by Mia McKenzie
A few months ago, someone accused me of being a bully. Since it came from someone I don’t trust, I dismissed it. Sometime later it came up again, in conversation with someone I do trust. At which point it became necessary to give it some serious thought.
I didn’t, and don’t, like the idea of being a bully. I, myself, was bullied as a kid. A skinny, awkward, bookish girl with a face that was mostly nose, I got teased a lot and sometimes pushed around, mostly by girls my own age who I’ll refer to as “practice bullies,” girls who weren’t big-time thugs or anything, were often bullied themselves, and who saw my skinny, high-level-reading self as their chance to finally dominate someone. I put up with it. To a certain extent. Basically, I would let several snide comments, insults or threats go and hope they wouldn’t continue. I was small and scared to fight and if I could avoid it, I would. But at the same time, I had my pride. I had my dignity. I was scared of fighting, but more scared still of being pushed around endlessly, of being victimized.
Sticking up for yourself is incredibly important in black culture and black life. It is deeply ingrained in our legacies of resistance to oppression. You cannot stick up for yourself as a slave, so for centuries upon centuries, black people in this country had almost no recourse against the neverending onslaught of violence and degradation perpetrated against us. When my people could not fight back in many of the ways they may have wanted to, they found other ways. This included everything from “losing” a necessary tool needed to get some plantation task completed on a certain day to slowly poisoning the master’s food to running away. It was all they had. After slavery ended, and Jim Crow kicked in, our options opened up a tiny bit. But there has never been a time in the history of black people in this country when sticking up for ourselves didn’t hold with it the possibility of our death, even today (see: Trayvon Martin). It doesn’t stop us from doing it, though. It is part of who we are. And I knew that, even as kid.
So, when someone bullied me, I’d draw a line in the sand. I’d say to myself, “Okay, Mia, the next time [insert girl’s name here] says some shit/gets in my face, I’m going to call her out.” In my day, in my neighborhood, “calling out” meant challenging someone to a fight. And that’s what I would do. The next time Lisa or Halimah or Yasmin or whoever started talking shit to me, I’d put my foot down. I’d call her out. Not because I wanted to fight, but because I felt I had to. There is a famous story among my childhood friends detailing an incident when I arrived at the door of my eighth-grade frienemy (who had called me a dyke at school and was talking mad shit behind my back) and politely asked her mother if she was at home, and then when said frienemy appeared at the door, I said, chest all puffed out, “I’m sick of your shit. You got all that talk, now back it up. Come out and fight me.” She wouldn’t come out, no matter how many times I insisted. Talk, as it turns out, was all she had. I eventually went back home, feeling vindicated. She never called me names or talked shit about me again. That’s usually how those situations went. I always felt proud of myself for refusing to be pushed around, for sticking up for myself even though I was afraid. I was proud to be that kind of nerd.
The few times that kind of thing happened over my childhood years were probably the only times when anyone perceived me as intimidating. In the context of West Philadelphia kid life, I was never that. Among inner-city black kids, I present as the bookish nerd that I am. It wasn’t until I left that environment, and especially until I was around a lot of white people, that the idea of me being “intimidating” started to come up. I got whiffs of it here and there, from one white girl or another, but it was so far outside any scope of identity I held for myself and so far outside my own people’s experience of me that it was almost impossible for me to believe it and it took me years and years to even accept that it was true and why it was true (hint: anti-black racism + misogyny = misogynoir). In those years, many white women told me I looked “mean.” That I wasn’t “friendly.” I was accused of “bitchiness.” And so on. Whenever I asserted myself in any way, even when I was intentionally being super-nice about it, I was intimidating. If I wasn’t completely in agreement with someone’s opinion or just shutting up altogether, I was “argumentative.” I saw white women, and even light-skinned women of color, behaving the same way, and even more assertively than I was, and nobody was “intimidated” by it. And, Lord, don’t let me actually get angry. Don’t let me raise my voice even a quarter of an octave, because then I was some kind of raging black bitch monster scaring the shit out of all the civilized people who know how to communicate non-violently. Jesus. I mean, really. My choices were to be silent and pushed around, or speak up for myself and be perceived as too aggressive, mean or violent. It’s the story of a black girl’s life. It is tiresome. And it is the reason I started BGD in the first place.
