Protecting Ourselves: Black Women, Survival, and the Art of Clapping Black

by C. Imani Williams

There’s no one more skilled at the art of clapping back than Black women. The ability to check a person who came after us with deft precision is something we do very well, whether it’s in person, through text, or via social media.

Two recent examples include Amber Rose and Venus Williams. Amber Rose’s verbal sparring with Khloe Kardashian, as well as her clap backs to Kanye West after his most recent Breakfast Club interview. She used an arsenal of facts to to slice Kimye & Ko. up. Another worthy example of the expert clap back involves tennis superstar Venus Williams checking her opponent Barbara Zahlavo-Strycova after kicking her butt in a three-win setter. Zahlavo-Stycova tried to grim Williams with a puffed-up look that suggested she may have wanted to fight. Williams pointedly asked her opponent, “You looking for something?” In essence, Williams was letting homegirl know, “If you shake the trees, I’mma rake the leaves.”

Black women across the board have a way of hitting back whether we are under the glare of the spotlight or not. It is a survival instinct that leaves many who may try to offend our spirit to think long and hard before trying us again… if ever.

However, Black women often have to conceal this skill in order to avoid being labeled as “angry,” even when responding to personal attacks would be more than warranted. Too often, people believe we don’t deserve the same kind of respect or agency over ourselves, and make insulting comments on our character as well as our physical appearance—hair, lips, skin tone, and bodies. This foolishness may be tainted with blatant or subtle racism and sexism, and it’s experienced in a variety of settings, including the workplace.

We are expected to tow the line of appropriateness all time. Not wanting to cause what others may see as disruptions, we learn to play the game and to choose our battles. Our personalities are dissected by those encased in privilege as they attempt to keep us “in our place,” without the fear of reprisal.

This is where they err: wrongly believing that we won’t speak up for ourselves. And when we do, they are astounded and offended when we flip the script and tag that ass as the strong black women we are, with backbone and tenacity handed down to us from our foremothers.

What they don’t realize is that we keep a bag full of retorts and clap backs on reserve… just in case. It doesn’t matter what our personalities are—even our quiet and most gracious of sisters have limits.

When tested over and over again, why must practicing restraint always be our best course of action?

Black women know—or should know—that we are queens, and its imperative for our emotional and psychological health to call people out on the bullshit that tries to undermine our thrones. Whether at home or out and about, we have a right to our crowns and to be respected. This is especially true in the workplace, where we’re often expected to play the most games and the pressure is even higher to keep our “attitude” in check, as any behavior deemed inappropriate could affect performance evaluations, paychecks, and earning and advancement potential.

Instead of others checking their own behavior, we are riddled with negative descriptors like: angry, crazy, confrontational, high-strung, abrasive, and outspoken. What our criticizers don’t ever want to talk about is why we are pushed to come out of a “bag” so often.

Black women juggle so much at once; it gets to be exhausting. In order to hold onto our sanity and protect ourselves from the ridiculous expectations put on us, we sometimes must go into action. We pick and choose when to engage, and this often requires the patience of both Jesus and Buddha.

Essentially, we learn when we must smile and let things pass versus when we have to clap back with a serving of side-eye. The ability to do this is tied to another unique social gift Black women possess: code-switching.

For us, survival means mastering the art of becoming chameleons, always ready to change with the circumstance. We use patience and internal filters to gauge what our immediate response to a situation must be. Sometimes, this means we must issue a clap back. We have a right to voice our feelings in the face of blatant disrespect. And we don’t need to apologize for the gift of mother-wit. Justified anger has to go somewhere and instead of pulling out a can of physical whoop-ass, a nicely placed verbal lashing works just as well.

Exercising our right to defend ourselves doesn’t make us “angry.”

Black girls, too, need to be equipped to stand up for themselves. Let's keep it real. There are adults who interact with our children on a daily basis that may not respect them due to their own biases—including educators. Adults know when they do this and it’s bullying, pure and simple.

If we don't prepare our girls to deal with the haters, then we’re sending them out into the world with the message that they must take improper treatment. That’s a lie. There are ways to do and say things to make a point without hip and neck rolls. Their words are enough, their words are powerful. We must teach them the art of clapping back and keeping it one hundred without getting physical or swearing. It is possible to do so.

Our girls need to know these tools for survival on all levels. We have to prepare them for what happens when they leave school and go into the workforce, as there will most likely always be someone who tries to disrespect or attack them. They must know how to stand up for themselves, while still doing so with the nuance required to not be punished.

We start to feel inadequate when we allow ourselves to be treated as doormats. This fact alone makes the clap back an integral part of the black woman's survival kit. Even enlightened sisters who take care to do things “properly” must have a Plan B when people need to be set straight.

To my sisters: Embrace the clap back, and always be prepared with one in case of emergency.

Photo: Taraji P. Henson plays Cookie Lyon, the Queen of the Clap Back, on Fox TV's Empire (Fox)

C. Imani Williams is a freelance writer and human justice activist. She holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction Writing from Antioch University in 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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