Two essays this week caught me unawares and have left me restless in their wake. The first is “Yes, I Am An Angry Black Woman” by Stacey Patton, published in DAME magazine and the second is “Fitted” by Moira Weigel in The New Inquiry. While it is easier to guess the thrust of the first essay based on the title, the second is less overt. Weigel talks about the rise of FitBit and other activity trackers and their association with a whole new brand of female productivity. Both of these essays spoke to me in significant ways. And their separateness from each other presents me with an internal dilemma I hope to solve by writing about it now.
First of all, I encourage you to read Stacey Patton’s stirring call to attention, whoever you are. With her words, she invites the reader to inhabit her simmering state of mind in all its complexity, fervor and power. On the day after the Charleston Massacre she describes her ride on an East Coast train:
…The news of Charleston was difficult to process, even more so while riding a D.C.-bound train packed with White people, most of them dressed in business attire, who seemed oblivious to the tragedy. It took everything I had in me to keep from erupting with rage in that Amtrak car.
I thought about racial terrorism and its larger history while a nearby White woman worked on a New York Times crossword puzzle, and sipped her Starbucks coffee. I raged thinking how not even churches are safe from the pathologies of White supremacy. Others talked on their cell phones about trivial shit or tapped on their laptop keyboards and tablets.
It was clear I was not among friends or a community that shared my sadness, anger, or angst about what it means to be Black in America in the 21st century. A pair of women sitting behind me chatted and laughed loudly. They were free of worry, they were fearless and enjoying their privilege to live, to exist apart from the horrors of racial violence. Their joy made me resentful. Fighting waves of grief and tears of sorrow, I got up to change seats to get away from the noise of White privilege. – See more at: http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/08/03/yes-im-angry-black-woman#sthash.jbKFgqre.dpuf
“The noise of white privilege.” yeah, that landed.
Patton goes on to describe the historical roots of the Angry Black Woman stereotype. And this stereotype, while familiar to me, is the very one I have sought so carefully to avoid. Although I have a temper and can get loud, this tends to happen within the safe confines of my own four walls among family, where I’m allowed to be just angry me – minus the socio-political layering. In my professional life and among friends, few would readily identify me as ‘that angry Black woman.’ And yet I know and feel the anger about which Stacey Patton speaks.
Far too long, we have been fighting to dispel the Angry Black woman stereotype. But that’s not the solution because the truth is, we are angry. Our rage is righteous. Our ire is understandable. Yet our anger is misunderstood.
And she makes the brave suggestion that we learn to see our rage as a creative power for change:
Let’s stop viewing our anger as a negative and appreciate it as a gift. Neuroscientists’ research reveals that anger is a powerful means of social communication, and a natural part of any person’s emotional resources. Anger helps us reach our goals, allowing us to be more optimistic, creative, and to solve problems. Anger is a source of fuel for motivating us to meet life’s challenges and persuade others to do the right thing.
It’s at this point in the essay where I get on my feet and start to wave my hands: “Yaaaasss!”
She closes with this:
To feel our anger at injustice is to be wholly alive. Our ability and willingness to express that anger, is to be committed to progress. To wield our anger strategically is the key to the justice and freedom. And to fully embrace our anger is the most healthy, sane, self-loving, nurturing thing that we can possibly do – See more at: http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/08/03/yes-im-angry-black-woman#sthash.jbKFgqre.dpuf
(Do read the whole essay. You will thank me.)
“To feel our anger at injustice is to be wholly alive” provides a frame for why I engage here at all. It’s not always because I am angry, but often enough I am astonished, flabbergasted or amazed at the injustices we tolerate and let pass without addressing the root causes. There is plenty to be up in arms about – channeling that energy to agitate and push for change is what movements are made of. Stacey Patton’s statements remind me that I may have to let go of the need to put on my happy face when I decide to engage for change outside of my precious four walls.
