Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

How Ishawna Encourages Us to Be Sexy, Brilliant and Free

August 25, 2016

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It’s been a long time since I was last a schoolgirl, rolling up the waist of my dark blue, A-line skirt to make it shorter, scraping my hair into a ridiculously tight bun with the aid of copious amounts of hair grease and water. There were at least a couple desks bearing futile attempts at immorality and infamy through etchings noting that I was here once, and naturally, my form class was the best and baddest. Now, secondary school and its accompanying experiences almost seems like a whirl. The schoolgirl though, forever occupies a significant space within the Caribbean.

She is still ever watched over and lectured to, and her comportment and decorum in the streets — particularly in uniform — are still lamented over. We always hear more about the ills of schoolgirls than the schoolboys. Under a video shared on Facebook of a line of teens, seemingly on the balcony of a school getting wined up on, the caption considered whether this is what young girls are being sent to school for. Nothing is said though to the young men receiving those wines.

Education is one of the pillars of West Indian cultural identity; it’s a social marker in our respective islands and a vehicle for possible socioeconomic class movement and in migration, it’s wielded as a veritable cultural staple of who are as a people: people who utilize the benefits of and understand the need to “beat book.” Many West Indians abroad are beneficiaries of post independence educational offerings like government scholarships which allowed our parents to study and helped some of us to be the second ones in our families to go away for university. We project a lot onto schoolgirls through the ways we revere education and its possibilities, with the hopes and dreams of generations getting stuffed into their book bags and saddled onto their backs. And because they are little women in training, everything expected and demanded about good womanhood is also heaped upon them early as well.

The schoolgirl fighting videos, which are plentiful and nearly endless: a flurry of hair pulling and shouting and cuss-outs and blouses askew and fists and legs flying, feed into the public’s haranguing over them. The fights are problematic for true, but are the boys not fighting as much, or are the girls just showing out more? At times, it seems we’re so captivated by being voyeurs of messy schoolgirl violence that no one stops to enquire what else is behind what’s taking place. No doubt a plethora of factors contribute to the filmed altercations, but the path of decent womanhood means containing anger. Women with broughtupcy aren’t supposed to thrash about and rage.

I can only make assumptions about why it appears as though that girls fight more these days, and they fight for an audience, and they fight to assert themselves and eke out an identity that is against what society, for a long time now, expects school girls to be. Though school-aged boys do occasionally appear in parent shaming videos, school-aged girls are far more prominent. They are shamed and violently berated and hit for twerking and being sexual among other reasons.  A schoolgirl got peed on by R. Kelly once. Some schoolgirls ceremoniously pledge their virginity to their fathers assuring the sanctity of their hymens. This shows the sexual violence, dangers and sexual gate-keeping afflicting all kinds of school girls.

In dancehall and reggae, the schoolgirl intermittently appears and nine out of ten times, she is a kind of cautionary tale and invariably, in need of guidance of some sort. Sometimes, it’s already too late, and although Vybz Kartel gallantly decides to stand by her side, in nearly no way, shape or form is schoolgirl pregnancy considered acceptable by most religiously informed West Indian societies.  When not directly prefaced by “school,” she is a girl, no doubt of school age, who is referenced in song  who will “never stay at home”, and has “been with many men since she was only ten.”

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For the Love

July 2, 2012

Spreading some luscious link love. First off, my darling friend Marissa (activist, feminist, critical thinker and all around fantabulous person) is interviewed about trafficking in the Caribbean on Womenspeak. Kim is one of Go magazine’s “100 Women We Love” (yay!) and yours truly is a featured Femmeoir on Sage–and don’t stick on the other womym either.

Thankful for, humbled and inspired by and enamoured with the community of women I am in.

How to not be a Hoe

March 14, 2012

In the same week that I discovered Nicki Minaj’s new song and watched the video online, I became privy to a blog purporting to showcase a selection of “hoes” from Trinidad. I wanted to think quietly about what all of this meant: this naming and shaming of young women on the internet, ignited by the quick spread of social media.

