Your Ancestral Right
For generations, black people have reduced themselves in the presence of “others” in an attempt to avoid being “othered”. They have softened their voices, shrunk their bodies, widened their smiles, and bit their tongues to ensure that they remained “seen and not heard”, and to refrain from “embarrassing themselves in front of these white folks.”
So, where has that left them? With offspring (Millennial and Gen-Zers) who are struggling with, while simultaneously fighting for their RIGHT to take up space and add some bravado to their presence. They find that they are meekly giving themselves permission to creep into the sunlight, out the crevices of broken concrete where their ancestors planted their seeds.
They are healing their inner children and realizing their power. How it’s always been rhythmically ticking around the sway of their hips, protruding through the swag of their walks, and cascading down the ripples of their fluorescent lace fronts. They are “tip-toeing” into peaking their heads over the duvet of timidity because there is comfort there…in the need to just be and make it through.
It must be acknowledged that in evolution, everything has, both, held its purpose and outgrown its use. For Black Americans, shrinking is how our ancestors endured countless formidable experiences; it was once a necessary tool for the “survival” and adaptation of their people.
What does that even mean? What are some reasons Black Americans have been less inclined to take up space? Why would they have avoided the spotlight at all costs, or struggled to realize that there was even a light in the first place?
Black people’s experience with racism via 400 years of chattel enslavement, Jim Crow, and now a series of well-organized oppressive systems, has caused them to question, “who are you Black girl, to think YOU are deserving,” and “who are you Black boy to think YOUR life is worth living?” According to an article in the Cambridge University Press, “those who feel shame in response to racism, believe that the bout of shame in question is prompted by the thought that being non-White is a flaw. That is, the root of this shame-response is deemed to be internalized racism.” (Webster, 2021).
Moreover, a study done by Amber Johns (2020) explored the relationship between racism, shame, and self-esteem found that, “African Americans have often been ascribed stigmatized identities, informed by racism, which promotes racial and gender expectations for African Americans. These negative racial and gender expectations provide the foundation and reinforcement of negative African American stereotypes, prompting social rejection and unacceptance.“
So, how has slavery and racism affected our sense of self and ability to take up space today? Much of the answer aptly lies in the lack of connection between African Americans and their ancestral history. Companies like 23 & Me and Ancesrty.com have amassed over 20 million users attempting to locate this ancestral lineage. This breakdown in connectivity and information has been a pivotal setback in Black Americans’ ability to find and support “self”. Not only does this exemplify how white Americans have been able to amass “85.5% of wealth in 2019, and Black households owning 4.2%” of America’s wealth, it also demonstrates why they have somewhat of a greater sense of self due to tangible familial connections and the power of knowing where they have come from. Slavery and racism have erased traditions, anecdotes, and Sunday dinner recipes. They have cut off bloodlines through murder and imprisonment, while also diminishing our internal compasses ability to “find home”.
Poverty is systemic and intentional and disproportionately impacts Black and Brown peoples, with over 19% of Black people existing at or below the poverty line, in comparison to just 7.3% of white Americans. To add more perspective this means that white households, on average, present with a median household income of $76,000 in contrast to Black household’s $46,000. Moreover, in 2019 alone, “30 percent of white households received an inheritance…at an average level of $195,500 compared to 10 percent of Black households at an average level of $100,000.” (Moss, et. al., 2020).
How is poverty relevant to Black people’s ability to take up space? Not only because “inheritances are lightly taxed, [and] inequalities in inheritances play a significant role in perpetuating a Black-white wealth gap that spans generations,” but also because in America “poverty”, “poor”, and “underserved” are naughty words, and even more “shameful” categories to fit into. They are existences we stumble over because the rug can hide no more and the broom has shed all of its bristles.The poor are made to feel like their circumstances are their fault, when in reality, poverty is intentional, systemic, and serves an important purpose for the government and the 1%.
When you grow up in poverty, like 23% of Black people do, you are less likely to:
- Go to a well-performing or funded school by over 20%
- Be able to afford to explore things outside of your neighborhood, let alone leave your city or state.
- See healthy or varied portrayals of people who look like you
- Hear media or television speak positively about your character, neighborhood, manners, or ability to thrive/excel
- See and maintain healthy relationships due to the strain of lack of skills, access, and education.
In contrast, you are also 23% more likely to be experiencing poverty that can be traced back over three generations. Over time, these experiences—or lack thereof, can begin to add up and result in you asking “do I even deserve to be here…alive?”
Lack of Representation:
Here, in 2000’s, Black people are still experiencing “firsts” in spaces that have existed for hundreds of years—and often receiving racist backlash for doing so. Here a just a few between 2020-2022 to make a point:
- Charles Q. Brown Jr., 2020: First African-American to lead any branch of the United States Armed Forces (a 247-year-old institution)
- John Lewis, 2020: First African-American elected official to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (a year 170 old tradition)
- Kamala Harris, 2021: First African-American to be nominated as a major party U.S. vice-presidential candidate (a 233-year-old institution).
