If the way the world treats Black women is any indication of the way the world feels about us, what then does that say about the way Black women treat one another? Somewhere beneath our exaggerated “Yaaassss” and our beloved “Come through sis!” flows an undercurrent that periodically pulls us just below the surface of our pleasantries, drowning us in the bitter reality of our broken state. We desire the depth of the sisterhood we proudly prop up on display, but for many of us, it’s an obvious struggle to recreate the dynamics of relationships we’ve never experienced. And in our attempts to perform sisterhood without true comprehension of the word, we continue to expose our disjointedness.
The embittered exchange between Black women extends beyond the barrette wearing days of Bible study and the harrowing hallways of our high schools where social female aggression was a basic requirement. We’ve carried this social aggression towards one another into our friendships and relationships, and in many ways allowed it to govern our parenting. Despite all attempts to dismiss the contentious way we maneuver shared spaces as efforts to make us appear estranged, handling one another with a certain degree of enmity has become our not so new normal. And if meanness truly masks insecurity, then we’ve got bigger issues than just our simulated self-esteem.
The first Black girl that hated me was named Jenna Conley and she hated me from the first day she met me. Despite my attempts at cozying up, which included learning the lyrics to every Cash Money single on the radio and stealing my big sisters’ herringbone chain, I earned a reputation for being too quiet to be cool and too timid to be tough, both of which rendered me too boring to be Jenna’s buddy. But indifference didn’t exist in middle school, and Jenna immediately drew a hard line in the sand to demonstrate her dominance, threatening excommunication on anyone who dared speak to me during school hours and convincing everyone that my lunches smelled because “Nigerians were cannibals.” My “nappy” natural hair, in particular, had been an ongoing issue for her. So just before school dismissal, she and two of our classmates cornered me in the coat room, pinned, me to the floor and smeared Just For Me all throughout my freshly braided hair.
Eventually the pungent perfume released by the chemicals encased the cramped closet causing Jenna and the other girls to scramble for fresh air while I stumbled to the classroom sink, frantically flushing my hair of the thick substance with handfuls of frigid fountain water. My teacher, who’d long been made aware of the unrequited rivalry, was beginning to lose her patience with what she interpreted to be weakness on my part. “If you don’t start fighting back, it only gets worse,” she warned me, mirroring my mother’s advice. But other than that tidbit, the dynamic between Jenna and I didn’t raise any red flags. Girls were mean, that was just a matter of humanity, and Black girls had the study down to a science. There was no mention of conflict resolution or healthy communication, we weren’t learning to find common ground and unearth underlying conflict as young Black girls. Jenna’s aggression towards me wasn’t the issue here because it was expected, my inability or unwillingness to return it was.
Relational aggression is the term for “harm within a relationship that is caused by covert bullying or manipulating behavior.” It’s a dynamic that describes the often underlying contention observed between young girls in social settings. Unlike physical aggression, which is almost impossible to miss, relational aggression takes on more conspicuous forms, at least initially, inflicting wounds where they won’t be noticed. In young girls, this tension can look like social isolation, physical threats and intimidation, sarcastic or judgmental comments passed off as jokes, refusal to sit or socialize with someone, disbanding friendship groups, spreading gossip, repeating negative comments, or making mean spirited statements disguised as helpful suggestions. In adult women, the behavior looks no different.
And just like with the use of physical aggression, the goal is to obtain what is perceived to be power. During adolescence, the purpose for obtaining power centers around our social survival. It’s during this unpredictable period in our development where noticeable physical maturation meets intense emotional, cognitive and psychological change, creating a deep need for reassurance. Adolescence can be an uncertain time, making us to feel out of control and vulnerable or at risk of being rejected or abandoned. And it’s these feelings of insecurity that trigger the desire to establish power or vantage over our peers, because if someone is beneath us, hypothetically, we’ll never be at the bottom. But when we fail to escape adolescence with a healthy sense of self, one that isn’t bolstered by the opinions of others, we tote those insecurities into adulthood. This causes us to navigate adult spaces from behind the cover of our adolescent insecurities, and through that faulty filter, it’s tough to decipher community from competition.
Before we’re taught sisterhood, we’re taught survival. Which is ironic considering we’d probably need to know a lot less about survival if we collectively understood a little more about sisterhood. We’re raised being told their’s room for only one of us. And she can’t be too dark, or too fair, or too fat, or too skinny, or too tall, or too short, or too curvy or too slender. And she has to have booty, the kind you can see from the front, and her edges, always impeccably laid. Her makeup has to be perfectly understated, but rarely does she wear any– she’s flawless without it. And between being a seasonal smut and full-time scholar, she works a 12-hour shift and keeps a spotless home. She strokes egos and silences her own thoughts and opinions. She bakes Bundt cakes and studies the good word on Sundays, ‘cause you know her God is good all the time.
If she sounds way too rare to be real –and that’s because she isn’t — we’ll stop at nothing to emulate this muddled montage of womanhood. And when we fail, we’ll blame the next woman trying equally as hard to mirror the impossible, as opposed to faulting the system that would have us compete in the first place. We know that our seats are limited, that our partner pickings are slim, that the realm of possibility for us is just a bit narrower, and that defeatist diatribe alone is enough to damage any relationship because they’re all built upon self-respect. If we don’t think much of ourselves, we won’t think much of anything that resembles us. Which is why Black girls have to be taught to love whatever they see when they look in the mirror, so they’ll love their reflections in one another. Otherwise, a huge part of the Black female experience will remain centered around adjusting to the reality that we all don’t get to have it all, not because we’re not all worthy but because there isn’t enough “it” to go around. And we’ll continue to subscribe to whatever narrative earns us our “fair share,” which, unfortunately in our case, is the one that pits us against each other.
In our quest for survival, we’ve made prey of one another, using our pubescent mean girl techniques to mask our big girl insecurities. So convinced that there can’t possibly be enough good to grace the many spaces Black girls occupy, we delight in the misfortunes of one another as though they bolster our chances at success. Our greatest wins won’t be won against one another. And touting Black girl magic is meaningless if that energy isn’t met with any movement that matters. We know how Black women learned to hate one another, the same way we learned to see our bodies as commodities and affection as an even exchange. We’re constantly bombarded with the normalization of our disunion to the point that it’s become somewhat of an identity. We display our disdain like hashtags in a Twitter bio. Pretending #TeamLightskin vs #TeamDarkskin is about preference, sure, as much as “Build That Wall” is about politics.
And with all of the many reasons the world has given us not to love ourselves, it’s no wonder our camaraderie is constantly called into question. We don’t learn to love ourselves without first learning to love all of the things that we believe make us unloveable, things like body type, hair texture and complexion. And learning self-love and learning to love one another are two processes we cannot afford to forfeit. There could never be anyone who could relate to the experiences of a Black woman like another black woman, and that inter-mutual identity deserves to be relished. We practice Black Girl Magic by challenging the narratives that rob us of the power of our togetherness. And we haven’t a clue how powerful we are together.