This coupled with the earlier cacophony of Nicki’s staccato rhymes, verbal whirls, snarls and tics; a slick, kaleidoscope of a diss-rap whose power and futuristic imaginings my third eye surely had to get hip to. And it did, atop and around the sting and caress of the word connecting the two episodes, “hoe.” Although the word makes me uncomfortable and the song makes me hella uncomfortable, for mainly that reason, it was insightful for me to consider why the discomfort was there and acknowledge it.

The title of this blog post is ironic. There is no real way to not be a hoe.  Also, context matters and can be relative. And as bell hooks has noted, “any black female risks being labeled a whore whether she is sexually active or not, by sexist black men if she does not conform to their expectations of desirable femininity (178).”

For the West Indian girls featured on the now defunct “Trini Hoes” blog site, there was no requiem or celebration — only retribution it seems. The operative word in the byline was “exposed” which lets us know that the central aim was shame, which leads me to further conclude that with intentions like this, there’s no way to not be a hoe.  You could be one; I could be one. Girlchildren are endlessly inundated with the important lessons of everything from comportment to good womanness. Who among us, cisgender, or other female identified women, does not know a litany of:

. . .this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut you are so bent on becoming.

Caribbean girlhood, like those of a myriad of girls in many places is full of these reminders:

this is how you set  a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming. . .

How exactly does one do that? Not become a slut, an “ol’ hoe,” a skettel? And how do you do so easily in a small place? A small place that sufficiently worked to trounce the jamette enough to slink into the shadows? Yet, remains indignant and scandalized every time she reappears, like a phoenix. Furthermore, if it came to it, who can vouch for your sexual history anyway? How?

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Hair, Home and Meaning

January 28, 2012

“To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.”  — June Jordan

I come from a culture, it is said, somewhere between where the Ganges meets the Nile, converging with European colonialists, Chinese, Syrians and indigenous people. Where girls slicked their hair back with petroleum jelly and water — cinching cinnamon buns wound close and pulled tight with woogies. Where box-plaits were common and traditionally, you got braids for carnival, even my East-Indian, white and black mixed friend whose hair I’d done, tightly winding the ends with tiny rubber-bands. Her father hated them, she told me — hated how it looked when she plaited up her hair. And my curly haired primary school friend: a Trini ‘Spanish’ — every swivel of her head echoing with the clack of snap fasteners and aluminum foil on the ends down her back.

In secondary school, rebellious girls shaved half the underside of their heads — it was a way to be definitively edgy then. And more than one East-Indian girl came into her own by loping off the long, dark strands she’d been waiting to remove. Many of them, never looked back. Some girls permed their hair straight; some were life long naturals like me. Some of those naturals permed then when natural again — some stayed natural, adding length in locks, in nattys: coiling, clumping, unbridled, twisting, spiraling across shoulders, down lower backs.

Our heads once smelled like Luster’s pink oil, Let’s Jam! pudding and African Pride products. We pulled brushes from school book-bags and dipped them under the tap before dragging them across our scalps and flaked black gel buildup from our tresses.  We leaked jheri-curl juice onto the top of our blouse collars and maintained dry-curls and glittered finger waves.  We learnt about “weave-ons” and sat still with our selves, quietly dancing fingers around and around to put our hair in corkscrew twists.

We traded in banana clips, barrettes, the sharp teeth of tortoise shell hair combs and baubles; and sported bandeaus, bandanas wrapped around buns and metal hair clips made famous by those girls tumbling through the air at the Olympics on TV, instead. Once upon a time, our mothers slow-rubbed Dax grease into our roots, coated strands with coconut oil and wove colored woolies into plaits and styled them to match uniforms. They burnt and sewed the edges of our hair bows so they wouldn’t unravel — and when they did, we ran the length of school yards in vain, searching for them like lost dreams in the breeze.

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Brams, Fete-ishness and the Female Form

October 13, 2011

One day during the summer, I went into a Jamaican food spot to politely ask if I could leave a stack of flyers for my friend’s party. Caribbean party flyers are usually always hella interesting to peep. They’re fascinating snapshots into male centered flights of fantasy, and gives a look at what will presumably sell an event to the masses (read: cisgendered hetero men). The average event flyer is full colored, about 6″ x 4 ” on average, bordered or highlighted by images of female bodies in various levels of sexy (or scant undress).

