In Defense Of Being Unladylike

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Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, said once, Speak your mind-even if your voice shakes.

As a black woman in America, who according to one study is often shrouded in the cloak of invisibility, I always found this to be a powerful sentiment.  Speaking your mind even if your voice shakes is more than about being opinionate. It’s about speaking up for your truth even in the face of others, who wish you passivity and deference. Socially, black women find themselves in an interesting place; when society speaks for women, they usually mean white women. And when they speak about blacks, the person envisioned is usually black men.  And the only time that they speak of us is when there are questions about our hair and our love lives.

That’s why I feel that it is important that women, particularly black women, reject the notions of being a lady and construct our own version of womanhood. By definition, taken from Webster, a lady is defined as: A well-mannered and considerate woman with high standards of proper behavior; 2. a. A woman regarded as proper and virtuous. b. A well-behaved young girl. The key words are “proper” and “behaved.”  And what exactly is expected of proper and well-behaved ladies? According to the advice I have heard throughout the years: Ladies don’t talk too loudly or brag about their accomplishments. Ladies are reserved, demure, regulated and ornamental.  Ladies are never in bad moods or if they are, they keep it to themselves out of respect for others. Ladies are not supposed to ask too many questions. Instead ladies seek to be civil, good mannered and maintain their integrity and classiness at all time. And they certainly do not curse or use foul language because that is the ultimate breach in ladylike etiquettes.

Well to that I say fawk being a lady.  I cannot tell you how many times unwillingness to accept a subordinate position in an effort to maintain ladylike qualities has been misconstrued as being “bitchy” and/or “aggressive.” But for every story I have about being called out of my name, I can tell you a story about how my “bitchiness” and “aggressiveness” managed to advance me in some regards – even if it was just down the street.

Like most construction projects in the city, the crew basically tore up portions of the street, put a bunch of orange cones and barriers up and then went home for 2 months. Anyway, I managed to turn the corner and maneuver my tiny economy car around this big gaping hole at the intersection and right turn onto a small side street when an oncoming car sped up all the way up to my front bumper and blew the horn.  “Move back,” said the older white man in an SUV.  Um, where am I supposed to move? “Don’t you see this construction behind me? Didn’t you see me driving around the construction? Don’t you see these other two vehicles behind me, impeding my ability to go in reverse? “Stop being a jerk and just move back!”  The man grew more agitated and insistent, “Look lady, I’m not moving my car for you, you entitled little Beyotch. So you better figure out how you’re going to get through me or else move your car!”

Oh Sophia! “Well then you better get comfortable because I ain’t moving ish,” and then I leaned over to the passenger side, pulled out a bag of Frito Lay corn chips I had just gotten at the Wawa, split the bag opened and took one of the most defiant bites I have ever taken in my life. True Story.  The image of me casually tearing up a bag of corn chips, like it is Sunday in the park, must have been too much for his sensibilities because he hopped out of his SUV and stormed over to my window. To which I responded by rolling up my windows. I’m not a dummy.  He leaned in close to the window and yelled through the glass, “Your mother is an ignorant Beyotch, you know that?”  The implication of course, is that my mother failed to teach me about respect and the proper manners to know that when a white man walks/drives into your path, you are suppose to step out of his way, curtsey and bid him a good day. Well you’re right, my mom didn’t teach me that. And because she didn’t, your behind is going to sit here.  With no other recourse, at least legal one, the man got back into his vehicle and moved his vehicle back so that I could get through. As I passed he glared at me. I smiled and started humming the chorus to “We Shall Overcome…”

In his groundbreaking research paper, “Ladies or Loudies? Perceptions and Experiences of Black Girls in Classrooms,” Edward Morris argued that while black girls in a predominately minority school performed well academically and were less likely to create disruptions in classrooms; they were more likely to have their manners and behavior questioned by educators and perceived as negative. The reason, he asserts, is based upon a desire to have young black women assimilate to “prototypical White middle-class views of femininity,” which rejects assertiveness and rewards a certain level of docility and complacency. “Some tried to mold many of these girls into “ladies,” which entailed curbing behavior perceived as “loud “and assertive.  Such an attitude and style within classrooms is not surprising when considering the historical experiences of most African American women, who have long struggled against race and gender oppression in ways that differ starkly from white women.”

But while Morris says that this compartmentalizing of black girl’s behaviors and manners has also meant that they are less restrained by the dominant, white middle-class view of femininity. As such, “Black girls’ constructions of femininity also led, in many cases, to a positive view of education, serious attention to schoolwork, and pride in academic achievement.”  Through his research, Morris draws correlations between black girls’ high rate graduation and placement in AP classes and their ability to speak up and demand attention in class.

It is that virtue that we must hold on to – even in the face of not being considered well behaved and proper. It’s the only defense we have in a world which likes to interpret being black and being a woman as the essence of subordination. Our aggressiveness and ill-manners are how we level the playing field, to push for better pay, to stand up to and for the brothers, who can’t or won’t do it themselves. Yeah I can be polite but I won’t be proper. I like stylish things but prim for the sake of the standard of beauty is something I will not abide by. And yeah, at times I am subdued but you should never confuse that with being timid.  So yeah, fawk being lady like. Well behaved women rarely make history.

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