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  • Writer's pictureBulelwa Mthombothi

A Little Tenderness

To demarcate is to separate, to define boundaries, who can go where and what belongs to whom. The word had me thinking; what demarcations I am bound to, what boundaries govern my life as a black woman? I know enough to know that my existence is politicized and everywhere I go it will be, but what does that mean for me in terms of interpersonal interactions? What does that mean for my autonomy? Do I get to self-actualize? Do I get to be vulnerable? Will my feelings be heard when I voice a concern? Will I be given space to emote? Can I be fragile? Will I be caught if I fall?

Short answer is a hesitant, dragged out “maybe”, accompanied with a shrug. The world operates within systemic confines, which means you’re required to fill certain boxes to fit within those confines. The boxes are usually based on how you look and the politicisation of your looks. Beauty and attractiveness have a direct effect on how you are treated; whether you’re worthy of compassion, love, respect and help, kindness, basic humanity. In the hierarchy of beauty, white women sit at the top and dark skinned black women at the absolute bottom. For instance, a dark skinned black woman would sooner be told to “SHUT THE FUCK UP BITCH!” than that she is beautiful, whereas a white woman, with a plain face and wafer thin hair can be lauded ‘beauty of the ages.’ That is because conventional beauty is based on white women and black women have been given the role of direct antithesis to that image.


We’ve all heard how strong black women are and how they will ultimately “save us”, right? Does the ‘us’ include black women or is it just another way of quelling us into further servitude by dangling an imagined utopia as our saving grace? This ideal has set black women back many decades because while we were out sacrificing ourselves, white women and black men were gleefully celebrating the rewards of our service then telling us to take a number and wait in line. We waited, as dust settled and we watched ourselves be called bitter and angry for asking; “When will it be our turn? "

The world illustrates everyday how little it thinks we deserve, in the headlines, on twitter, in the workplace, the demarcations are clear. We don’t have a right to complain only to take the scraps and make due. The image of a woman deserving of love, kindness, compassion, empathy and light is not that of the black woman especially not that of a dark skinned black woman. The darker the berry, the harder the punch it seems. To be vulnerable and worthy of care one must embody the femininity of the idyllic white woman or be as close to her as possible and she can’t speak, or have differing opinions or at worst a mind of her own. Be still my black kween or else… no tenderness for you.

The world’s persistence in not seeing black women’s humanity has forced us to assimilate which comes at great cost to our mental health and overall self-image. Not to mention how assimilation is essentially a ladder to success, it necessitates that we change everything about ourselves; including our attitude to fit this racist, patriarchal mold of womanhood. To be wholly deserving of compassion you must fit in the demarcated bounds, otherwise your pain is of your own making. No wiggle room at all because the trope of the strong black woman, the mbokodo who doesn’t feel pain will never free you. A study in the US was conducted and revealed that medical doctors did not believe black people feel pain. People who studied human anatomies and know biologically we are all the same believe that black people feel less pain.

So, if, when we express physical pain and go completely ignored, what about our mental distress, the invisible pain? No tenderness.

All these factors are laid bare in in the case of Azealia Banks who has spoken up about her struggles with mental health and how as a dark skinned black woman she has had to fight and claw to be respected as a musician, which hasn’t even happened, despite being in the industry for over a decade. But because Azealia is outspoken and can be very rude and vitriolic, many people have cancelled her for some of the foul shit she has said in the past, even after some sincere apologies. It is not to say we are obligated to forgive people who apologise, it is the unequal punishment we meter at black women when they make a misstep. Azealia is not a perfect victim which is what makes her story, a great example for the mistreatment of black woman, while also depicting the mental failings of assimilation.

As a dark skinned, with an immense level of talent and the confidence to say it out loud, she was destined to be side-lined because she most certainly did not fit the mould and made it very clear in her music that she had no desire to. She was making it with just her talent, playing big music festivals off the strength of a four-song EP. TALENT! Her mainstream number was about to be called until she had the audacity to speak out against Iggy Azealea, and the black men in Hip Hop who willfully allow white women space in Hip Hop because of their attractiveness then write racist lyrics for them. She was attacked, side-lined and tossed aside for speaking the truth. Only black women came to her defense as we are somehow the only people capable of thinking logically.

Unfortunately, that incident gave her the reputation of being difficult and she subsequently has not been able to live anything down, while her male counterparts with equally loud mouths who have spouted large amounts of anti-black garbage and donned neo-nazi caps; have gone on to become billionaires. It is not about the money; the money is symbolic of the power possessed by an individual. It is as insignificant as race would be without all the historical context, but we live in a racially politicised world and money helps that agenda along. That same peer who, admittedly is very talented but who said Azealia isn’t; has had excuses made for him every single time he’s fucked up sighting his magnificence as reason to protect him. She, too is an incredibly talented songwriter, singer and could rap circles around the glorified genius but her talents have never earned her a defense force, EVEN when she is right.

Since he has spoken out about having bipolar disorder somehow people have found even more compassion in the midst of anger. Suddenly there’s a thing called “calling in with kindness”. Black men getting learning curves while black women are the learning curve. It’s bizarre how people can see two similar situations and choose to approach them in completely different ways. Azealia despite being younger and poorer than Kanye; has had no semblance of protection from black men; even when she was spat at by a white man in the presence of another black man –crickets-, they center her attitude and it does stink I’ll admit, but what does that mean when black women can so easily be discarded even when in peril? it means our liberation is wholly dependent on us and that sucks knowing how much we have contributed to the liberation of others.

It’s time we centre ourselves and stop making excuses for black men, we all suffered oppression albeit in dissimilar ways due to gender. But we would never withhold tenderness, even as they continually let us down and turn our bodies sites of violence. The only way for us to have tenderness, is to give it to ourselves. We are destined to catch ourselves. It’s best we make peace with that.

By: Bulelwa Mthombothi

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