Why don’t we cry in public? Why do we, as Black women, feel that we can only express our emotions in solitude? Why is it that our only safe space? Well, the answer depends on the woman and her personal experiences. However, the answers all tend to be rooted in similar childhood experiences.
In the majority of households of color we heard things like:
“Don’t you dare cry!”
“Fix your face before I fix it for you!”
“If you cry I’ll give you something to cry about!”
“Don’t let one single tear fall from your eyes!”
“Close your mouth!”
“Whose doors are you slamming?”
“You mad now? You better get over it.”
“Why are you mad? You don’t pay any bills around here!”
We were brought up to stifle our emotions. From childhood, we are taught to suppress our tears and we learned the lesson that crying shows weakness. We are taught that any emotion other than joy should be kept to ourselves. This way of thinking is problematic and fosters shame and self-denial. Each is unhealthy in its own right, but severely detrimental when combined for generation after generation. Our enslaved ancestors were beaten until their backs were raw, yet they didn’t cry out for fear of increased retribution. Our mothers and aunties stifled their cries so they wouldn’t be next. The children who were a witness to such horrific acts of brutality, and oftentimes the victim themselves, were told to be brave and show no signs of weakness. Those days are over (well, kind of over but that’s an article for another day) but the suppression of our emotions continues to be the only way of life for far too many of us.
Today, in the Black community, crying in public is still seen as a taboo. It is seen as unacceptable. As Black women, we have to hide in order to find a safe space where we can shed our emotions without judgment. In bed alone. In our mirrors. In the car. In the shower. It is while we are alone that we find solace in our tears. It is there that we give ourselves permission to be weak, fallible, sad, or angry. It is there that we give ourselves permission to have the wide range of emotions indicative of the human spirit. Here, it’s ok to be human. Here, alone with our thoughts, it’s acceptable to be who we are. However, there is a high price to pay for the suppression of our emotions. Living life in such a way that it diminishes who we are for the sake of what others may think is detrimental to say the very least.
As Black women we are subject to a double standard that isn’t applicable to other women. We aren’t afforded the luxury of being seen as competitors in business; rather, we are seen as emotionally unstable and we are labeled as such. Despite those labels, we have more power than we give ourselves credit for. Moreover, those who label us as such, see our power as well and do all they can to prevent us from realizing it. When we are assertive, they call us aggressive. When we are truthful, we are labeled as difficult. When we lead effectively, we are labeled as bossy. When we cry, we are labeled as weak and ineffective. When we demand answers, we are said to be “too much.” The most disheartening label that has been stitched into our collective psyches is given when we stand up for ourselves and speak our minds. It’s then that we are called an “angry Black woman.” Whereas these labels may seem irksome, remember that the people who label us do so in an attempt to diminish our power.
I’m here to tell you, fuck that and fuck them. No, for real; there is no mandate that says we must conform to the box others insist on placing us in. How many times have you had to hide your emotions because you didn’t want to seem weak? How many times have you changed what you were going to say solely because you were worried what someone would think of you? How many times have you needed to break yourself into bite-sized pieces just so someone else could feel whole? Even if your answer is “only once”, that was one time too many. It’s high time that we reclaim and embrace who we are and how we must handle our business. Someone else’s opinion of you is none of your business. That is their issue and, as such, it should rest on their shoulders. What becomes of a pressure cooker when the release valve is glued shut? What happens when you shake up a bottle of carbonated drink with the top on? Just like the pressure cooker and the closed bottle, suppressed emotions will build up behind the mask you use to hide how you feel. Pent up sadness and anger can and will breed discontentment and resentment.
Let me ask you this: Where do you cry? Where do you feel safe while crying? Where do you vent your anger? Do you wait until nighttime? Do you immediately separate yourself and find a place to safely let it all out? Do you wait until the next day? Or are you among the growing number of women who continually hold it in with the hopes that it will all go away? Many of us refuse to shed a tear even if we are alone. Why is that so? Is it because we have been conditioned to believe that tears, even in solitude, are a weak spot in our armor? We are such believers in the idea of “not letting any cracks show”, that we beat ourselves up at the first sign of what we perceive as weakness. Our internal narrative is abusive and toxic. We are harsh in our attempts to soothe ourselves. Soothing words shouldn’t be abrasive yet we whisper our self-contempt daily: “What’s wrong with me? I’m acting like a baby! Get it together Sis, you can’t let them get to you! Toughen up. Stiff upper lip. Knock it off, you’re better than this!” We swallow our tears, we suck it up and keep it moving. What many of us don’t understand is that regardless of how long it’s been since the triggering event, that emotion is still sitting in our psyche, building and festering. It will keep doing so until a seemingly innocuous incident triggers us, unlocking the emotional floodgates. It’s at that point we are accused of overreacting. Maybe so, but if we give ourselves license to freely express ourselves regardless of the opinions of others, we wouldn’t find ourselves in said position to begin with. Let’s unpack this further.
What would it take for us to ignore the societal restrictions and cry when it’s warranted? What would it take for us to feel safe enough to vent our anger in a healthy manner? What would it mean for us to have the power to express ourselves at will?
Pssst…come a little closer, I have a secret to tell you. You already have the power to express sadness or any of the myriad of emotions we have at any time, anywhere, ever. Don’t let these people fool you into believing that you’re limited in your public interactions. Our emotions are natural. It’s the suppression of them that’s unnatural and unacceptable.
Let’s make an agreement with ourselves that each and every time we need to assert ourselves, or express any emotions, that we do so without pause or reservation. Crying is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, crying is cathartic; it’s healthy. The repression of our emotions is what’s detrimental. Expressing how we feel freely means we are in touch with who we are at our core. Expressing our emotions releases stress. It opens up a pathway between our hearts and our minds. It creates connectedness and allows for clarity in the end.
We as Black women are our most powerful when we give ourselves permission and space to be human in all of our experiences. We have both strengths and weaknesses but it’s when we accept the totality of who we are that we are our most powerful selves. So, how do we handle our interactions with coworkers or colleagues? How can we hold space for ourselves? First, we have to give ourselves permission to be unapologetically authentic. We have to be more concerned with our progress and our own mental health than we are with what anyone else has to say about us. Suppression of our emotions is damaging to our health and our psyche. Changing how we respond to judgmental people in an attempt to placate them, fosters a sense of inadequacy, frustration, and eventually resentment. Their opinion of you is their problem and theirs alone.
In the instances where the person passing judgment is the same person that pays your salary:
But do not back down. Do. Not. Back. Down.
The same strength it takes to soften your words to appease someone is the same energy it takes to say: “I said what I said.” It’s the same energy it takes to reply: “What words did I use that made you uncomfortable and doubt my ability to perform my duties?” Ask this and then wait for an honest answer. Their judgments of you are more a reflection of who they are than anything else. They are not the reflection of who we are, they are only a reflection of who they are, their limited views, and experiences. You are the reflection of their inadequacies and a constant reminder of your superiority. They see our power and they use demeaning labels in an attempt to subjugate, diminish, and belittle us, thereby removing our power.
The strongest defense is to shine brighter. Blind them with your brilliance. Smile with the knowledge that they see what we are capable of and they seek to eliminate it. Again, that’s their problem. Go around them. Go over them. Go through them if you must. No matter how they counter you, just keep at it until they shut up, sit down, and voluntarily move out of your way. You’re better than they are, now I want you to act like it.