Black women are entering an era of unapologetic confidence.
In the fourth grade, I won my school’s spelling bee and, as my prize, I received tickets to Akeelah and the Bee, starring Keke Palmer. The quintessential awkward Black girl myself, I was made fun of for being an “oreo” and ostracized. I found comfort in seeing myself represented by another brainy girl who looked like me, and grew confident in my intelligence. I watched and re-watched the film until the scene of her reciting W.E.B DuBois was imprinted on my 8-year-old brain: “We ask ourselves – who are we to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous? But honestly, who are you to not be so?” Witnessing her utter those powerful words cemented a fear of wasting my own greatness in a world that would rather Black women be invisible.
If Akeelah could do it, so could I.
Once again, I find myself using Palmer as a goal post to measure my healing. Although I was saddened to read about her claims of abuse — as I have suffered myself — Palmer’s openness allows me and other women to be confident in our worth, rather than struggle in silence. As Palmer eloquently put it, “Just know they hate you because you aren’t who the world told them you’d be.”
Black women are expected to be everyone’s sidekick, mammie, maid, and sex doll — but never the main character. We are working against centuries of sexism and racism that have deemed us as secondary. While it has been more than 150 years since we were legally considered three-fifths of a person, the history of our dehumanization lingers.
It has never been more abundantly clear how little the world cares about Black women, despite the fact that we carry it on our backs. Black women have the highest participation rate in the labor force amongst all women, including mothers, yet we’re paid 68 cents for every dollar a white man makes because our labor is not valued as much. Black women are three times more likely than white women to die in childbirth because of an ingrained myth that we can tolerate pain at a higher rate and deep-seated bias within the medical community. We’re forced to navigate hypersexualization at far too early an age because our bodies are perceived as more adult. We’re considered defective when we don’t match up to music’s often vulgar and degrading depiction of our sexuality. We’re called aggressive and confrontational when we use straightforward and direct language. We’re accused of being stuck up if we’re more reserved. We’re labeled as race traitors when we call out the misogyny within our own community. We have created the blueprint for fashion and beauty — wearing slicked back buns, gold hoops, and airbrushed acrylics long before they were Pinterest trends — the foundation for our culture, yet we are punished for taking up space.
"We are entering an era of unapologetic confidence, with Black women like Palmer abandoning the legacy of wearing suffering as a badge of honor. "
To be a Black woman is to constantly be in service. Wellness influencer and athlete Kayla Jeter says, “It's like we're supposed to show up for and take care of everyone else and figure out our own issues and trauma behind closed doors.” Millennial and Gen Z Black women have watched our grandmothers, mothers, and aunties be rewarded for thanklessly working double shifts, doing all of the domestic labor, and standing by cheating or violent partners – all for the honor of being considered a “good woman.” When our mothers tell us to “pick and choose our battles,” what they’re really saying is to not make a fuss and to keep our heads down, even in the face of abuse. Who can really blame them? They watched as their peers were punished for speaking too loudly or standing out too much, turning silence and shame into a means of protection. Anita Hill dared to put a face and name to her alleged harasser and Clarence Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court.
Our aversion to looking abuse in the face is almost inherited. As Elyse Fox, founder of Sad Girls Club, an organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental health for young girls and women of color shares, “We have this saying, ‘what happens at home, stays at home,’ so we’re even afraid to speak about issues to a counselor because we’ve been trained since childhood to keep our pain to ourselves.” Suffering in silence has led Black women to have the highest rates of chronic illness of any gender or race — the expectation that we sacrifice our well-being as a display of strength is quite literally killing us. Jeter attests, “Imagine having to go through your whole life eating bulls–t. Those emotions are going to manifest in some way.”
I — we — have had enough. We are entering an era of unapologetic confidence, with Black women like Palmer abandoning the legacy of wearing suffering as a badge of honor. We are in an era of breaking generational curses and no longer accepting the bare minimum for ourselves after doing the most for everyone else. “We’ve just had enough and we’re finding power in our voice and in our communities,” Jeter says. Jeter has lost both of her parents and shares her grief and mental health journey on social media, providing a safe space for young Black girls and women. Fox founded Sad Girls Club to create a sense community for young women of color that would not have one otherwise. “Just as common as catching a cold, mental illnesses are just as normal and prevalent and they don't make you any less of a woman,” Fox says.
To be alive during a time when Black women can publicly shed light on their trauma is nothing short of liberating. It forces society to acknowledge our pain, rather than make it a mockery. We need role models like Palmer, Jeter, Fox, and others to destigmatize trauma and mental health within the Black community so we can all begin to heal.
Palmer’s refusal to hide the harm done to her has built what feels like a community of survivors who are confident in their authenticity. Because of her, I feel brave enough to share my story, knowing that nothing can make me any less “brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous.” Because of Palmer, I know that I can rise above it and shine even brighter. She is leading a generation of Black women who, as Fox states, are “redefining vulnerability as strength because strength means telling your story unapologetically.” I like to think that Palmer is continuing the work Hill laid out before us, calling out mistreatment rather than just accepting it as our price of admission. Going forward, I will be too.
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