But still. The reason I got to thinking about this “bully” thing in the first place was that a friend of mine who I love kinda sorta gently suggested that I might have tendencies which could be experienced as bullying by some people. Honestly, it freaked me out when she said it, because that’s not who I see myself as or want to be. But I am deeply committed to self-reflection, so as freaked out as I was, I seriously considered it. I went onto the internets and the googles and the whatnots and did a search: Am I A Bully? I read hella stuff about it and what I came to is this: a bully is someone who dominates people for the sake of domination. Basically, bullies get off on making people feel dominated. I can say with 100% certainty that does not describe me.
But. Here’s where it gets tricky.
Recently, I had a conversation with a couple of friends wherein they explained to me that I have power. Apparently, as a somewhat well-known QPOC, I have influence and shit like that. It took a while for them to convince me of this. Even with BGD’s popularity, even with all of the amazing things I’ve been able to do in the past year and a half, I still see myself as that awkward kid who doesn’t belong. So, while I might understand intellectually that I have some power and influence in my particular community, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way in my little nerd soul. In my little nerd soul, I am still that kid. Even when I am raging against oppression at the top of my lungs, even when I am checking assholes who presume to tell me about my own experience as a black woman, even when I am saying a heartfelt fuck you to a whole lot of people on these internets, I am still that kid. Doing what I must do to demand respect when people try to deny me respect. Standing up for myself and my people. Never, at least in my own perception, am I wielding power. That’s not what the psyche of a nerdy black girl looks like. Not any nerdy black girl I know, anyway.
Still, whether it’s because they legitimately see me as having power, or because they illegitimately perceive me as being more aggressive and mean by default because I’m a black woman, or both, other people–nine times of out ten white and other non-black people–sometimes see me differently.
The question for me is, how much of this is my problem and how much is other people’s racist and misogynist shit? The answer is: some and a lot.
A while back, I wrote a short piece called “On Getting Free,” in which I say that there are tools for survival that each of us has and that these tools helped us…well, survive. But that at some point, after we grew up and built relatively “safe” lives for ourselves, we stopped needing these particular tools. Only we never stopped using them. And while they helped us survive, they actually get in the way of us getting free, which is a very different thing. I think for me, this way that I have of asserting my little nerd self, of puffing up my chest and putting down my foot in order to protect myself and not be victimized, is one such tool. And for me, it’s not so much that I don’t need it anymore, because a black woman always needs a tool like that, rather it’s that there are places in my life where I need it and places where I don’t. There are places where it serves me and places where it doesn’t. And I need to really understand and keep in mind which places are which. Battling a queerphobic, racist, classist, misogynist world: right place. Interpersonal relationships: not so much. And when dealing with people (friends, family, lovers, people I want to build community with) whose past personal traumas make them easily triggered by assertive personalities (as in the case of the dear friend whose suggestion started me on this “bully” quest), I need to find gentler ways to approach conflict with them. (And they, as adults, traumatized or not, are also responsible for the ways in which they do or do not engage in healthy communication with me).
Also: the truth is that, whether I’m comfortable with it or not, I do have power. And it’s my responsibility to be careful and cognizant about how I use it.
Other people’s racist/misogynistic shit:
Is their problem.
A few weeks ago, a friend reminded me that many, many black women bloggers have stopped writing because the sheer volume of racism and misogyny directed at them was just too much for any person to handle. I don’t think anyone who is not a black woman can even begin to imagine how much hatred is directed towards us when we dare to say anything in public, let alone when we are demanding respect. There are many, many people in the world who don’t even see us as human. Do y’all get that?
I started BGD because I got sick and tired of being told that as a black woman I could never assert myself without being perceived as aggressive. That I could never stand up for myself without being perceived as mean. That I could never draw a line past which I would not allow myself to be mistreated without being perceived as violent. It’s a decision I do not regret. And when anyone dismisses all of that in favor of an easy “bully” label, they are undermining the power and righteousness of those intentions. It’s like when women of any color stand up and fight and demand respect and are dismissed by men as having “penis-envy.” It is people projecting racist and misogynist ideas onto someone in order to take the light off themselves and their own inability to be accountable for the harm that they cause. It’s a disgustingly easy out.
I have been able to do everything that I have been able to do precisely because I refuse to become smaller in order to accommodate other people’s anti-black racism and misogyny. That’s not me being a bully. That’s me refusing to be bullied.
I am not a bully. I am an assertive black woman who is kind and caring and generous, but who’s not taking anybody’sshit. There is a difference.
So, instead of easy-outs, how about hearing black women out? How about making space for black women, how about giving us a break every now and again? How about responding with compassion when you see black women trying to defend ourselves, however clumsily, against constant attacks, the horribleness of which you can’t even begin to know? How about hearing our hurt and responding with love and care and accountability?
How about that?
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