“I Am Not Yours”: Respecting Black Women’s Agency

by Inda Lauryn

When Kesenia Boom wrote “Sh*t White Feminists Say to Black Feminists (And How to Counter Them),” she recognized the ways in which white feminists dismiss the valid concerns and issues unique to Black women. When Jessica Williams announced she would not seek the hosting position on The Daily Show, much to the disappointment of her fans, white feminism took it upon itself to diagnose Williams as having impostor syndrome. In a post for The Billfold, Ester Bloom writes:
Jessica Williams, respectfully, I reject your humility. What on earth does “under-qualified” mean when it comes to being a comedian? You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re self-possessed. Is there something I’m missing?
And how insulting that so many press outlets took her tweets at face value despite the fact that they were displaying clear symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs. the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves “unqualified.” (My emphasis added.)
Someone who does not personally know Jessica Williams decided she knew what was best for her. In her own fashion, Williams clapped back and many of her Twitter supporters followed suit. She responded:
Are you unaware, how insulting that can be for a fully functioning person to hear that her choices are invalid? Because you have personally decided, that I DON’T know myself – as a WOMAN you are saying that I need to lean in. Because of my choice, you have diagnosed me with something without knowing me at all. For the world to see. 
I am a black woman and I am a feminist and I am so many things. I am truly honored that people love my work. But I am not yours. No offense, but Lean the F*** away from me for the next couple of days. I need a minute. (My emphasis added.)
Bloom has since apologized for her remarks. However, she first only apologized for implying Williams’ choice was not hers before finally relenting that her “diagnosis” was out of line as well.

While this white feminist definitely violated the rule of not saying complete nonsense to Black women, she also demonstrated something many of us have learned about white feminists over the years: they have no interest in listening to us. They also fail to make distinctions in the ways race, class, sexuality, etc. affect how we experience gender.

They assume that they have a right to expect us to live our lives in a way conducive to their own comfort and well-being rather than expecting us to follow our hopes and desires for ourselves.

Part of this expectation is rooted in the myth of the Strong Black Woman. Black women are expected to take care of ourselves as well as everyone else. Men and non-Black women are taught they are allowed to use our bodies, lives, and experiences in ways empowering to them even if it goes against our own interests. This myth also fails to recognize that Black women have limits as human beings and we may well be aware of our personal limits. When Black women fall out of line with their expectations, they take it upon themselves to pathologize us.

This situation with Williams confirms what Black feminists have said for centuries: white feminists see themselves as default and that their experiences are also the experiences of all feminists and all women. When Black women dare to contradict, they shoot back that we are contributing to toxic feminism and are quick to say they are being bullied. In fact, Williams’ response was coded as “angry” when a writer for Time magazine attempted to frame Williams’ tweets as “firing back” at her critics when her response was just the opposite.

All the while, white feminists remain staunchly unwilling to listen to valid critiques of mainstream feminism that has become corporatized with movements such as Lean In, the movement the white feminist called on to “help” Williams reach her potential. The problem with this call: Bloom did not speak to Williams, does not know Williams, and never asked Williams about her own personal goals for her career. She also does not seem to even have a good idea of what Impostor Syndrome is.

Instead, she assumed she knew what was best for a stranger. She decided to project her own expectations onto a Black woman with no regard for Williams’ own autonomy. Most insultingly, she decided to diagnose Williams. She appeared unaware that she was overstepping boundaries and actually going against the core ideal of feminism: to uphold the rights of women to live their lives the way they see fit.

Black women have our own agency. Until white feminists recognize this, Black women will continue to reject coalition building that may very well work against our interests. White feminists who do not practice intersectional, inclusive feminism make the movement toxic for those of us who must live with the layered oppressions that partially construct our political and personal identities.

We do not live as bodies to project your own hopes and desires without experiencing the burden placed on our bodies. If you are not listening to us and taking our word about our own experiences, then you are part of the problem. We know our lives and what we want to do with those lives. It is not for you to decide.

Men and non-Black women need to remember Williams declaration: “I am not yours.”

Photo: Jessica Williams, courtesy of The Daily Show

Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine, Interfictions, The Toast, and Callaloo, as well as had her work featured on blogs such as Black Girl Nerds, Bitch Flicks, and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects, occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press and shares music playlists at MixCloud.

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