Ain't I A Woman? The Erasure Of Black Femininity In White Spaces

By Bee Quammie

As I walked into the grocery store, I caught the tail end of a man saying he’d “be a gentleman” and pass carts to the “lovely ladies” waiting. It was a busy Saturday morning, so I filed in line behind the women ahead of me and waited my turn.

I watched as this kind man yanked carts out of their holding space and passed them to each woman, offering a cheerful “Have a great morning!” with each one. After the woman in front of me wheeled away, I stepped forward ready to smile and thank the self-proclaimed gentleman for being so helpful. He tugged at the next cart, threw me a sideways glance, then let go and began to walk away. The sudden shift in behaviour shocked me, but I had a feeling I knew what happened.

I got my own cart, trailed behind the man, and as I passed said, “I guess I wasn’t lovely enough today?”

He looked at me with surprise then stuttered, “Oh, uh - uh - I’m sorry! I, uh, I thought you were, uh, a man!”

This gentleman was White. The women he helped? All White. Me? I’m a Black woman, and this was not the first time that my femininity has been erased in predominantly White spaces.

While Black femininity is often hypersexualized, there are many instances when our womanhood—and our humanity—is ignored. Aside from blatant racism or general rudeness, I posit that there are three main reasons why this happens:

My femininity looks different in White spaces.

I don’t think I have a very masculine look. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think I was pretty on most days. My deduction through years of personal research is that my 6-ft tall brown frame is often instinctively linked by White people to fit the description of a man before realizing that I am very much a woman. Living in a predominantly White area, I’m generally taller and browner than most of the women (and men) I encounter. When niceties like having doors opened or being allowed to step into an elevator first aren’t afforded to me, I sometimes chalk that up to the offender being in a rush or just being plain rude. But then situations like GroceryGate happen, when I’m in the presence of White women who receive general politeness and chivalry that isn't given to me. Then I know this goes deeper than someone having bad manners. And when the offender admits to misgendering? Then the depth of understanding how my race and gender intersect and are view by White people goes to a whole new level.

You believe that I’m a strong Black woman that don’t need no help.
A coworker once saw me struggling to carry two boxes of files into my office. He smiled at me as he passed by in the hallway and kept walking without a care in the world.

“Do you mind helping me with these?” I called out. He looked startled, then jogged back to grab one of the boxes.

“So sorry,” he said. “You looked like you were managing well! You never look like you need help!”

I later saw him do that same jog to offer unsolicited assistance to a White coworker carrying a tray of coffee. Whether she or I needed the help isn’t really the issue. It’s the fact that he offered to help her, but neglected to do the same for me. Because in his mind, I didn’t need it. Men of all races cling to the Strong Black Woman trope because placing us in that box absolves them of doing the work to see us as full women, full human beings. In their minds, I don’t need help because I can do everything myself. I don’t need common courtesy because I can just get over it. Speaking for myself and myself only: this is false.

It’s a matter of Cross Race Effect.

The Cross Race Effect is defined, in part, as “the finding that people are better at recognizing faces from their own race relative to other races,” and it comes into play here. This theory, related to the ingroup advantage phenomenon, offers a psychosocial explanation around why my brown face doesn’t register as easily or as positively among a sea of White ones. Could this be why White people hold doors open for each other, then offer a sheepish apology when that door slams in my face? Is that why, in predominantly White spaces, femininity is defined solely by the attributes White women possess? It’s an interesting thought.

When I’m faced with covert racism, I wonder, “Am I being too sensitive?” My experiences may not be common across the board, but they are all too common for me. I have learned not to expect basic courtesies or chivalrous acts in certain spaces, but to be pleasantly surprised when they come. Exerting my femininity—as well as my humanity—in these brown limbs is a complex practice, but one that I undertake daily.

I will not be ignored. I will not be erased. You will see me. I am here.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Bee Quammie is a Toronto-based healthcare professional, writer, and founder of and Recognized by Black Enterprise and the 2014 Black Canadians Awards for her digital work, Bee aims to live '83 To Infinity's motto: "It's never too late to learn something new, do something new, or be someone new." Follow her on Twitter at @BeeSince83.

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