When was the last time you saw, er, Tyson Beckford or a bevy of half-dressed men advertising a party? Exactly. Even though, on average, the soca & other Caribbean parties I go to, seem to be predominated by women — usually. Men are there for sure, but young women frequently run the route. And while not all women care about whether men are on a flyer or not, some of them just might appreciate it. Meanwhile, said flyer images will be plucked from just about anywhere — so you end up with a picture of Stacey Dash advertising a soca party in Florida. Or a random photoshopped still of Vivica Fox with a vacant stare looking back at you.

Which is fine; women on flyers don’t deter women from parties and they shouldn’t, but it all points to gendered notions of event marketing and what’s acceptable and the norm, especially in West Indian themed events. And because it’s only fellas I know who seem to have connects who do flyers (always another fella) and the party promotion circuit seems to be overwhelming male around here — advertisement reflects this. The agouti look-back, the stereotypically pretty women armed with unrelenting come-hither eyes. In fact, the only men I ever see on Caribbean party flyers are ubiquitous dancing crews, local-famous types celebrating a birthday bash or some other seminal event, performers that are male or sound systems that are always all male. You’ll see a whole flyer teeming with men then.

“Wow. It’s Stacey Dash! Is that really her body?” I asked my friend, the party-thrower. I’ve only known Stacey Dash from “Clueless” (as if) in her box-braids and fabulous knee-highs and I have not really been keeping myself up to speed with her current manifestations. On this flyer, she looked over her shoulder back at you, bronze skin glowing, ass-cheeks like full breadfruits beneath an ivory colored bikini swimsuit, beckoning you to come the shorts pants and summer dresses party. And as it turns out, the event went well. Perhaps Stacey had a lot to do with it.

At every Caribbean restaurant and small grocery in the area, posters and flyers can be seen lining some of the windows and layered thick on the appropriate counters. All use the bodies of black and brown women to entice the masses to come rockaway and bruck out to reggae, dancehall, soca, chutney and calypso. And they really completely turn a blind eye to any notion of pandering to the tastes of straight women who might be looking for beefcake.  The formula I’ve heard before is that fellas go parties for ladies — ladies will either come regardless, or not — so  marketing to the men is key to get them to come.

Women in the West (especially in North America) are already inundated with a media market that is saturated with the female form to sell and push products or ideas. So, it’s not too surprising that other parts of the English speaking world follow the same models. The same or similar models of masculinity get disseminated far and wide too, which is why no straight man wants to see shirtless males advertising an event that he might be thinking of going to — even if it’s not on there for him, per se. Men on a flyer would disrupt the straight male, fantasizing gaze — and West Indian men, on average, wouldn’t like that. Women (straight or otherwise) are expected to filter through or past the images and extract info about the event but the images are not there to titillate them. Even though, conceivably, some lesbian or bi lady might be watching a flyer and thinking, “Waaays, Stacey Dash have more forms than a secondary school. Bram sounding nice — I up in dat!”

But really, male centered event promoters aren’t thinking about them in the slightest. Even though, clearly, the extent to which any  Caribbean party is considered successful is based on whether both men and women show up and show out at  your party.  A ‘stones party’ is one of the worst things you can have — as a straight man promoter. Yet party advertising finds it all too easy to erase women attendees from the equation, with their primary focus on tantalizing and luring the men with visual bait, like carrots on a stick, hoping or knowing that women will invariably follow suit.

In the Castle of Our Skins

September 20, 2011

“The needles of their masts /  That thread archipelagoes. . . ” –Derek Walcott

A call to submit to:

“In the Castle of Our Skins”: A blog carnival series focused on voices exploring the range of contemporary Caribbean/West Indian heritage, background, culture and where these intersect with race & identity.

