what I imagine is being said to someone like Beyonce or Rihanna or Michelle Obama by the media and by society at large. It might not be said explicitly, but it is implied forcefully and continuously. They are three of the most visible black female public figures and they are three of the most controversial. Controversy, I realize now, is largely a manufactured tool, one that is used to control the narratives of the people around us. And the narrative of the black woman – public or not – rarely changes: you will not be good enough. Do not forget.
Regardless of what Beyonce or Rihanna or Michelle Obama does, they will get criticized for their actions. To the public, there is no such thing as a good or respectable black woman. They are women who are almost “good,” but not quite. The ways in which society tries to find and develop these characteristics of “bad” rarely differ from figure to figure.
All of their actions are up for debate, even when they are personal and non-threatening. What has Beyonce done but work hard to be the best performer she could possibly be? Well, for one they say, she is not a good enough feminist. One of my friends said that she was uncomfortable with the fact that Beyonce named her tour “The Mrs. Carter Tour.” But why is a woman’s feminist cred eliminated because she changed her last name? Why do personal decisions that threaten no one eradicate one’s support of equality between the sexes?
My mother changed her last name and I can’t think of a better representation of feminism lived in the everyday world. Her strength, her work effort, her words about hard work and personal achievement, the visibility of shared responsibility … all of these things led me to feminism before I knew what that was.
Beyonce is not a good feminist. She is not feminist at all. This is what they say. A recent Ms. magazine article fueled the flames not for what it said about Beyonce’s feminism, but because anything was said at all. Readers were upset that anyone could try to relate the two. Beyonce is not a feminist because she dresses “provocatively.” Beyonce is not a feminist because she changes her last name, because she shows vulnerability, because she is proud of her motherhood and her marriage. Beyonce is not a feminist because she is not what a feminist looks like. She is not a feminist because we say she is not. If we seek to promote the value in feminism and challenge the negative connotations of feminism in the public eye, tearing down a performer who speaks openly about women doing right for themselves, who literally called herself a feminist, does more harm than good.
When I see Michelle Obama on the screen, I see a woman like the women I grew up around. She is poised and beautiful and intelligent. She is also real. There is an argument to be made about the decorum of the First Lady, but I don’t think Obama has ever questioned this.
Perhaps it is because she exists not as a wallflower, but as a powerhouse that we are threatened by an eye roll. Perhaps because she is literal strength that we find her reaction to a heckler as a wrong. As an outsider, these reactions shock me. Why are we upset that Obama reacts? What do we expect of her?
As an insider (an insider of the black female experience), they do not. Black women can’t show their cards. If you have achieved something, the only way to continue rising is to keep one's head down. Opinions? Emotions? Reflections? Please! Take a seat!
In a recent, ridiculous story for the UK's Daily Mail, Liz Jones chastised Rihanna for not acting as a perfect role model. Ignore the fact that one of the most consistent things about the singer is that she refuses the label of "role model." Why do we expect this of her at all? Why is she not allowed to live her life as she chooses? Yes, she has young fans. But why do we act as if good parenting is no longer a viable option in preventing our children from "bad" influences? If we are to talk about the actions of pop stars, why is Rihanna criticized more than her peer, Lady Gaga, who too speaks openly about drug use and recklessness? There exists a double standard, one that has become abundantly clear.
There exists, in the life of a black woman, public or not, the notion that the other shoe will drop. You are waiting for the challenge, the comeuppance, the moment in which others will tell you who you are and how you should live. This extends to the general female experience, too, and the Other experience as a whole. The other shoe waits. You wait.
This is why our interpersonal bonds are so important and public. I’m remembering a man who said that black women are catty. That made no sense to me. The ease in which I build friendships with women who look like me cannot be explained. But perhaps there is the reality of what we must face and what we have been told. One can never overstate the importance of knowing your stories and feelings are important and true.
I am reminded of what my parents – my mother in particular – used to say: You will have to work twice as hard to get half as far. You do not always have the luxury to dress down, to not always be your best, to mess up. Any sign of weakness, of humanity, is a reinforcement of stereotypes we have yet to eradicate. I did not know this to be true then, but I understand it now. The world reveals itself.