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Anaphylaxis, Shonda Rhimes and Vulnerability as a Black Woman

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Navigating the world as a black woman, there is something terrifying about vulnerability. People underestimate us, so we feel the need to overachieve. People stereotype us, so we become hyper-aware of how our words and actions are interpreted. Every experience of misogynoir adds another layer to the wall we build between the world and ourselves, our true selves. But for me, it took a near-death experience to realise how emotionally damaging this has become.

Last night, I said two words I haven’t said out loud in a long time: “I’m scared.” They were uttered between the short, sharp breaths that my fellow severely asthmatic people know the struggle of. In a mixed up Chinese delivery, I ended up eating nuts, going into anaphylactic shock and simultaneously enduring an asthma attack and a panic attack (so just your average Friday night…) In a moment of sheer desperation, unable to breathe properly and entrusting my life to two paramedics, I admitted the feeling that I, as a black woman, am not at liberty to express – fear.

 

“I fulfil the role of the ‘strong black woman’ and being scared isn’t part of the job description”

 

Whilst lying in the hospital bed, I tried to remember the last time I’d verbally expressed fear, and I couldn’t come up with anything. I mulled over my inability to communicate fear, and I soon came to realise that in every situation of fear I navigate, I fulfil the role of the ‘strong black woman’ and, in performing this trope, being scared isn’t part of the job description. So many of my relationships depend on me finding the solution, offering solace to others, and performing emotional labour. Where, in all of that, is my space and time to be scared, to show weakness, to be vulnerable?

Just the other day, Shonda Rhimes, executive producer of the incredible Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder tweeted:

 

“our Black Girl Magic does not exist in spite of our vulnerability, but because of it”

 

I completely agree with Rhimes – we need to stop coded sexist language in phrases like “strong female lead” from pervading our language, to prevent them from pigeon-holing and diluting women’s complex narratives. Given that I have more than the 280 character limit of a tweet I’ll expand on Rhimes’ take, and add that there is power in not only applauding well-written female characters for capturing women’s strength, but also for recognising that there is power in weakness. This is, perhaps, the most compelling aspect of Rhimes’ storytelling – in both Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating we see black women who are strong, and competent whilst simultaneously vulnerable, and, at times, ‘weak’. They, like all of us, have their strengths, flaws and all that comes in between. In showing the plurality and complexity of black women, Rhimes is showing us that our Black Girl Magic does not exist in spite of our vulnerability, but because of it.
Letting my guard down won’t be easy but from now on, I’ll be embracing my vulnerability and admitting when I’m scared more often. I just hope that other black girls and women are able to do the same, without needing a near-death experience as a wake up call.

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