Contributors and bloggers are encouraged to ponder their own range of issues and intersectionality such as: What concerns do you have if any about your race and national identity? Do these function in tandem at all for you and in what ways? Are they separate or intertwined; in what ways? Is it complicated, this business of how you see yourself and your collective cultural identity? What about where your gender intersects with any of these ideas?–Your sexuality? How you look at the world? How has this skin that you’re in impacted your worldview? Do these outlooks/concerns/ideas change when you’re outside the Caribbean versus inside? In what ways?

What about skin tone? Socio-economics? Crime, perceptions of crime or political agenda narratives? Constructs of beauty, attractiveness, virility and the like? Body image? Your sexuality? You’re a straight, black West Indian man or a gay Caribbean man, or a queer, ‘mix-up’ Caribbean femme? How do you negotiate these variant identities — and in what ways?  What’s everyday survival like and everyday living? What bothers you about these conversations? What would you like to see changed or hear more of? And anything else you want to say!

We’re a small collective of Caribbean and West Indian bloggers, feminists, writers, creative thinkers & artists who think the conversations in this blog carnival are both vital and necessary.

Talk yuh talk — join us and be part of the conversation!

We’re hoping to broaden this conversation with a specific focus on Indo-Trinbagonian identity, womanhood, personhood and what these variant identities mean for the people embodying these spaces. How do these multiple spaces function inside of contemporary West Indian/Caribbean identity? And in what ways? (This call for examination too, is a work in progress—but doh study it, it’ll come together somehow).

Pieces can be any length, any style. Be unflinching if you need to be — or not. Previously written posts and essays are welcome. Send questions, thoughts, suggestions, concerns, essays or submissions links to creativecommess [at] gmail [dot] com.

words to live by…

September 16, 2011

The Carnival Body

September 13, 2011

“Big ting, small ting, I winin’ up on all ting. . .”

Hot on the heels of New York’s West Indian Day Parade celebrations, I saw two people I know, bemoaning online about the “rights” of women with certain body types to wear carnival costumes. It’s not the first time that the ever annoying body conscious, bodycentric undercurrent currently running rampant in Trinidad’s carnival for a while now, rears its ugly head. The increasingly body conscious aesthetic of Trinidad carnival has been steadily frustrating to me, personally, because of the way in which it enables people to feel free to police the expression of women (always women), with a range of body types who choose to take to the streets for these festivals.

All this “who she feel she is” and, “why she think she could go in de road looking like that,” which is to say: not toned, flat-bellied and slim is both reductive and silly. (Also referred to at times, allegedly, as the “Brazilianising” of Trinidad Carnival. Apologies to our South American neighbours who may, or may not, feel unfairly maligned).

Plus, it bothers me that some of these people are constantly acting as though it personally affronts them — these women who might even *gasp* have the audacity to not choose a whole suit. As though women outside of a certain size range have no business in a revealing costume, effectively engineering an oppressive space for women who don’t fit a certain mould, in a supposedly ‘free’ space, while nothing of the sort happens for men inside that same space.

Yes, men can be fit for carnival and choose to be — or they can not choose to be and you will hardly hear as many people either thrashing viral carnival pictures online and the like, complaining fervently how men with pot-bellies and or less than stellar bodies, have no right to be shirtless or in a carnival costume offending your eyes. Respectability politics practically never seem to come in to play for men’s bodies inside of carnival culture. And the discourse has shifted; from back when I played my first adult mas and if I am re-thinking carnivals past, from my parents’ generation and snatches of conversation I heard back then: the looming issues were always one of cost, and things like design, functionability, colour and themes of costumes seemed to matter more.

The whole point of carnival (if one can whittle down a complex sociocultural, historical expression of resistance, music, dance and revelry to a single point) is precisely that — that these women, and everyone else can have to ‘freedom’ as it were, to participate in these spaces and wield their bodies to the rhythm, however they see fit, and wearing whatever they desire. Why can’t you wine down the road in a two-piece if your stomach has soft folds or your thighs love to kiss one another?