- Ketanji Brown Jackson, 2022: First African-American woman nominated, confirmed to, and sworn into the Supreme Court of the United States (a 232 year old institution).
When you do not see the diversity and uniqueness of the diaspora illuminated in the arts, political spheres, or highly sought-after careers, your imagination is limited to all the things you think you can be and are deserving of. It is also always apparent to you that you are one of a kind, in all sorts of spaces. Patricia Hill Collins said it best when she stated, “I was increasingly the ‘first,’ ‘one of the few,’ or the ‘only’ African American and/or woman, and/or working-class person in my schools, communities, and work settings. I saw nothing wrong with being who I was, but apparently many others did” (Black Feminist Thought, 1990). This lack of representation and exposure limits your imagination, and leaves you feeling “othered,” because internalized racism coupled with the inexperience of poverty leave you questioning, “who are you Black girl to think YOU are deserving,” and “who are you Black boy to think YOUR life is worth living.”
Taking up space as a Black person means learning to define your Blackness for yourself while honoring the swagger, pride, determination, uniqueness, and resilience that came before you. That lay claim to your right to expand and exhale generations ago…before you were even thought of (as your Black grandma would say). Black people have a richness to their history; and just as similar as their experiences are, they are equally as distinct and varied. We are not all the same, but our culture, (potential experience with) adversity, and perseverance make us ONE.
Ponder this: What does it mean to be Black, especially in America? What would it look like to be your authentic self in all spaces regardless of perception, expectation, or societal pressures? One of the most impactful concepts that has been coined via social media is the need to assert that Black people are not monolithic.
If you ask my sis, Mirriam-Webster, a monolith can be defined as “constituting a massive undifferentiated and often rigid whole,” denoting something that is uniform and exemplifies singularity. To put it simply, a monolith–in relation to a people and/or culture, can be thought of as one that has little to no room for differentiation, or individuality. For generations, Black people have been demanding to have their unicorn-ness be accepted instead of being deemed harmful or threatening to society.
Of course, there are some who feel that the anti-monolithic notion is an attempt to further divide and shame certain aspects of our community. This is a valid stance, because like most things (colorism, caste systems, etc.), concepts arise frequently to make us feel judged and “othered” in an attempt to divide. However, this stance assumes that those who wished to be seen as individuals are embarrassed of and wanting to be separated from the whole. And yes, because with Black people not being monolithic, there are some who have not fully realized the beauty in the spectrum of the Black experience, but their issues reside in self-hatred and misunderstanding. For most Black people, demanding that they are not monolithic means uplifting and demonstrating how their version of Blackness is unique to them, and equally as valid as any other.
So, let’s get to the hard hitting question. How do you take up space? The short answer? By being defiantly, vibrantly, and unapologetically your definition of Black! By writing and rewriting that definition as often as you deem appropriate and paying homage to those who inspired you to do so.
Here are 7 Ways to Take Extend Into the Spaces of You
- Define “Blackness” for yourself, because no one–not even other Black people are entitled to define you.
- Do nothing, because you deserve to just be.
- Attend therapy to release generational baggage and develop a stronger sense of self.
- Twerk/dance often to release the tension in your waist and back and maintain your health.
- Love other Black people AS THEY ARE
- Start a business where you provide work, community, and positive environments where Black people and Black creatives do work for other Black people/communities.
- Take a stand against any cause; Black people are more likely to be disproportionately affected by a slew of inequalities. Take your pick and start investing in making that change.
How can therapy assist you in learning to take up space?
Therapy can help you learn to take up space by helping you address concepts, emotions, and experiences you hold that reinforce the narrative that Black people are not deserving of being their authentic selves. A therapist may also be able to provide you with the language/vocabulary to express sensations you feel in your body, as well as thoughts/feelings you have held internally for far too long.
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- Creamer, John. Inequalities Persist Despite Decline in Poverty For All Major Race and Hispanic Origin Groups. 2022. United States Census Bureau. Web Accessed Sept. 2022. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/09/poverty-rates-for-blacks-and-hispanics-reached-historic-lows-in-2019.html
- Johnson, Amber J. | Juliet Wakefield (Reviewing editor) (2020) Examining associations between racism, internalized shame, and self-esteem among African Americans, Cogent Psychology, 7:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311908.2020.1757857
- Moss, E., et. al. (2020). The Black-white wealth gap left Black households more vulnerable. Brookings.edu. Web Accessed Sept. 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/12/08/the-black-white-wealth-gap-left-black-households-more-vulnerable/
- The Univested States Census Bureau. (2020). Inequalities Persist Despite Decline in Poverty For All Major Race and Hispanic Origin Groups. Web accessed Sept. 2022. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/09/poverty-rates-for-blacks-and-hispanics-reached-historic-lows-in-2019.html
- USAfacts.org. Untitled. Web access Sept. 2022. https://usafacts.org/articles/white-people-own-86-wealth-despite-making-60-population/4
Webster, A. (2021). Making Sense of Shame in Response to Racism. Canadian Journal of Philosophy,51(7), 535-550. doi:10.1017/can.2021.41