‘A Double Life’: At School and Beyond, Black Women Face Unique Pressures

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

One of the most potent challenges that African-American women face is the need to present themselves as decent—professional, well mannered, subtle—in order to be respected. A recent example of this burden is the latest Grammy Awards in March, where Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion performed their song “WAP.” The response on social media was immediate and generally promoted the same narrative: that Black women who are promiscuous or whose personas are deemed inappropriate taint the image of African-American women in general. If a Black woman wants to be respected or redeemed in the media, she must present themselves as decent.

After the pair’s performance aired, over one thousand people made complaints about it to the Federal Communications Commission. Parents wrote of their concerns for their children and compared the performance to a strip club dance. Was the performance raunchy? Yes. Was it inappropriate for children? Also yes. But what those parents failed to realize is that Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are not responsible for the media that their children consume. Moreover, the Grammys have never been advertised or tailored to children. So why did this one performance draw such passionate backlash? 

It had me wondering: Was the response to the performance entirely motivated by genuine concerns, or was it connected to the way that non-Black Americans perceive Black women? To me, the negative and chastising response to the performance seemed to be rooted in misogyny and racism. The response was an example of how society vilifies and punishes Black women for expressing themselves.

I also thought of how the GDS community treats and perceives Black women differently. Non-Black community members often brand loud, outspoken Black women as sassy and confrontational, while quiet, soft-spoken Black women are considered in a better light. Black girls at school are so often held to a higher standard than their white peers in the way that they act and present themselves in order to gain others’ respect. White students who use terms from African-American Vernacular English are seen as cool and trendy, while Black women who use the same slang are classified as ghetto.  

Junior Sofia Greenfield told me about the heightened expectations that she has faced as a Black woman at GDS. “In classes during debates I would have to make sure to keep my voice at a certain level and not appear too passionate about a topic to avoid getting labeled as the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype,” she said. “I also had to make sure that I was very well prepared, so that peers wouldn’t be able to criticize my work and accuse me of being unprepared or unfamiliar with the material.”

Black women need to work twice as hard as their white peers to gain the respect that their white counterparts take for granted. The pressure to excel in academic classes stems from the fear of being labelled as lazy or not as dedicated as their white peers.  

This standard not only is present in school but also follows Black women throughout their entire lives. In order to be respected in predominantly white communities and environments, Black women must conduct themselves in a way that appeals to white peers’ subconscious expectations. American culture has a notion of how a decent Black woman should act and present herself, creating a sense among Black women that falling below that standard gives a bad name to Black women everywhere. 

Since transitioning from a predominantly Black school to GDS in fourth grade, Greenfield has felt a need to change the way she presents herself to blend in. “It felt as if I was almost living a double life,” she said. “I had to pay more attention to the way I spoke and acted with my white peers than when I did with my family and friends at home, so that adjustment was definitely difficult.”

Black women should not have to behave a certain way or change how they present themselves in order to be respected. Even at a place like GDS, those expectations are still present and damaging to young Black women. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in predominantly white spaces to shift the way that Black women must present themselves. This work begins and ends with non-Black people recognizing the way they see Black women and the heightened standards they impose on them. 

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