It’s more than just simply fat phobia too, because Trinidad like many parts of the Caribbean and the diaspora, do accept possibilities for a beauty aesthetic that makes way for “thickness” (and I don’t just mean like Beyonce-thick) — to a certain point, so to speak, depending on one’s purview. If I think back to my school days and among people I know for instance, girls and women lauded as beautiful and desirable were never exclusively skinny, or flat-bellied with stereotypical modelesque figures. (Not to mention, considerable levels of sexiness is constantly meted out and lauded in the curvaceous figures of soca women like Alison Hinds, Destra Garcia, Denise Belfon, Fay-Ann Lyons-Alvarez and Tanzania “Tizzy” Sebastian to name just a few).

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Invisible Women [pt 1]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

May 14, 2009

“I have come to the conclusion that to a lot of people, nothing black girls do is good enough!! They get the blame for everything seem like it!!”–young black girl commenting on the demonizing of black women on a BET message board.

“I am so sick of losers like you putting black women down, like we are the lowest thing on earth.”—black female poster on another popular black message board.

It’s an interesting time to be a black female in America. The difficulties it seems are paramount. What makes it so difficult being black and female in America in this day and age? Well, lots of things. First of all, there are many more mediums out here that do more harm to the representation of black women than good. American pop culture and its ideas are so pervasive too; its images take root and reach all around the globe, far and wide. Think about the implications behind this range of the image of black women and girls, and not just on this continent.

In particular, the position of young black females who view these images (wherever they might be located) is particularly tenuous. It is this group that I am most concerned with as well as not so young ones (smile) like myself. The insistence of the media in various forms and fashions to blatantly ignore the plight of young black women wherever danger befalls them, to consistently fall short in its representation of women of color ends up sending a clear message to young women of color. One that says, you are not valued and you are not important.

If you think this message is not resonating loud and clear in the minds and souls of young black girls, then maybe you should find a cross section of them, sit down with them and see what they have to say. Or perhaps take the time to trawl some message boards where they frequent. Everywhere you go, the message is this same. Young black girls feel increasingly disenfranchised, they feel ugly, unrepresented, unimportant and irrelevant.

While young black girls should not be looking to the media to develop a sense of self worth, they still do so. Teenagers are particularly susceptible. Now there is nothing innately wrong with doing so, if there were balanced healthy images available for them to ingest and if they could consistently view these images with a critical eye. Young people must be actively given the tools with which to develop the skills that will allow them to take in these messages into a more discerning mind. Still, TV and pop culture should not be the sole outlet by any means because we all can see that MTV and BET and the like, seriously fall short.

However my central criticism is that whenever the media does send a message of inadvertent omission (or a consciously direct one), this in and of itself, is a message. One of the most powerful ones of all. If it’s not a message that black people do not exist within a particular space whether it’s as scholars, upper class, intellectuals, middle class, eclectic and so forth, because these images are nowhere near as populous as some of the other kinds. Then it’s one of dismissal. Non recognition and non inclusion makes an equally powerful statement. So it becomes an argument quite beyond that of simple inclusion and visibility. It’s also about those faces and voices that have been seen, felt, heard and still ignored. Maybe because they were not deemed good enough or worthy enough.

The significant thing about the invisibility of black women in some places despite all that I have learnt about race, gender, sexism and the like, is the strange way that I end up internalizing some of it. I feel as though I am less fearful than some of my fair headed and fairer skinned female friends when it comes to certain matters. I am not afraid of The Bad Man (whoever that is), some infernal boogeyman or strange things that go bang in the night. No looking out for suspicious vans with curtains that practically scream “serial killer inside!” But it’s not because I think that I am invincible at all, rather I have, at one time or the other, in a dark parking lot with aforementioned creepy van encroaching thought, “now who would want to grab me?” I suppose I am more fearful of specific people, places and things—more than any mysterious things out there.

Pop cultural discourse on The Serial Killer and Other Scary Things doesn’t ever seem too concerned with trying to make black women look over their shoulder but as a demographic—white women always must. Not just the actual Ted Bundys out there but all these other myriads of scary things out there, primed to get women—white women. The biggest difference we see with this message is when The Serial Killer forays into the world of sex workers or some other group supposedly on the fringes of society—then and only then, does the call to fear and fearfulness usually begin to cross racial lines.

