“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.
The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.
The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
— Malcolm X
From Lana Del Rey’s insistence that Black women are incapable of emulating her brand of “delicate femininity”, to the stereotype of Black women as aggressors, Black women are continuously stripped of the opportunity to be soft. Even responding to decades of oppression with (rightfully deserved) rage plays into a stereotype. “See?” People say, after a Black woman dares to feel anger after experiencing the one-thousandth micro-aggression of the day. “She’s so aggressive.” To the racist world, the Black woman is not soft.
A word that has come to mean an aesthetic blend of feminity, pastel colors, and heavy pink blush, to be “soft” is also the act of portraying (and signaling) innocence. Though not intrinsically linked, the soft aesthetic often carries an association with vulnerability. To be soft is to be innocent, a state that can be easily exploited and, therefore, makes the soft person vulnerable.
There are two major functions of vulnerability. The first, ironically, is violence. There is no better example than white women using tears to manipulate and even to kill, especially in situations where they themselves are the aggressor. Vulnerability does have power, and when utilized as a weapon, that power can be life-threatening. But vulnerability can also beget healing. Vulnerability can look like a venting session with a trusted loved one. It can look like the release of tears after a stressful situation. Sometimes, vulnerability can look like asking for help. But vulnerability is a form of healing that Black women are often denied.
Black women’s lives are continuously undervalued. In classrooms, Black children experience racism before they are old enough to articulate the difference in treatment. They are placed under stricter rules and receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts. When doing well, their natural ability is questioned and assumed to be the work of cheating. This is especially true for Black girls.
Young black girls are even robbed of their childhood outside of the school system. As seen in recent viral videos of Black children marching in protests, it is undeniable that Black children are learning that their lives matter less because of their melanin before they even graduate from Kindergarten.
Misogynoir necessitates that Black women learn to be resourceful, emotionally intelligent, patient, and unflappable. Black women are expected to rise above their own trauma to save every other living person. They are expected to be hero, sister, teacher, mother, wife, and educator. “Black women will save us”, every group echoes. But — echoing Watchmen — who saves Black women? When do Black women get to be vulnerable?
When The Hunger Games’ Rue — the main character’s sweet, little sister substitute — was cast as Black actress Amandla Stenberg, white readers immediately pushed back. They thought Rue was “supposed to be cute” and, therefore, never envisioned her with brown skin. Even in fiction, Black women are not allowed to be soft.
Art imitates life, so it is no surprise that this misogynoir extends to the depiction of Black women in fiction and media. Along with vulnerability, softness can also be correlated with purity and innocence. Purity and innocence, however, have always worn white faces, often with blonde hair and blue eyes.
Black bodies have been treated and portrayed as everything and anything — except human. Black women are over-sexualized, dehumanized, or erased from media entirely. The Sassy Black Friend depicts the Black woman as a comedic side character whose only purpose is propelling the white lead forward. The Mammy depicts her as an “unattractive” older woman who, yet again, furthers the story of the white lead. However, the damsel in distress — as dated and sexist as the trope may be — is rarely a Black woman. Is it because, despite their ability to come to the aide of every other group, a Black woman’s distress is not considered to be worth saving?
Black female characters exist to support and to save, not to be vulnerable. Black women are portrayed as cool and capable but without nuance. In life, Black women are expected to always be cool and capable — and without nuance.
Black women deserve vulnerability.
Black women deserve the space and opportunity to be vulnerable, to be delicate, to be anything under the sun that they choose. Black women are allowed to be soft.
It is in this way that softness can serve as rebellion, if one wishes. In a world that rejects vulnerability for the Black woman, she carves it out for herself. “Soft” can be more than an aesthetic. An embrace of the pastel, the cottagecore, or the colorful persona, can be an empowering, radical statement: “I am a Black woman. I reject the role you have written for me.”
Black women deserve more fictional roles than “the one who saves her less competent peers”. Black female characters deserve a range of depictions and experiences in storytelling. Black women are not required to be flawless, perfect, and supernatural saviors. Black women are not superheroes. Black women will not save you.
Black women who embrace soft aesthetics are powerful. Black women are powerful. By reclaiming a love and a power that the world has denied them, they are standing firmly in a racist, misogynistic world that greedily demands their time, energy, and effort — and they refuse.
There is so much strength behind a Black woman’s decision to be soft.
Arrest the police that murdered Breonna Taylor. Justice for Breonna Taylor.
The fight continues. Protest if you can. Donate if you can’t. Sign petitions if you don’t have the funds. Black Lives Matter is not a trend. Stay alert, stay aware.
And to Black readers: You are a light, you are a treasure, and I love you.