The Perceived Masculinity of the Black Woman

Who are the gatekeepers to femininity?

By Joe on Adobe Stock

The city center of Jaisalmer — India’s “Golden City” was bustling with noisy motorbikes rushing to get nowhere, cars too big for the narrow cobblestone streets, and people browsing the various clothing and food stalls.

It was my second visit to the city, and it’s safe to say I was in love, even with the stifling desert heat making it hard to breathe.

The yellow sandstone architecture — walls and temples and the famous Jaisalmer Fort all reminded me of lands I’d only seen in old movies and read in the pages of books.

During my first visit to the city, I met a man, a shop owner, who had officially become my tailor for the clothing in my forty-pound backpack that needed repair, primarily my harem style pants that all seemed to have holes crotch center.

I sat with my tiny cup of chai tea on a stool outside the shop, sipping and observing people going about their day, mostly Indian tourists who were taking advantage of their days off because of the Diwali holiday.

As people continued to walk by, I continued to observe with my tea and talked up my tailor, sitting at the sewing machine outside the shop, a young boy who knew the tailor and the second shop owner.

The second owner and I were in mid-conversation when an older couple, a man and a woman lagging behind, walked up to the shop.

They both eyed me cautiously, yet curiously and the older man spoke softly in Hindi to the second shop owner.

It was evident he was asking the second shop owner about me because his eyes moved swiftly between me and the mouth of the second shop owner, almost like he was trying to make sense of what the shop owner was explaining to him.

I heard the word ‘Africa’ from the older man and guessed he assumed I was from the continent, which was typical during my time in India.

The second shop owner corrected him to which the older man said something else that made the shop owner smirk in what I can describe as an “are you serious?” kind of way.

Whatever it was, the older man was deadly serious as there was no smile on his face. Curious me needed to know what was said, so I asked.

“He asked me if you were a man or a woman.”

By this time, the couple was sitting on stools next to me, and I laughed a little, partly to keep my blood from boiling and because I was in shock. I palmed my 34DDs with both hands, looking down my v-neck on a stoop at a stall in India’s Golden City, and silently wondered… “but how”?

Growing up, I hated being tall because I was usually the tallest kid in the class. This meant I was always in the back of the line because of my height and because my last name started with a W.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned I really hated being tall because society deemed it masculine.

I am a tall, 5” 10’, curvy, dark-skin Black woman.

According to the heteropatriarchal white supremacist racist society we live in, there is nothing sexy or feminine about me or any other Black woman who shares these attributes.

Before my experience in India, I can’t recall a time that my gender was questioned so blatantly. But traveling full-time has definitely been a teacher in showing me how the racist tropes about Black womanhood have spread worldwide.

During the rare times, I travel from one place to another with a fellow traveler, it is usually a white woman. The hollow perception of my masculinity as a Black woman shows up when the time comes to load and carry bags into a bus, train, or to my bedroom.

The lack of help I receive versus the first-class service my white woman companion receives without asking is comical because of how automatic it is for people, anywhere in the world, to rush to the rescue of white women.

The question isn’t can I help myself, but the false belief that I can simply because I’m a Black woman that doesn’t fit the norms of European womanhood. What lies in the silence of not being offered help with my bags is that white women are the damsels in distress who are real women.

Through global media and eurocentric standards of beauty, white women are presented as softer, prettier, most desirable, and gentler, while Black women have to navigate stereotypes like Sapphire, which depicts us as sassy, loud, domineering, and angry.

During American slavery, enslaved Black women were not considered women.

In fact, the title ‘woman’ was left for white women, while Black women were simply slaves.

Enslaved Black women were often naked, aiding in their dehumanization and stripped away any feminity, while white women were dressed from head to toe assuring their nobility and womanhood.

I will never forget the time I heard a man refer to Michelle Obama as a man in my presence three years ago. I had just come off a ferry in Cambodia and was walking into a restaurant overlooking the ocean to get some food.

This man — older, white, and round, sat at the bar of this open-air restaurant in the middle of paradise and was rambling to the lone bartender about Michelle Obama’s misgendering.

According to him, she was a man because there were no pictures or proof of her pregnancy with her daughters, Sasha and Malia.

It’s one thing to read those kinds of baffling arguments on the internet, but to hear it in person, especially overseas, was sickening.

Black women are perpetually perceived as having characteristics that are deemed masculine. Words like ‘strong’ and ‘tough’ are used to describe us and do more harm than good, especially when we think about structural medical racism and how it affects the health and lives of Black women every day in America.

Both Serena Williams and Beyoncé have spoken candidly about their pregnancy complications and are lucky that they and their respective children were delivered into the world safely.

Unfortunately, many Black women do not have this happy ending because of this inaccurate belief that we can handle pain more pain, or worst, don’t feel pain at all.

Caster Semenya, a South African woman middle-distance runner, has undergone scrutiny over her perceived masculinity for the last ten years. She is a two-time Olympic gold winner and has won championship after championship.

Because her body doesn’t look like her white female competitors and defies gender norms, her gender has been questioned to the point that she was sidelined and forced to undergo sex testing to prove she’s a woman.

If a white woman had a godly body like Serena or Caster and winning, this would not be a topic of discussion.

Her person would not have been violated, invaded, and put on display for prodding and testing. This is only a topic of conversation because a Black woman, was (easily) beating white women, so the assumption is she must be a man or taking performance enhancement drugs.

Semenya is intersex, and her body naturally produces high amounts of testosterone. In 2018, the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) announced a “difference of sex development” regulation that targets and forces Semenya to take testosterone-lowering medications to which she is fighting legally.

If there is a woman in history who was no stranger to the unfeminine assumptions placed on Black women, it was Sojourner Truth.

A former slave turned abolitionist and women’s rights activist, in 1851, she gave an impassioned speech, “Ain’t I a Woman” at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.

This version, specifically if she actually asks the rhetorical question, “ain’t I woman?” is historically debated due to the timing in which it was transcribed.

The excerpt below is widely known, but the version historians believe to be valid can be found here:

“….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?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me!

And ain’t I a woman?

I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well!

And ain’t I a woman?

I have borne thirteen children and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me!

And ain’t I a woman?….”

When I think back to that day at the tailor in India, sometimes I smile and shake my head in absurdity, sometimes I become a little sad, and other times, I get angry.

Angry because as much as I would love to shave my hair off one day, there is a ping of anxiety that my gender as a Black woman will be questioned more often and more blatantly with a shaved look.

It’s the same reason I get a little sad because that ping of anxiety tells me I care if even a little. But why should I care if an old Indian man or anyone for that matter thinks I’m a man?

I know who I am. I am a tall, dark skin, Black, magically powerful, feminine woman.

Renée Cherez is a moon-loving, mermaid believing empath seeking truth, justice, and freedom. Feel free to read more of her writing on Medium here. Follow her on Instagram to indulge in her *sometimes* overly long captions on travel, self-discovery, and social justice.

Renée Cherez is a Black woman writer creating magic at the intersections of travel and Black liberation. Follow her on Instagram + Twitter (@reneecherez).

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