And then there’s this second essay, “Fitted” which after “Yes, I Am An Angry Black Woman” reads a bit like “the noise of White privilege.” Moira Weigel, however, expertly describes both the allure and burden of embedding 24/7 activity tracking in her own and other women’s daily lives. She talks about the act of tracking emerging like a new, fully personalized religion. The sharing of one’s most intimate data regarding movement, food intake, sleep and even sex in pursuit of constant improvement becomes the new vehicle towards salvation. The desire to not just be better but to also show off your new “better” is fueled by competing and commiserating with fellow activity trackers. While I consider myself a modest fitness enthusiast, this more recent trend of constant self-monitoring remains foreign to me even if I can understand the various motivations behind it. All of these elements tied up with our cultural notions of what fit femininity looks like and how it is assessed in the current media climate made the essay a deeply compelling read for me. And as I read and re-read the essay (which is a repeated pleasure) I was struck by how very White it all feels. Even if I know that FitBit users come in all colors, shapes and sizes, the folks who best conform to Weigel’s distinctive portrayal strike me as most likely to be White, straight, upper middle-class women. After describing the new beauty/fitness ideal of our times as exorexic, she clues us in as to how this movement trend is likely to play out in practical and ideological terms:
Today, the ideal woman is exorexic.
In Ancient Greek, orexis means “desire” or “appetite.” The prefix an means “not.” A true anorexic wants nothing. Ex is Latin, for “out of”; arcere means “restrain.” “Exercise” meant to break out of what is holding you, and to push the limit. The exorexic craves a challenge. Specifically, she aims to work her way out of desiring itself. …
Today, the exorexic eroticizes work itself. The army of women in Lululemons and Nike Frees who bound purposefully along the sidewalks of more and more American cities proclaim no specific taste, but rather an insatiable appetite for effort. They wear the uniform of an upper middle class for whom the difference between leisure and work is supposed to have disappeared.
Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life. When the guidance counselors say this, they suggest that if you work, you will be loved—or at least deserve love. Make yourself lovable first, they say, and sure as day you can trade that strange coin, ability, in for happiness later. They do not tell you the principle that follows. Love work above all and you will never rest.
Granted, I am enamored of this particular passage. Weigel’s subjects present themselves vividly in my imagination: they are ambitious, well-educated, weight conscious and (to my mind) oh so very White. These are some of those same women who go on to become helicopter perfectionist parents, I suppose. (Cliché I realize, but irresistibly so.) I, too, am ambitious, well-educated and weight conscious. I enjoy feeling productive and disciplined and operate much better in the world when those two characteristics are visible. The plot thickens, however, when I consider that my White sisters’ ambition and effort will be judged and assessed quite differently from mine based primarily on well-worn yet invisible unconscious bias.
As a black woman, my work is consistently cut out for me. The way the world tends to view my effort and the body I produce with that same effort is likely to be perceived differently than those of Weigel’s “army of women”. My muscles have often been interpreted as defying femininity. I get to be “strong” but not “pretty”.
That moment when you realize you’re not invisible. (1997 Frauenlauf Wien)
I am good at my job; yet to advance beyond my current status can seem more like a mountain to climb rather than the logical next step it might be for an equally educated and experienced candidate from the dominant group. This realization has been decades in the making: It’s not just me and my personal inadequacies, there are systemic factors at play. Being female and Black pose barriers that I previously did not wish to acknowledge. And my identification with and understanding of the dominant group’s ways of being and functioning help and hinder me in unique ways.
Weigel sums up the significance of the FitBit mania for her particular demographic in the following way:
FitBit users remain, above all, productive, in our data and our visibility. We do not succumb to that wan, sick decadence, the aggressively infertile unproductivity of the true anorexic. This is female labor becoming frictionless. The point of the game is to just not disappear.
That’s it! That’s the critical difference I have struggled to name. For Weigel’s exorexic women “the point of the game is to just not disappear.” Of course! Weigel’s “army of women” is highly visible. They are prominent, ubiquitous – seen everywhere you look from screens to billboards, to print media; in the majority of our retail spaces. For me in my Black female physicality and intellect, the point is to appear, to become visible, to cease being invisible. Aye, there’s the rub! To be a black woman in majority white spaces so easily becomes a form of invisibility: either in the way that we bend over backwards to assimilate into the dominant culture and its going narratives, or we stand out through our behavior or appearance which become the excuse for Whites to look the other way and ignore our very presence. This feels like a revelation. This is where my path diverges from Weigel’s hyper-productive women and draws me into Patton’s harbor of validation and understanding.
In my struggle to be seen for all that I am, for all that I offer – I face barriers that are not of my own creation. The work-arounds, passwords and gatekeeper relations I develop are original and unique to me. Both Weigel and Patton offer me insights to both the world that I inhabit and the world that I am. Both authors open my eyes to fresh perspectives and for that I feel deeply grateful.
So for the record: I am Black. I am a woman. Sometimes I am angry. I am fit. I am an educator. I am a coach. I am a runner. I am a parent. I am a reader, writer, thinker, listener, observer. And more. Always more.