In organizing spaces and in social situations (sometimes they overlap), I’m constantly running into the same issue: being too real. In this identity of being too real, my identity as a fat Black femme always coincides with how people view that realness. In navigating organizing, activism, work or social spaces, anytime I address an issue, problematic behavior, or call someone out, the situation always plays out the same: I’m erased, ignored or ostracized.
Here is a breakdown of different examples of how this is done:
Being seen as the angry black bitch.
Anytime I address anything, ANYTHING, I’m always scripted as the angry Black bitch. As a Black femme, I could whisper and the world would still think I’m yelling. We live in a culture that does not allow Black women, especially fat Black women, the humanity or ability to be heard, multidimensional, respected, or regarded. Any feedback we give is seen as a challenge — a way of undermining the status quo. Any response we give is always seen as underhanded and never genuine realness. Any space we take up is seen as undeserved. But this isn’t just because I am a fat Black femme, this is because I am unapologetically willing to address and question what is considered “the way it is.”
Tone policing is the act of invalidating or derailing a call out/call in/discussion based on your reaction to the incident. “Tone policing” is really the academic way of saying “you got me fucked up.”
How I say or deliver what I feel shouldn’t invalidate what I’m saying, especially if it’s in response to violence. If someone rear-ends you, and you cuss them out, does that mean you shouldn’t get an apology or the driver’s insurance information? Nah.
But to contextualize it more (because analogies are fun but dismissive of our real-life trauma), let’s just think institutionally and interpersonally about how fat Black women are erased, violated and invalidated. Our representation ranges from wearing our insecurities of being unconventional in our beauty on our sleeve, to being the supportive, fat friend who makes you laugh. Or being completely lifeless and focused on taking your lunch money like the fat Gross Sister in the Proud Family. Or our bodies representing trauma and pain like Precious. We’re never seen as beautiful, worthy, complicated and multifaceted people. So, when someone does something violent to me in a world that protects and enables that violence against me, my response should never be invalidated.
And if it’s about anger. Let’s be clear — anger is valid. Anger is an agent for change. Anger does not mean hatred. Anger is power, pain and survival.
Being erased for the sake of maintaining fragility and unaddressed privilege.
Often in organizing or social situations, I end up being the person who confronts violent or problematic behavior. No, it’s not because I spend my time seeking “negativity” to address, but because safety and addressing power imbalances matters in creating community. Most of the time, these moments of violence have to be addressed right then and there, or a normalization of that violence becomes harder to tackle as complacency sets in.
But when egos hit the fan, and fragile “good ally” or “good person” title personas shatter, everyone who is an onlooker (not directly addressing or being addressed; or even directly affected by the call-out) generally decides to seek comfort in deescalating and creating respectable forms of mediation. Either by trying to pacify my “anger” by re-explaining what I said in a “nicer” way, or by trying to create a dialogue about the mental health of the person who was called out to ignore the real issue.
Now, this isn’t to ignore that the capacity to transform is deserved on all fronts in order to build together, but that doesn’t mean call-outs should be policed to the point that it’s no longer about the violence, but about distracting ourselves with excusing the person behind it. There’s always a missed opportunity in supporting Black women when we speak out. Which brings me to my next point…
Lacking support and emotional check-ins because it’s assumed you’re always OK.
After confrontations (call ins or call outs), if I’m a part of the situation in any way, I’m never checked on by people who share organizing space with me. It goes without fail that no one asks, “Hey, Ashleigh. You okay, sis?” No one reaches out and says, “I see you and hold space for the time and energy you dedicate.” No one actually cares about how the situation may have affected me.
My mom told me once that the reason why people don’t think big Black femmes and girls like us feel is not just because they don’t see us as human, but because we make resilience look so easy. It goes back to this idea of the strong black femme/strong black woman trope that we can bear pain and wear resilience like a lightweight jacket. That underhanded dehumanization shows how easy it is to disregard the emotional and political labor Black women dedicate to just surviving, yet alone doing organizational work.
Even when folks do reach out to us, no one wants to risk their social position or challenge the political status quo of the space to defend you, either. So sometimes support can look like whisper-meetings behind a group setting in order for the person to give shallow concern but not risk their social clout. This is the best way to show me how you’re only a ride or die when there’s a seatbelt involved. If you aren’t willing to defend and protect Black women when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable — especially because we risk everything for everyone else — then you’re really not invested in my wellbeing.
