My answer to that question is ‘yes’. That’s it… You can stop reading now, but I’m sure you want me to qualify that statement.

Currently there is justifiable uproar at the casting of Zoe Saldana to portray the iconic Nina Simone. This is understandable, if you could see life from the perspective of a black woman, but not everyone can. What’s worse is that there is uproar about so many things in the black community that we can often find ourselves cast aside as melodramatic, oversensitive drama queens. So how can we tell when outrage is warranted and when it’s an overreaction?

I need to say, first and foremost, that in the western world today, black people have many very sound reasons for being sensitive. If we look at emotional sensitivity the way we view physical sensitivity we can easily see why;

If I were to slap you across the face you would be surprised. It would hurt. You’d be wary of me doing it again. You’d realise that as nice as I may seem, I’m fully capable of slapping you across the face. If I did it again a few minutes later, you’d probably be less surprised and more angry. Also, it would hurt a little bit more.

If, ten seconds later, I were to slap you again, in the same spot, it would hurt even more. Even if I didn’t use all my strength that last time, it would hurt more because the skin would now be sensitive, after having suffered two previous blows. That’s the way skin works and that’s the way feelings work as well.

As an ethnic group (I’m using that term loosely) we’ve suffered. We are completely entitled to be sensitive. It would be unreasonable to expect us not to be. Still, the question here is are we too sensitive? Are we no longer able to tell the difference between a slap – meant to do harm – and a caress – meant to soothe?

I’d say many of us are. Here are a couple things that we’d be a lot happier if we were a little less sensitive about:

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To be more specific: We are too sensitive about people wanting to touch our hair. People who ask to touch our hair are not asking to pet us. They are not making a veiled statement about their (negative) opinion of our hair. Why would that thought even cross our minds? It’s not about white privilege and white entitlement… unless maybe that person touches your hair without permission. It may just be about that person being insatiably curious, or a little rude.

I’ve seen white friends in this exact same situation; a random stranger comes up and decides to ask about/ comment on/ touch their hair. It particularly happens to white women who have anything other than straight, lifeless hair. It can be annoying, but it usually isn’t a sign of deep-seated racism.

Furthermore, I know that I wouldn’t ask to touch something unless a) I found it fascinating, b) I was pretty sure it was clean and safe and c) I wanted to know what it felt like. As long as you ask first, you can pretty much be guaranteed permission to (briefly) touch my hair. If you wreck my style though, I’ll break your fingers!

Our bodies / body shape

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As far as I know, we don’t have a monopoly on luscious curves. We just don’t. There are voluptuous women everywhere. Just look at Sofia Vergara, Mindy Kaling or Rebel Wilson.

That store that sells clothing only prepubescent girls can fit into is not catering to another ethnicity. It’s just catering to skinny girls.

Weight and body shape are definitely genetic – but that doesn’t mean that they are always related to ethnicity. Being a fairly trim black woman myself, it’s hard to constantly hear other black women defining voluptuous curves as an inherent trait of black-ness. I’m bordering on skinny… so is my sister… so are most women in our family around our age. We are no less black for it. The unfortunate truth is that our society is often biased against women with more ample figures, regardless of the colour of their skin.

 

Our complexion

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I’m Trinidadian and to understand this point, you need to understand a fundamental fact of Trini culture. In a casual setting, we rarely refer to strangers as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ or ‘miss’. If we’re trying to be friendly, there’s a whole host of other things we call strangers, most of which are based on their appearance.

There’s ‘smallie‘ if you’re short or very young (usually for females); ‘yute man‘ if you’re a young man; ‘small man‘ which is usually for little boys; ‘tall man‘ which is self-explanatory; ‘fat boy‘ which is actually pretty common… the list goes on.

It gets even more creative, as sometimes a man who is known to be overweight will find himself with a nickname like ‘twigs‘. I know a guy who goes by the nickname ‘PopEye‘… You can guess why.

I’ve always been ‘smallie‘ or ‘darkie‘. I take umbrage only at the former. Colorism is real, but in a society where one could just as easily hear “You’re a good-looking reds”, the statement “You’re a nice darkie” is not an insult. “You’re pretty, for a darkie,” however, is something else entirely.

We need to learn to distinguish between the times when someone is just referring to a physical feature in the only way they know how, and the times when they are using that physical feature to ostracize us, or to put us and others like us down.

 

It isn’t all in our heads…

To wrap this up, I have to reiterate that there are some situations where we are perfectly justified in taking offense.

When a friend who is bigger and taller than you says she thinks you can better defend yourself against an attacker because you are black – that’s offensive.

When a friend tells you black men are scarier than white men… that they are more predatory, especially in a sexual context – that is just plain offensive. Not to mention dangerous. That kind of mentality gets black men killed.

When a random stranger at the bar calls you a ‘strong, black woman’, although he doesn’t know you at all and has no evidence to go on – that’s prejudice.

It’s as bad as calling you an ‘angry black woman’ or saying you have ‘an attitude’ before you’ve even opened your mouth. Trust me here… that isn’t a compliment.

In this buzzfeed article, which is very similar the one I linked earlier, we can see how many veiled insults are hurled at us constantly… so it’s no wonder we are constantly reading between the lines and wondering what people really mean by the things that they do and say. For the most part, I agree with what is said in the article; sometimes there is a hidden message that even the messenger isn’t fully aware of.

As for the Saldana = Simone issue, it pays to remember that Nina Simone was an activist who overcame adversity in a time when someone who looked like Zoe Saldana (kinda sorta black, but not entirely) would have had a much easier climb to fame than Simone did. We’re used to Hollywood whitewashing black women so we might not even notice it, but Saldana more easily conforms to a Western standard ofย  beauty to which Simone could never aspire.

When there are many skilled actresses out there who are actually black (not mostly black, not mixed, just black) choosing to have Zoe Saldana paint her skin darker and wear a prosthetic nose to look more like a ‘real’ black woman says that not only is it still easier for a mixed-race actress to get work these days, but looking like a black woman is something of a costume. She might as well wear a prosthetic posterior and complete the caricature.

Don’t get me wrong, if I had to play Nina they’d have to do some artful makeup on MY face so I could look more like her… but they wouldn’t have to use makeup just to transform me into a black woman.

Nonetheless, at the end of the day I feel that there are a few things we can afford to lighten up about. Some things, when they offend us, reflect our own insecurities more than they reflect any ill-will on the part of other members of society.

Have there been times when you’ve wondered if you were being over-sensitive about something? Maybe you’ve said or done something you thought was harmless but ended up offending someone else. Share your experiences. Let’s take a critical look at ourselves and pull each other up by the bootstraps.

xo

J

 

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