The Toxicity Of Men Silencing Women (Interview)

Art by Sam Liacos.

Words by Stacy-Ann Ellis. Art by Sam Liacos.

“I love myself.” All summer 2015, Kendrick Lamar had swaths of black, brown, white, male, female, old and young people chanting this simple, gleeful refrain. The delivery was never shaky. The words were as sure and loud and proclamatory as they had been when they first tumbled from his lips on To Pimp a Butterfly, the album that exorcised his inner demons and laid them bare for all to see.

Who would’ve thought that two years later, the same man behind the self-love paean would be the one to jog conversations on the opposite side of the empowering sentiment with “HUMBLE.,” one of 14 statement songs off his new album, DAMN.? Of the braggadocios track’s three minutes, 15 seconds of verbiage sparked some serious social media commentary: “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop/Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor/Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks/Still will take you down right on your mama’s couch in Polo socks.”

To some, it was clever wordplay not meant to be digested beyond club doors, but for others, it was more personal. Before the rest of the tracklist was even revealed, black women took to their timelines to hash out their mixed feelings about the way the lyric lined up (or didn’t) with the visuals, but in some corners of the digisphere, men quelled their critiques with “well, actually” interjections.

One woman vented that Lamar’s preference for black women to rock “Richard Pryor” afros clashed with his actual wife’s fair-skinned, straight haired look. Soon after, a guy countered her widely retweeted argument by saying the lyric didn’t invalidate Lamar’s wife’s blackness, a point that was never up for discussion. (His tweet has now been deleted.) When the user received pushback, he asserted his right to enter the discussion, as he was still black. Najma Sharif, who exchanged her own words with him, feels no man should be policing women as they express their frustrations to each other.

“People somehow get angry that black women have any kind of critique about anything. They feel the need to assert themselves because we shouldn’t be speaking up for ourselves. We shouldn’t be speaking at all, which is to be silenced,” says Sharif, writer and editorial director for Equality for Her, a safe haven for the thoughts and ideas of the underrepresented woman. Sharif was one of several to clap back at the notion of unsolicited mansplaining and how others seem to have a problem when black women speak up. “[There’s so] much self-doubt that’s been instilled in me because of the way people interact with black women being vocal…They don’t want us to make them aware of the way they’re affecting us.”

Here, Sharif guides ILY through the toxic practice of men “correcting” women, the effect it can have on how she perceives the validity of her thoughts and, ultimately, the way she loves and respects herself.

Stacy-Ann Ellis: Before diving into the widespread discussions on Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.,” what were your own knee-jerk thoughts?
Najma Sharif: The first visual was absolutely stunning. He’s standing in all white with white pouring down on him. The video in itself, visually, is amazing. The song is really catchy. I can see how this is coming out before the summer starts. But the moment I saw the “photoshop,” then the dark-skinned girl and all we saw was her butt, [I thought], what is going on? Oh no, this is not cute at all.

He’s saying, “bitch, be humble,” [but] it doesn’t seem like a jab at rappers. It seemed like a jab at black women. It’s really misogynoir. It’s very gendered. Be humble is a thing black women hear consistently whenever we get a little cocky about anything. For me, it was catchy but still, why is he using “bitch, be humble?” He’s not saying “n—a, be humble.”

I didn’t even think about it that way. What did some of the discussions surrounding the video look like on your timeline?
There were a lot of weird discussions happening. There was one side where people said, “you guys still dance to misogynistic lyrics,” and that normally came from black men. Then there were black women saying, “are we this desperate for this validation about our beauty from a rapper? Are we still desperate for some sort of person to tell us who is beautiful?” I don’t think that was right either because I don’t think anyone was looking for Kendrick to validate natural hair, naturalistas, or anything really. Then there were the nuanced critiques from black women I follow. Most of the people on my timeline were like, “yikes.” We discussed how even though he (Kendrick) is praising natural beauty, it’s still very misogynistic. He’s still policing black women’s bodies at the end of the day. There’s nothing revolutionary about policing black women’s bodies.

Where do you think that subconscious male necessity to speak regardless of who the topic affects comes from?
I think it comes out of this need to silence black women inadvertently. People don’t realize that they’re doing it. I don’t think they realize that they expect black women to be silent; that they want black women to be silent. One of my friend’s boyfriend—and he’s not even black—says, “I don’t see what people are complaining about.” The majority of “people” who were getting this discussion going were black women. People somehow get angry that black women have any kind of critique about anything. They feel the need to assert themselves because we shouldn’t be speaking up for ourselves, we shouldn’t be speaking at all, which is to be silenced. Not only do they think that they have this authority on blackness, but they think they have this authority over black women and the right to speak on behalf of us and over us.

