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“Blackness is not a rigid definition provided by anyone, even ourselves,” says VOX Investigates reporter Sarai. “But is inherently the celebration of what makes us unique and how we are all pulled back together by a commonly shared and rich history.”

Art by Sarai Arriola

Black, Beautiful and Vulnerable: The Oversimplification of Blackness

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Step into the psyche of a black girl and you can often and a small pocket of insecurities that she has been trained to keep from the rest of the world.

“Am I not worthy because my butt isn’t as big as it should be?”

“Am I lovable if my hair isn’t the cute type of kinky?”

“If I am depressed and hate myself, am I black enough?”

In recent years, there has been a rise in the embracing of Black culture and what it actually means to carry that pigment in your skin — embracing all the pain, beauty, love and hate that comes with such an identity.

However, the oversimplification of blackness is detrimental. If I’m not curvy, beautiful and confident, I’m not a real black girl. If I’m not living below the poverty line, or If I speak “proper” I can’t be a real black person either. One of the most interesting simplifications that I mentioned, I believe, would be the one focused on the physicality that appears to define black womanhood. It’s a simplification embraced by social media. Because of that social media factor, it is the most recent one and arguably has the highest effect on the mental health of youth in the black community; particularly black girls like me.

The social media side of black simplification is a grievance I believe many black girls share, including my fellow VOXer Atiyah. Except some buy into it more than others. She, however, doesn’t subscribe to the bullsh*t.

“When I was younger, before I started coming into my true self-confidence and began the process of understanding myself, I used to want to be a part of specific crowds that required me to dumb myself down,” Atiyah said. “That’s because I was used to seeing perfect images of people on Instagram, but I realized as I got older that you don’t see their flaws. Those pretty Instagram girls don’t walk around like that. That’s only a picture. What’s real is in front of you in real life, not social media.”

The flawless skin, makeup and facial structure — and sometimes, somehow, the fact that the model has brown skin doesn’t make many black girls feel like true black beauty is being embraced.

We talked about black girls being raised to compare ourselves to each other physically to win the affection of the opposite sex. It feels like a constructed unattainable fantasy of what black beauty “should” look like is being praised, and being labeled as black empowerment. I even had a light discussion with my coworker Nia, who told me of her own experiences on black Twitter.

“I saw this one thing on Twitter that said black women are only praised when we’re covered in baby oil and wearing bikinis. We’re only fed that type of image of black women so I feel like that’s the definition of black beauty. That makes me question myself. I feel like, ‘Do I fit into those standards?’ And if I don’t, does that make me any less beautiful?”

I look at my body, my face, my hair and all the flaws those parts of me hold, and can never envision those artificial images helping me embrace my blackness. Some images exist for the sole purpose of being aesthetically appealing. And that is perfectly okay, but for many black girls, it feels like the only images of black women are exactly that. Which completely misses the mark in embracing the intelligence, leadership and mental value the black woman holds. It almost does the opposite.

On a more positive note, there is the second side of the “ black acceptance” movement that embraces a concept that upon maybe a half-century ago, was unheard of in the black community. The vulnerability of the black person is something that seems a bit taboo, as black people are almost always portrayed as tough gang bangers, women of unmatched strength and insensitivity to the bullsh*t we have to endure from society. I mean, that is one of the most beautiful things about being black. The things we have endured and the strength that comes from that. How society can put us down, continually, and we still are the main contributors of pop culture, and sometimes the aesthetic envy of other races.

But sometimes as a black person with any mental health issue, you can feel like a saboteur of this image. Am I black enough if sometimes I want to be vulnerable and sad? Am I strong when my heart feels so weak? A thought piece on The New York Times website was written by Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler on the topic of the effects of this caricature on the black woman. It is a well-written example of the danger in the generalization of a group of people, especially a marginalized one. To quote Zeigler, who gave a lovely summation:

“This Strong Black Woman is a cultural icon, born of black women’s resilience in the face of systemic oppression that has dismantled families and made economic stability a formidable challenge. She is self-sufficient and self-sacrificing. She is a provider, caretaker and homemaker. And often, she is suffering.”

Black mental wellness is valid. Black metal unwellness is valid. In any situation. Because what denies being black is not putting up a facade of strength, but embracing the realness and rawness of what you feel. Because this type of honesty takes more strength than acting like everything is okay. It is within our culture to act as though the things we deal within or outside the home don’t take a detrimental toll on our well-being because that demonstrates weakness. I and many others want to begin to embrace the beautiful and sometimes ugly complexities of the black experience. Blackness is not a rigid definition provided by anyone, even ourselves, but is inherently the celebration of what makes us unique and how we are all pulled back together by a commonly shared and rich history. A deep passionate love of our existence and an appreciation of our differences.

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