Not woman enough

by guest contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?
–Sojourner Truth

Today I was reminded of my place in the female hierarchy.

I was in an impromptu meeting with a 50-something white man and a white woman who is my age, when this exchange occurred:

White male: The only people who liked that design were under 28.

White female: Under 37…I loved it.

Me: Yeah. Me too.

White male: (to white female, pointedly) Well, YOU don’t look older than 28.

White female: (to me–maybe attempting to soften white male’s comment) You don’t either.

White male: (eyeing me) Mmmm…I don’t know about that.

It is peculiar–in my experience, some white men don’t relate to black women as women. On more than one occaision, at more than one job, a white male co-worker has made comments to me that violate society’s codes of chivalry. What gentleman comments on how old a woman looks? This is not the first time the man in question has made a subtly derogatory comment about my appearance. I have also noticed how his eyes slide distastefully over my natural hair.

When I began typing this post, I worried that I was overreacting. In the re-telling, the offense seems so petty and maybe subject to interpretation. Maybe it wasn’t about race at all, maybe my co-worker simply finds me haggard looking and is surprisingly untactful. So, I called up a good friend–another black woman–that I can always count on for wise counsel. She understood exactly what I meant about the peculiar state of non-femaleness black women sometimes occupy in the mainstream. It is the weird flip side to the stereotype of the wanton black sexual temptress.

As I vented to my friend, I remembered a white male colleague from another job that seemed eager for me to join him in fawning over the beauty and style of our white female teammates. I still remember vividly the day he leaned over to me, while glancing admiringly at a female co-worker. He said something like: “Mary always looks great! She is tall and blonde and always has on the latest style or whatever. You and I just look like schlubbs.”

What does it mean? This is not about attraction. I am married and at least one of the men in question is gay. It’s not even so much about looks. My female co-workers have not been uncommonly beautiful and chic. I am not uncommonly boyish, poorly dressed or unattractive. What my co-workers have mostly been are white women–the pinnacle of American femininity. What I am is a black woman–in this society, the opposite of femininity. So, in addition to the sexism that women face and the racism that black people face, I get to feel less than feminine too.

There is nothing to be done about this, really. A male colleague not recognizing my femininity–some would call that progress. White women have fought for years to be taken off the pedestal on which society has placed them. At any rate, my experience today has nothing to do with work and productivity. One can hardly charge down to HR and file a complaint: “Bob said I look my age!” Most importantly, I have a successful working relationship with this colleague. In fact, he seems to value my counsel. He does not; however, value me as a woman. So what, right?

I still feel shitty. And that makes me mad. It makes me mad that a short exchange in a morning meeting has made me feel self-conscious all day. It makes me mad that I stared at myself in the office bathroom a little longer than usual to see if I looked “old.” It makes me mad that I began wondering if I should wear more makeup. It makes me mad that I made mental plans to upgrade my wardrobe. It makes me mad that I had to wrestle agian with the impact my natural hair may have on my career. It makes me mad that I started obsessing over the weight I need to lose and thinking about that cleansing fast I read about last week. It makes me mad that I honestly thought about including my picture with this post to prove to my readers (and myself) that I am not a hideous, hunchbacked troll.

Sometimes it is freaking tiring being a black woman in America.