To Clap Back or Nah: Learning How to Handle Foolishness Appropriately

by C. Imani Williams

Sometimes we have to make a quick choice. It can make the difference between exiting a hostile situation peacefully, or losing it and showing out. We like to think that as educated women who are no doubt on the journey to reaching and maintaining Queen status, that we simply refuse to “go there”—myself included. I really try. I know now that I still have work to do.

Two weeks ago, I was verbally accosted on a main street in Eagle Rock, CA. The city maintains a large Filipino community. A Filipino woman looked at me as I walked by and started chanting, "Chi, chi, chi... Go the f*** back to Africa, you n***** b****.” Ironically, I had just written about Black women and the art of clapping back on For Harriet, and trust, I had to catch myself before I reacted. Well, I tried.

I did react. I was giving her the side eye, my mind thinking, “Dafuq did you just say to me?!”

What my mouth said was, “You really don't want to go there with me today.”

We exchanged a few more choice words. Immediately after the incident, I felt shame. She was clearly mentally ill. Instead of ignoring her hateful spiel, I had taken her words to heart, even though I know I’m none of those things. They hurt nonetheless and made me feel real bitterness towards another human being, another woman of color. Had she been lucid and socially conscious, we may have had a conversation about her bigotry and anti-woman remarks.

Since this was not the case, I should have stayed more level-headed. It was the first time anyone has ever said anything like that to my face. It made me wonder how many other sisters have been verbally assaulted with racial and gender hate speech. That's what it was and it felt plain dreadful. I didn't like how the words stung, or how fast that hurt turned to fury. Had it become physical (thankfully it didn't escalate to that point), the police would have put her on a 48-hour hold and I would have been arrested and detained for disorderly conduct. Maybe even for physical assault.

From this situation, I was reminded that I need to have boundaries and know when to walk away. I'm too old and too much of a lady for that type of foolishness. Clapping back is one thing; placing oneself in harm’s way on a bet isn't smart. Unless you don't mind scrapping and getting juke-joint loose in the streets, then it is best to handle these unfortunate moments like a queen.

This means different things to different people. When we act a fool, we can be sure that social media will be there to put our emotional moment on blast. The Internet keeps the moment alive for anyone who wants to Google. We know that black women are incarcerated at a rate six times higher compared to others. Girl-on-girl violence has pre-tweens and teen girls shackled to benches in detention centers for acting out violently. It behooves us as adults to lead by example.

What do you do when your first reaction to being attacked is to strike back physically? How and why do we choose our method of responding to disrespected as Black women? Is it ever OK to wild out as a queen with boundaries? Is it necessary? What does it do to our psyche as Black women when we continuously choose to ignore blatant disrespect?

When it comes to protecting ourselves, we should have a working knowledge of self-defense and teach that to our children. Our girls need to know what we believe should be their best course of action, God forbid they find themselves in a bad situation. This goes far beyond the simple act of clapping back. Bullying is a real issue for many adolescents today. It is responsible for a host of emotional and physical illnesses, and often leads to depression and suicide. Children must know they have every right to stand up to those who are bullying. And as adults, we must provide our young people with ways to protect and empower themselves, as well as tools for communicating more effectively.

But how do we best protect our children? We can't be with them 24/7. And by the time they enter first grade, they are already being influenced by others in ways we have no control over. It's expected when they mix with other kids.

For some parents, encouraging their children to fight may seem like the best answer. For others, not so much. I was not allowed to fight growing up, but I did anyways. 

Unlike some of my peers, I never heard, “Don't come back in here until you win!” or my favorite, “If you lose I'm going to whip your ass!” When I did get into a fight in junior high, I was responding to a male classmate who punched me in the eye. My grandfather got me back in school. My mother wasn't about to be late to her job (she was also a middle school teacher) dealing with foolishness. Grandaddy was on my side; he told me I should have picked up the desk and hit slugger with it.

Years later as an adult, I would be the intake counselor for the boy who hit me. He apologized for the incident that occurred in our seventh grade English class. He explained that was getting bullied daily because he was gay in 1977, and he took it out on me.

But we don't always get an apology.

Four days after the street assault, the same woman passed me again in Eagle Rock. She was quiet and didn't make eye contact. I suppose she was back on her meds. Instead of her presence triggering a negative reaction, I prayed for her safety and well being.

As black women, we have hard choices to make on a regular basis. Every day, we have yet another fire to put out. Clapping back has its place. It is a part of our survival tool kit. Everyone needs to have a little extra protection at the ready. But we have to be discerning in how we protect ourselves. For some of us, our first instinct is to fight. Perhaps, though, it would be better to put that energy to better use by channeling it into something good.

I was ready to beat a woman down for calling me out of my name. I lost sight of the fact that she was projecting her self-hatred on me. I took the bait. I could have chosen to scrap it out, but common sense prevailed and I walked away. Ultimately, this was the right move. She could have had a weapon and been just agitated enough to use it.

For the most part, I am committed to using clap backs in the spirit of fun and/or when it’s appropriate to exercise executive privilege over my well-being as needed.

Translation: If I need to go there, I can and will.

Photo: Shutterstock

C. Imani Williams, is a freelance writer and human justice activist. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and a Masters in Guidance and Counseling from Eastern Michigan University. Her work has been published in Between the Lines, Tucson Weekly, The Michigan Citizen, Harlem Times, and with various popular culture, health, news blogs and magazines.

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