I think that goes into a deeper thing. You said people’s main problem with black women getting attention online is because they’re used to us being silenced, so they overpower us through a screen or harass us, and when they can’t speak over us, they insult us. While you and some other women are strong enough to deflect that, there are others who may not be.
All of us are so involved in media and cultural critique that people look to black women for approval. People want us to say they’re cool. People want to be like Serena Williams, Oprah, Beyonce, but people don’t like black women. Black women are the epitome of cool and magic to people, but yet they want us to be under their thumb. Simultaneously they want us to look to them to make sure that what we’re experiencing is real, so we have to wait around to see if people agree with what we’re saying. And yet people are waiting around to see if we agree with what they’re saying.

Black women’s experiences are complex. We have this different vantage point of looking at the world and everybody else doesn’t have that same perspective. It doesn’t matter if we read Angela Davis or bell hooks–at the end of the day, it’s our experiences. Our experiences are valid. Yet we still have to look over our shoulder and see if people agree with what we’re saying when we don’t really need to.

Someone might internalize that constant redirecting of conversation, and that might have a personal effect on how you now govern your life and speak to what’s going on.
There’s so much doubt that I have to unlearn because of micro-aggressions, of little snide commentary here and there. [There’s so] much self-doubt that’s been instilled in me because of the way people interact with black women being vocal. People find a way to invalidate [our experiences] and make sure that we never speak up again, or that we co-sign what everyone else is saying because everyone’s looking for this cosign from black women–but they don’t want us to make them aware of the way they’re affecting us.

It’s an interesting time to be a black woman who is very self-confident, knows her stuff, and is vocal about it.
Also just knowing what you’re capable of and not letting people tell you what you’re capable of. There’s so many times where people will question your ability even though you’ve proven [yourself]. You have to be four or fives times as good to get half of what they get. Even then, you’re still not good enough because you still don’t know enough because you’re a black woman.

In this constant struggle, how do you personally maintain your sense of self-confidence, self-love and self-worth? How do you keep yourself grounded knowing that regardless of what people are saying and their efforts to talk over you, your perspective is something worth fighting for?
I maintain that by speaking to other black women, all the time. One of the main things for me is keeping a close circle of good friends that are black women who don’t invalidate what I’m experiencing. I make sure to surround myself with people who don’t make me doubt my experiences and what I’m perceiving. So much of the way black women experience the world is about our perception. I check in on my friends and we have this exchange of ideas and talk about what we’re going through. That way, everyone is like, “yeah, what we’re going through is real.” I’m always asking my friends, “is this all in my head?” I need to continuously check in, otherwise I’ll start to lose that self-confidence and self-love. People sometimes think that we’re just venting and it’s really not that. We’re educating ourselves and helping ourselves be healthier, better people by making sure that we know that what we’re going through is real and that way it’s so much easier to unlearn so much of what we’ve been taught about.

So much of our own liberation is making sure that what we’re experiencing isn’t all in our head. From there, you could actually move to self-confidence, self-love, and making sure of our mental health. I’ll be vocal because so many people are like, “this is exactly what I needed to hear,” but I also need to remember to take care of myself so that I could continue. I don’t want to burn out because it’s women who have continued to speak up on my timeline for years that have helped me gain self-confidence and self-love.

What is the right way for men to join in the conversation or refer to the conversation that black women are having in a good way?
Men should amplify what black women are already saying, and sometimes one of the most important things they can do is to shut up. For me, when I see people being subjugated, I amplify other people’s threads and say “read this.”

I don’t think we need to [place] ourselves in the center all the time. Just because society centers what black men say or what lighter skinned people say or just because people have fashioned others as experts, they think they have the right to continue to speak. Just be quiet. [Sometimes] there’s nothing more to add. Listen to what other people are saying, but sometimes don’t add on anything apart from, “hey, this is important, read this.”

And how can men check other men who are toxic mansplainers?
Men should check them publicly. It’s less common for men to check other men for mansplaining or just being misogynistic. A lot of the time, they like to involve black women and we already carry so much of this burden. We don’t need to do more work, to be honest. I do see it happening sometimes, but it doesn’t happen often enough. No one really stays quiet when black women say anything wrong or controversial. It should be more common for people to be told, “actually no.” It doesn’t have to be a drag. Men don’t really do all that emotional labor all the time anyway, so for them to do a little explanation to their fellow brethren, why not?

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