Black women, define yourselves


Weaved up? Check. Larney accent? Check. Yellow bone? Check. Manicured nails? Check. Make-up contoured to the nines and designer duds for days? Check.

Congratulations. You’re well on your way to fitting society’s baseline expectations of what it takes to be regarded as an attractive black woman. And it doesn’t end there.

So what happens, pray tell, if you don’t meet these “requirements”? You’re basic. You’re not attractive. You’re unappealing. Try harder.

Let’s look at Ntsiki Mazwai. Fearless and headstrong, the famed poet, beaded accessory designer and recording artist often faces the wrath of the Twitterati for unashamedly speaking out against racism, patriarchal constructs, sexism, the difficulties of being a black woman and the like.

Although some support her views and laud her for them, most criticise her. Stay in your lane and go take a bath, she is often told. Because she is brown and embraces her natural hair with pride, she is painted as dirty and in need of a good scrubbing. And telling her to stay in her lane implies that she is being dis-obedient by refusing to abide meekly by dictatorial social and patriarchal norms that leave little room for compromise.

What about former Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko? Never mind the fact that she made history in South Africa by becoming the youngest person to lead a political party in Parliament, let’s be petty and attack her looks, thought some.

Why do you speak with a twang; do you think you’re white? Your skirt is too short, you can’t dress like that. Your weave needs work. Don’t you think you need to lose some weight?

Even some of Mazibuko’s harshest detractors have admitted that she has a brilliant mind. She would have to, to be a Harvard fellow. But it’s easier to make fun of her than debate with her. That’s the society we live in. This is someone who has defied so many odds to rise to the top of the ranks in the male-dominated world of politics, inspiring a generation of young people and, as a black woman, her victory was our victory.

Black women are already the most marginalised, oppressed, violated and lowest paid of all groups. And, to top it off, moulds have been crafted by patriarchy and society to define behaviours, characteristics and appearances.

Let’s not forget the pressures that we black women put on each other and how we judge one another as a result of the collective expectations that have been imposed on us – although we may not fully realise it.

That’s why I feel the For Black Girls Only event is such a necessary initiative. Scheduled for this Sunday at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg, it will provide a safe space for young black women to come together outside of the usual set of conformist ideals and troubles and enjoy each other’s company over music, talks, book exchanges, stalls and a mass picnic. No expectations. Free of charge. The only required criteria is you must be a black woman. Oh, and you must wear all black. It’s symbolic, you see.

There have been some grumblings on social media and behind the scenes about the “exclusivity” of the event. Who do these black women think they are to initiate such a gathering? How would they feel if there was a For White Girls Only get-together? Why isn’t it open to everyone? This event doesn’t make any sense; what’s the whole point of it? Isn’t this a form of reverse racism? What about men?

This linear thinking misses the point, perhaps deliberately. This congregation is by no means a way of discriminating against those outside this demographic.

In response, a flier distributed by the organisers and readily available on social media sums it up perfectly. “We, as #ForBlackGirlsOnly, are a pro-black, pro-women feminist movement working with women across society to uplift, empower and advance all black women. We create spaces for sharing, crying,

mourning, talking openly, learning, unlearning, celebrating and healing. Spaces where black women can be themselves without shame or judgment.”

Black women won’t be plotting how to harm other groups, or scheming to take over the world. I see no racism or exclusionary elements in fostering relations in a demographic group that comprises the most downtrodden and ostracised people the world over. The event is a celebration of the right to define what it means to be a black woman for oneself, and a sisterhood in the face of the adversities we encounter as we journey through life.

There are those who will not be swayed from their narrow-minded view of this event. So be it. To each his own. To my sisters, I say: own your blackness. Wear it with pride. Be unapologetically you and don’t fall into the traps of what society expects you to be.

I’ll see you on Sunday. Don’t forget to wear black.

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Nelly Shamase
Nelly is a regular contributor to the Mail & Guardian.

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