Stephanie Phillips is a London-based freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in music, race and feminism.
Originally published in One Beat Zine’s Identity Issue, November 2015
I always knew that I was different. Well, not that I was different but that I was treated differently to other people. From an early age I was used to the different tone, the sad looks, the blank faces my presence would draw out of everyone and anyone I came across. I noticed the difference in the ways I was treated compared to other little girls my age. I didn’t know what exactly was causing this wave of indifference to everyone around me but I knew that it centred not just on me but how others perceived me.
If you don’t know, it can be hard growing up as a little black girl child. I’m not feeling sorry for myself, just stating the facts. The treatment I received and interactions I had with people were all heavily influenced by how they perceived my blackness and therefore value. The different tone was one in reaction to my perceived threatening nature. The sad looks reflected the pity they felt looking at my unconventional appearance that didn’t fit the rigid Eurocentric beauty standards. The blank faces were from those who do not even rate my existence as worth acknowledging.
Navigating this world is complicated, confusing and requires an ability to both adapt to different identities and to be able to deal with the reconstructed concepts of black female identity imposed on you by society. Like many black women I found myself representing all things to all people. Having a fixed identity during my teenage years to early twenties became secondary to keeping the perception society has about black women alive.
Sometimes I was shy and quiet, easier to get through the day if no one knew what I was thinking; sometimes I was more gregarious, playing the fun black best friend from every sitcom ever; sometimes I tried to over compensate and be better than my white counterparts, knowing that I’d be judged more harshly than them.
Dealing with such contradictory personality traits and expectations it is no wonder that black women can find it hard to find their own identity. But not all is lost. This is the point in the story where every black girl needs to hear political scientist, Melissa Harris-Perry’s theory on the impact stereotypes have on black women’s lives. In her book Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry refers to the ‘Crooked Room’ theory; a post world war two field dependence study that saw subjects placed in a crooked room in a crooked chair and asked to find their vertical. Many subjects believed themselves to be standing up straight in relation to their surroundings even though they were standing at angles of up to 35 degrees.
Harris-Perry expands this theory to suggest that when black women have to confront race and gender stereotypes and are constantly shown warped versions of their own humanity they are standing in their own crooked room. Sometimes we see ourselves purely in relation to our surroundings and adapt to become the Jezebel, strong black woman, baby mama that we see looking back at us. Have you ever acted up and louder than you normally would around white friends and asked why? It’s because that is the way we have been taught to act.
Of course, sometimes we ignore our surroundings, see the damaging images for what they really are and stand tall. This is not something that every black woman is able to, or feels comfortable enough to do. They may not be at the right point in their life or may not understand how to be once you break down that wall. After all even when you stand up straight you’re still in the same crooked room with the same images weighing down on you, forcing you to conform.
To stand up straight, take a look at the images and stereotypes around us and see how cartoon-like we would have to be to truly meet the stereotype of the black woman. Once we see it for what it is, slowly that room will start to transform. On the walls a space will emerge, ready to create a new identity based on beauty, intellect, and power for each and every black woman.
I don’t always get paid for my work, so if you’ve liked my pieces and want me to write more you can donate a couple pennies to keep me going in between paid work.