In the past couple weeks there has been a surge of people asking what they can do to be better. Conversations are beginning to take place and guards are beginning to come down. While that's a good start, it is just the starting point and there's plenty of work to be done. Below are six ways you can begin playing a different role in a Black woman's life.
1. Stop Tanning And Comparing Your Skin To Your Black Co-workers
None of us get to choose our skin color. The cold facts are: tanning is a choice while being born with black skin is not. Black skin comes with an entirely different experience. A woman with tan skin is not likely to be followed in a store and asked if she can afford the item she's looking for. Many Black women feel they almost have to tiptoe through life as to not offend anyone through their mere existence. Try to understand that going to a coworker, neighbor or friend and implying that your tan skin and her real skin have anything in common shows a complete lack of awareness.
Our features are consistently stolen, but not acknowledged. Our bodies are copied, but not respected.
While some choose to have darker skin it doesn't mean they experience life as Black women. A Black woman's life is an entirely different experience, so comparing the two as the same is wrong.
2. Don't Jump To The Conclusion That A Black Woman Is Angry Because She Tells You How She Feels About Something And Is Direct About It
This is a very dangerous narrative. The biggest problem with the angry Black woman stereotype is that it doesn't permit her to be anything else in the eyes of others. She's not allowed to be sad when her son is murdered, she's not allowed to mourn the passing of a loved one. No one believes she's capable of being happy or feeling joy. That simply isn't right. We're women and should be afforded the same emotional permissions other women have. It's important to understand that Black women are raised to be strong, direct and to the point. We're raised to believe that we may not keep a non-Black person's attention for long so we need to make our points clearly, confidently and without any confusion. That does not necessarily equal anger. Chances are in most cases that the woman doesn't realize she's coming off as "angry" because in her mind she's being herself and importantly, she's being honest. Again, ask questions. Or in this case, let the woman know how she made you feel and start a conversation.
3. Don't Look Like A Kid In The Candy Store As You Ask Questions About A Black Woman's Hair Or Stare At It
A Black woman's hair is her crown and is to be taken very seriously. For decades Black women have gone out of their way to make her mane "easier to look at." Now that more women are rocking their natural hair, non-Black women seem to be confused...and it shows. There appears to be an uncontrollable desire to touch the hair, stare at the hair or ask ridiculous questions like "does it hurt?" It's one thing to ask a basic question such as "where do you get your hair done?" It's totally different to ask if her hair smells because she has dreadlocks? Black women should not have to think twice about wearing their hair in its natural state because they're concerned with being stared at or questioned. Be respectful. Refrain from reacting as if you're a kid in a candy store. Looking at a black woman's hair should not make her feel like you are at an exhibit. It's no different than naturally curly hair and naturally straight hair. Respect the hair. It's serious business, not entertainment.
4. Avoid Saying Things That Imply Our Natural Beauty Is Inferior To Yours
Black women are so beautiful that non-Black women are buying Black features like lips and booties everyday. Even with all that, there seems to be a difficulty with non-Black women admitting Black women's natural beauty. Instead, backhanded compliments seem to be the norm. "She's pretty for a Black woman" or "I wouldn't mind having a booty like hers but not her legs." "She has nice eyes, but her nose is too big." Comments like that are obviously hurtful and are better left unsaid. My brand sassmouth Company was created in response to this behavior, calling out the societal double standard on Black beauty.
5. Ask A Black Woman About Her Experiences At Work, As A Customer Or A Citizen
There's been an outpouring from all races asking questions about what they can do. How they may be unknowingly contributing to systemic racism and how can they do better. The simplest way to play your role in changing this country is to start a conversation. Racism has been able to fester the way it has is because so many people are afraid to have uncomfortable conversations. If that's you, don't jump right into the justice system as a topic, start simple and ask questions you can relate to. If you're a business owner talking to another business owner, inquire about her experience with customers, vendors, etc. Find a common ground and figure out how different your experiences are. Now, if you are ready for deeper conversations, be prepared for the truth because your experiences are not the same and if you're open, it can be very eye opening.
6. Provide Confidence To Young Black Girls
Little Black girls are taught by their mothers and grandmothers to accept their features are lesser than their counterparts. This isn't told to them verbatim and it isn't told to to be mean. It's a form of protection and a way of preparing our girls for the way the world is going to view them. America doesn't view Black women as beautiful. Our features are consistently stolen, but not acknowledged. Our bodies are copied, but not respected. Our confidence is misinterpreted for anger. Our daughters see that and it affects them. As a non-Black woman a simple statement of "You are pretty or smart, or beautiful" can have a lasting impact. So do it. And if you've had your lips done tell her "Your lips are so pretty I want mine to be as pretty." This isn't a dig, it's about playing a different role and breaking down barriers.
