Black Attitudes Matter: Why I Don't Care If You Think I Look Mean

by Ashleigh Shackelford

"Ashleigh, you have an attitude problem,” my high school supervisor says.

She would hassle me almost everyday in high school telling me to fix my face or to lose my attitude. But I didn't have an attitude. I was just a Black girl walking through the hallways without displaying a vivid form of enthusiasm for being at school. So of course I clapped back with, "I don't have an attitude!" And boop, I was in detention for responding with an attitude that I never had before she approached me with some bullshit.

I found myself caught up in these situations more often than not. My teachers would say that I either talked too much, or when I didn’t talk, I was berated for having a poor attitude and subsequently punished. I would be used as an example for being the poster child for not participating in a room full of white kids who never talked or contributed. My facial expressions were policed constantly even though I wasn’t intentionally saying anything with my body language, I would just be looking at the teacher.

Flash-forward to my adulthood work experience, I would run into the same issue. My boss told me, “People don’t find you very approachable, Ashleigh. You come off kind of aggressive when you come into spaces.” At first, I took this very personal and spent weeks going over what I was doing wrong when I interacted with people – especially due my history of being targeted for this supposed attitude problem. But I began to realize slowly, but surely that I am just a Black girl that does not do enough to challenge the anger and threat my body represents to the world.

This Black Girl Attitude phenomenon lies within the idea that Black girls, women, and femmes are inherently angry, bitter, unrelenting, and a threat to functioning institutions and spaces. In understanding that this is how I’m seen, I do not intentionally align my presentation, navigation, or performance as a Black girl in a way that embodies the opposite of the stereotypes codified upon my existence within white supremacist patriarchy.

Darlene Clark Hine defined this alignment as the ‘culture of dissemblance’; in which, a rejection of stereotypes defining Black women’s sexuality, agency, and autonomy by becoming the exact opposite of that stereotype. In reality, most of us do this to survive. But at this point in my life, I don’t want to stand up straight in a crooked room; I want to dismantle the whole house.

Thinking back on these experiences, microaggressions surrounding my presence and demeanor always came up. I would be told that I’m intimidating at first but so down to earth when you finally got to know me. I would be called a bitch by people just for walking in the room with my regular ass facial expression on. Some would refer to this as 'resting bitch face' but the politics behind the term are applied forms of anti-Black misogyny and beauty expectations. The reality is that I should be given the opportunity to offend you with intent rather than the expectation that my face provides a basis for aggressiveness until proven otherwise.

Black girls are scripted as angry, bitter, ungrateful, savage beings that are denied the ability to be seen as dimensional or nuanced. So when a Black girl like me is walking around, existing, not forcing myself to assimilate to this politicized idea of 'approachability,' I am in direct affirmation of society's idea of black femininity’s abrasive nature.

To complicate this more, we can easily say that Black girls, women, and femmes have every reason to have an attitude. In what world do we exist without trauma, stress, and violence? We’re navigating within a society that is designed for us to hurt. So when I’m told I have an attitude, sometimes I rationalize that I my trauma is being recognized because I carry it in my bones, in my very being. But the limitation of only seeing our bodies as trauma is a problem. We are so much more than just suffering. We are power, beauty, resilience, exuberance, and vulnerability. We deserve to be seen as dynamic human beings without expectation or restraint.

Within my journey, recognizing how hard it is to exist without conforming has led me to understand that I can’t actually use my Black girl assimilation toolkit to avoid being violated. In referencing Darlene Clark Hine's culture of dissemblance, I've realized that I do not want to be anyone but myself, unapologetically. Respectability and assimilation are created to force Black bodies, especially Black femme bodies to conform to standards they can never fit within. We can fight to sit at the table, but as long as the table exists, we will always be on the menu.

I have an attitude some days, and some days I don't. My attitude could be for a multitude of reasons, such as surviving a world that seeks to erase me. My attitude could be just because. My face probably won't change regardless though. I refuse to force myself into an uncomfortable smile or into explaining why I walk into a room with an aura that disrupts white supremacist conformity. I don’t need an explanation for my agency. I want to be free to have or not have an attitude. I want to be free to be myself.

Photo: Shutterstock

Ashleigh Shackelford is a radical Black fat femme queer writer residing in Baltimore, MD. Ashleigh is a pop-culture enthusiast, a community organizer at Black Action Now, and the founder of a body positivity organization Free Figure Revolution. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Africana Studies at Morgan State University.

1 comment:

  1. Slow clap! I get this same crap at work. I'm sorry that I'm not smiling in the face of sexism and racism!


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