Ignoring the deeper issues of a situation. (Supporting reform over radical transformation of principle organizing.)
Generally, the deeper issues of violence of situations get ignored because it becomes about centering my role in being a “social dissenter.”
This goes back to tone policing, but a lot of people are not ready for radical politicking. Instead of making the situation about how I could be the problem, and everything would be solved if you just put a gag on me, let’s analyze how our interpersonal is political.
The most important thing we need to unpack in social and organization spaces dedicated to radical, revolutionary love and liberation is recognizing that how we interact, how we empathize and how we engage with each other is political. White supremacist systems and sociopolitical modalities entrench our minds with the idea that we must ignore feelings and focus on organizational production because we’re worthless without it. This also speaks to a universal context of adopting violent ideas of masculinity frameworks as survival — masking feelings and emotion while centering strength and the ability to push past it. But how do we produce work without addressing our emotional wellbeing in spaces? How can we create work without community and trust?
People never confronting you about any effect you had, but will talk to everyone else about it.
It’s unreal how many receipts I get on people having a series of issues with me but never once coming to me about these problems. Pushing aside how difficult it is for some people to confront, let’s talk about how it leaves no room for humanizing me to work on these issues. If I truly messed up, there is no room for forgiveness for angry fat Black femmes like me. There is no benefit of the doubt given to angry fat Black femmes and girls like me. There is no effort in supporting the development of angry fat Black femmes and girls once we’ve proven to be a “problem” or a threat to complacency.
Easily, someone who gets anxiety around confrontation can be anti-Black and fatphobic simultaneously. But I think about how often as a Black femme I am pushed and violated to the point that I am forced to address my feelings out loud. I deal with anxiety every time I confront someone or address my feelings. I was taught at a very young age to ignore the “butterflies” in my stomach to survive. I was forced into assuming this role of being strong, real and laborious as a fat Black femme. So this conflict really makes me question where anti-Blackness, comfortability in complacency and privilege all intersect. How does that affect how the world humanizes fat Black femmes and girls who keep it too real but go through invisible mental health suffering through providing that realness?
Being exiled from organizing or social spaces because it’s easier to maintain present circumstances instead of breaking down social barriers.
I was asked to leave an organization because one person said they had a problem with something I said to them in a private conversation. This conversation was an exchange of constructive criticism between us, yet this person walked away with deep residual feelings about what I said. I can honestly admit that I said nothing knowingly violent nor did I act physically violent. But for the person who I discussed my feedback with, they felt so hurt by what I said that they felt obligated to request that I be removed from this space.
Now, it wasn’t the “what” for me but the “how” that really sat with me. I can take feedback and I can even say sorry. I center radical self-reflection in my work so I am OK with stepping back if I feel like I’m detrimental to a space/others. But in this situation, I wasn’t. So when I was asked to leave, it made me question the value the people and the organization saw in me. Do you see a person who is complicated and able to transform themselves when you look at me? Or do you see an angry Black bitch that’s dedicated to destruction and drama and can’t be saved?
Having people repackage your overpowering angry black femme or black girl rants as spoon-fed applesauce.
People will listen to me rant, let me burn at the stake because everyone in the room can agree that I’m “extra,” and then process what I say later in way that sits with them. They then repackage what I say and deliver it back to the group and somehow they get praise for it while my name is still tarnished. Sometimes even the folks you call out will take your feedback and anger and try to utilize your words as their established political understanding and be deemed as “the new progressive.” This speaks to not wanting to relinquish power to Black women. Black women cannot be right; we have to be the push behind shaping everyone else’s politics but not actually get the credit or power for it.
I’m always the problem to spaces when my truth inconveniences someone, but an asset when someone can use my anger for their own redemption or education. My existence challenges complacency. My voice is seen as a threat to power. But in navigating my power and my threat to control, it’s a lonely road. For folks who are similar to me in carrying this weight of being too real, too much, but never enough — find support from people who value you and see you.
In the words of Audre Lorde:
“It is not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, nonbinary Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at BlackFatFemme.com, or donate towards my emotional labor: PayPal.me/Ashleighthelion.