Except for 16, I have celebrated all of my milestone birthdays in New York City.
I turned 16 in Arnold, Missouri. Arnold is a small town (though not small anymore) 20 miles south of St. Louis. St. Louis is known for the Gateway Arch, a beautiful arch of shiny stainless steel, built by the National Parks Service in 1935 to commemorate Thomas Jefferson's vision of a transcontinental U.S. St. Louis is also known for its custard, a frozen dessert that is so thick, they hand it to you upside down with a spoon inside. Something else about St. Louis you should know is that there is a courthouse just steps from the base of the Gateway Arch where one of the most important cases in history was tried: Dred Scott v. Sanford.
I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive.
Mr. Scott was born into enslavement around 1799 and, in 1830, was sold to a military surgeon who traveled back and forth between his military posts in Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1842 the doctor and Mr. Scott both married, and they, all four, returned to St. Louis. Still enslaved, Dred Scott filed a lawsuit against the doctor's wife for his and his wife Harriet's freedom. We don't know exactly why he chose this moment in time to file a lawsuit, however, he did. At the time of filing his, now, famous lawsuit, he was 50 years old. Ultimately, The Scott family did not gain their freedom, but their profound courage in filling this case helped ignite the Civil War and what we would come to know (or think we know) as freedom from enslavement for all human beings. Powerful then and even more powerful now.
My next milestone was turning 21, and I did it in the Big Apple. Having only moved to "the city that never sleeps" a few months prior, I knew nobody except my new friends, the bus-boys from the restaurant I was working at, Patzo's on the Upper West Side. And, yes, pazzo is actually the correct spelling of the Italian word, which translates to "crazy." Trust me we all had several laughs about the misspelling and the definition going hand in hand. I worked a full shift, closing out at around 11 PM, when, my kitchen team came out from the line with a cake singing, "Cumpleaños Feliz." It was fantastic. And the kindness of these almost-strangers was a powerful reminder of connection then as it still is today almost 29 years later.
I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy.
When I turned 30, I had just finished a European tour with Lucinda Childs dance company. The company had been on tour for months together and were inseparable. We traveled through Paris, Vienna, Lisbon, and Rome. We ate together, we rode on a bus together, we had drinks after shows together, and we even took turns giving company class to get warmed up before a show. It was deeply meaningful and dreamy. We ended the tour back in New York City at BAM, The Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was an incredible way to end the tour, by being on our home court, not to mention I was having an important birthday at the culmination of this already incredible experience.
So, when I invited everyone to join me at Chelsea Pier's Sky Rink to ice skate in late August, I was schooled really quickly that "tour" does not mean you are friends in real life, it means you are tour friends. When the tour ends, so does the relationship. I skated a few laps and then went home. This was a beautiful lesson learned about who your real friends are; it was powerful then as it is today.
Turning 40 was a completely different experience. I was in a serious relationship with my now-husband, Joe. I had just come off of a successful one-woman dance show that I produced, choreographed, and danced in, I had just choreographed a feature film, John Turturro's Romance and Cigarettes, with A-list actors, including Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini, who became a dear friend and had even been on the red carpet with Susan Sarandon at the Venice Film Festival for the movie a year earlier.
And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age.
This was a very special birthday, and I had, in those 10 years between 30 and 40, come to cultivate very real friendships with some wonderful colleagues. We all celebrated at a local Italian restaurant, Etcetera Etcetera (who is delivering for those of you in NYC — we order weekly to support them during COVID), a staple in the theater district. Joe and I were (and are) regulars and, of course, wanted to celebrate my 40th with our restaurant family and friends. We were upstairs in the private room, and it was really lovely. Many of those in attendance are no longer with us, including Joe's Dad, Bob Ricci, and my dear friend Jim Gandolfini having transitioned to the other side. Currently, that restaurant is holding on by a thread of loving neighbors and regulars like us. Life is precious. Powerful then and today even more so.
I write this article because I'm turning 50, still in New York City. However, I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive. And I could not be more filled with hope, love, possibility, and power. This year has included an impeachment hearing, a global pandemic, and global protests that are finally giving a larger platform to the Black Lives Matter movement. Being able to fully embody who I am as a woman, a 50-year-old woman who is living fully in purpose, takes the cake, the rink, and the party.
I'm making movies about conversations around race. I've been happily married for 11 years to the love of my life, Joe Ricci. I'm amplifying and elevating the voices of those who have not previously had a platform for speaking out. I choose who to spend time with and how long! I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy. Being 50 is one of the most amazing things I ever thought I could experience. And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age. I'm 50 and powerful. Dred Scott was 50 and powerful. This powerful lesson is for today and tomorrow. We have the power. No matter what age you are, I invite you to use your powerful voice to join me in making the world a better place.