What do we have to smile for?
I grew up in what I’ve coined #WashingtonStateSoWhite, a place where Black folks are few and far between. Being the only Black girl in class was normal and Black guys…well, they were few. Growing up in a predominately white community, my dating pool wasn’t as Black as I’d hoped for and having a sista circle outside of my family was a distant dream.
Even with few of us Black folks around and in a Pacifc NorthWest (PNW) community that fancies itself as progressive, stereotypes were abundant. I grew up seeing how Black women are told so often that we don’t smile enough. And I saw how that sentiment served to perpetuate the negative stereotype of the “Angry Black Woman.” But what is smiling doing for us anyway? Can a smile get us the love we desire? Real talk. With or without a smile, we as Black women still find it disproportionately harder to find love worthy of us and even harder to find the proverbial Black Love.
My background and environment lent itself to assimilatory behaviors. I grew a disposition for white men and I can’t even count how many times I begged my mom to straighten my hair. I was born smiling—and it’s no secret that finding me without a smile on my face is like peanut butter and no jelly or greens and no cornbread—but I began to lean into my smile as a tool. My smile became a stop sign as I walked into a room, saying: Don’t ascribe your stereotypes to me. Look, I smile often. Look, I’m different.
I allowed misshapen ideologies to shape the way I saw myself in relation to the world. And if I’m honest, smiling always worked. I was always well received, especially by white folks. They’d say, “she is so pleasant,” “she is always so happy,” “she really could fit in anywhere.” All the while dropping the fact that they meant FOR A BLACK GIRL.
But I kept looking for sistas, hoping they could show me what it takes to get the proverbial Black Love. I figured, they’d know what it was like for me. They’d know that behind my smile, I’m not “so pleasant.” I’m sassy and smart-mouthed. They’d know that I’m not “so happy,” as I live with institutional oppression all around me. And they’d know that behind my smile, I really don’t fit in everywhere.
I looked to Black women for guidance. But as soon as I walked up with hazel eyes, light-bright skin and a big ol’ grin, something went wrong. My skin, eyes and free-flowing smile communicated to the sistas of my past that I thought I was better, that I had it easier, that I was less Black. But, my perspective was that I had it just as hard, well, at least in the dating game.
So, I began to question the outside pressures and social expectations. Maybe I should smile less? Would smiling less make me more desirable to Black men? I started to view myself differently, as if something was wrong with me.
Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles and for a girl from the PNW, LA was chocolate city! Black folks were everywhere! Black women were smiling back at me and asking how my day was. Black men were acknowledging my presence! I joined a couple sista circles and we talked openly about our struggles. I felt welcome and connected to a Black community.
Turning my gaze internally, I wanted to understand why I had ever questioned my God-given happiness that manifested in my smile. That same smile that the sistas I now call my best friends loved and didn’t see as “too much” or phony, but as a piece of my authentic self. I questioned why I ever let anyone lead me to changing when, where or how I chose to smile. And I realized I had been using my smile as my armor and shield but turns out I didn’t need it for that. I realized…
Ain’t a dang thing wrong with me!
I’ve lived my entire life smiling. It was a pathway into rooms I wouldn’t have been allowed, a pathway into the hearts of those who would have dismissed me, a pathway to love, fueled by an internal happiness I still have yet to harness. It’s been said smiling can trick your mind into happiness and improve your health. And I’m glad to hear it, because with or without Black Love, above anything, I want to be happy and healthy. So, I claim my (sometimes overused) smile. It may not be a pathway to the dream relationship, but it has led me to love and joy. I don’t smile to prove my Blackness and I don’t not smile to affirm it either. It’s not about a man or a passerby, it’s about what gets me through the world and what will always lead me to love. My smile is the physical depiction of my inner joy and I own that. My smile is for me.