Who You Be? How Black Women Can Live Authentically

by Quanisha Smith

I’ve always had a secure understanding of who I am. As a young Black girl navigating White affluent academic environments, I proudly announced my South Bronx origins. When I began to speak out for students of color in high school, I embraced being affectionately labeled, The Loud Black Girl. As I grew into my womanhood, I advised my girlfriends on how to express their emotional and physical desires to their mates. Not once did I view my varied ways of being as problematic until I desired to focus on my professional development.

My Black female mentors encouraged me to be more tactful and diplomatic (translation: less outspoken and confrontational). Their reason, Black women of a certain type (educated, moneyed, etc.) don’t perpetuate societal stereotypes. I admit I had qualities that needed refining. However, I began to question why I had to redefine myself in contrast to racial and gender stereotypes. I discovered Black American women craft identities in relation to who we don’t want to be. We become the dutiful wife to prove we aren’t emasculating; we allow colleagues to speak over us to demonstrate we aren’t loud and angry; we act aloof to romantic advances to demonstrate we aren’t hypersexual.

In their 2003 book Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden report on the results of their African American Voices Project. After interviewing and surveying hundreds of Black women, they found that “97% are aware of the negative stereotypes of African-American women and 80% confirm that they have been personally affected by persistent race and sexual assumptions”. As a result, Black women shift their behaviors, outward expressions, and tone. This shifting impacts how we see ourselves, how we purse personal relationships, and how we behave at work.  How can we craft a womanhood that is not in relation to these stereotypes?

I contest that we discover our real identifies when we venture beyond who we are as defined by our roles, occupations and activities. Think about it- what is your response when asked, “Who are you?”

Do you say, I am a mother, a daughter, a (insert occupation or hobby). You reply to the question with what you do. Rarely, do we say: I am compassionate woman focused on making a difference. We refrain from mentioning who we “BE” at our core. Unfortunately, this lack of self-perception prevents others from recognizing us.

Recognition is essential to our psyche and sense of self, states Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry in her 2011 book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. She asserts, misrecognition is not only painful to the psyche, but also the political self, the citizen self. Through examining various political philosophies, she maintains that individuals become who they are as a result of being seen. Simultaneously, recognition in the public sphere is a result of nurturing solitude in a private and protected realm. But these are not our social realties.

Black women lack opportunities for affirming and accurate recognition. Due to the history of chattel slavery, welfare dependency and stigmatization, we struggle with hyper-visibility imposed by our lower social status. As a group, we have neither the hiding place of private property nor a reasonable expectation of being properly recognized in society. The larger implications of this misrecognition are injustices in distribution- for example; we experience inequities around income, education, and social justice. They are all a result of us not being “seen” accurately as citizens.

Our defensive identifications as “I am not this, I am not that” in response to imposed racial and gender stereotypes limits us from discovering and acknowledging who we really are or who we desire to be. To live authentically is to craft a self in relation to your values and is to align every aspect of your life with your true self. When you know who you are, you know what you value; when you know what you value, you gain clarity and focus.

Here’s a Quick Way to Discover Your Values

The first step to understanding who you be is to identify your values. Many of us are unaware of what drives us to make decisions. As you list what’s important, you discover what priorities are shaping your life. So you might end up with a list something like this:

1)    Work
2)    Saturday brunch with friends
3)    Master’s program
4)    Family outings
5)    Dates

The second step is to derive your values from your list of priorities. If you need help, here’s a list of values. From the list above, we could conclude this person values success, family, learning, love and fun. There’s no wrong way to do this, but ideally try to identify 10-15 values.

The third step is prioritizing your values. This is the most time consuming step. It begins with asking yourself: Which one of these values is most important to my life?

If you have difficulty comparing two values, for example, you are attempting to decide between success and love, then you can ask yourself, “Would I prefer to work late or to go on a dinner date?” This assumes that success equates to working late and love equates to dating life. Answering these questions will help you to decide which value is more important to you right now.

Don’t fret over your priority list. Values are not static. If your list doesn’t align with who you desire to be, modify it. The person you are right now may not be the person you need to be to get where you want to go.  Unsure where you want to go? Write your eulogy.

It sounds morbid, but you can ask yourself, “What do I want as my legacy?” If your current values and behaviors misalign, simply plan a new course.

I have to ask: My sister, Who You Be?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Quanisha M. Smith is a writer, speaker, trainer and social justice advocate based in Philadelphia, PA, who explores issues centered on Black women, leadership, and social change. She is a macro social work masters candidate at Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work & Social Research. You can follow her on Twitter @SistaInCharge or visit www.QuanishaSmith.com for lessons on Leadership, Self-care and Personal Development.

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