Like Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character in the Scream 2 movie—subtextual messages in certain films, the absence of people of color in many popular horror films or the ease with which they might be decapitated early on, if there are any in the first place—all help contribute toward creating this absurd, twisted bubble of safety that I feel I sometimes exist in. These representations are further compounded by the fact that the black actresses and actor in the second Scream movie were seen by many as a way to save face for the absence of any in the first film. Black women in horror films are clearly dispensable when we even exist to be preyed upon at all.

Invisible Women [pt 2]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

May 14, 2009

We can connect these images too, to the larger discourse about black women, their desirability when stacked against white women. Macabre perhaps, but in the context of horror films and the larger conversation—clearly significant. By that same token, black women being picked off by a psychopath with a carving knife for example, would be equally problematic. I do not want to be mistaken for coveting more race-specific depictions of violence against women, encouraging it, nor wistful for any.

Rather, I am trying to consider how our social, racial, cultural, historical, political past informs those pop cultural images inside these dark places that we voluntarily want to go to—-like those inside of a scary movie. Even at a relatively young age, when we are supposed to be psyched about safely encountering our fears and having our hair follicles prickle, like inside the pages of the Fear Street books of my youth—these always seemed to feature wide-eyed, white females on the illustrations on the covers.

I know that I am not necessarily safe from anything in this world, but so much of the discourse on certain kinds of violence against women that we hear about, when not committed by someone close to the victim (and sometimes even then), is often portrayed in the media as linked to female desirability. If the victim is physically appealing, you hear about her beauty all the time. The awful media swarm around the JonBenet Ramsey case was always underscored by the little girl’s beauty and her glamorous pageant footage ran endlessly over and over on many news programs. She was portrayed as the tragic little woman-child.

One hardly ever sees accurate linkages to power, control, other systems of oppression, pornography and other factors explored in these kinds of cases. If black women are then considered less desirable, are we any less fearful of certain kinds of violence? Along with films, mainstream media and their news outlets play a large role in the creation of a culture of fear, fear of violence against women, as well as clearly establishing exactly which women need to be fearful. Take for example, the case of Stepha Henry who went missing in May 2007.

Stepha Henry is a great example because I had often heard newscasters espouse the fact that young, attractive women who go missing in America will have a better chance at their story gaining national attention regardless of the circumstances surrounding their disappearance. Race of course conveniently being that factor that was left out and overlooked. So I wondered about Stepha Henry because she was young, about to go to law school and attractive. But then again, she was black. What message does this send to black women in America when her story is initially ignored?

This of course being coupled with the lack of options for diverse representations of black women in the media and entertainment that are positive. Missing black women are at the other end of the spectrum, voiceless, faceless to the masses because of a media that refuses to publicize their tale, forgotten and ignored by all but those who are personally invested in the story. That’s how the media works though. A story only becomes imbued in the public consciousness because of this very media manipulation.

Which is in fact why I can recite so many of the facts of the Natalee Holloway case off the top of my head as I type, little nitty gritty things like she was a straight A student and on her senior trip, she liked to dance, she was about to start university on a full scholarship. This is also why I can in fact get the unique spelling of her name right in the first draft of this piece and not type “Natalie” because I know. I do not know her but I do. She is blonde and young and missing in Aruba. Her disappearance is certainly tragic but I wonder, why wasn’t Stepha Henry afforded the same personalization and coverage? And why (if I am to be honest) am I not surprised? What happens to the other stories of black women who go missing?

Historically, black women have had to deal with a lot, both within our communities and outside of it. Between colorism, slavery and its various legacies: the black mammies on Southern plantations, slave concubines for slave-masters, colonialism, oversexualized stereotypes of black women, the so-called video vixen, good hair vs. bad hair and more. I couldn’t even begin to list them all. The Hottentot Venus exemplified the ways in which perceived black female sexuality was literally dissected and paraded to a curious European populace.

American southern states clearly placed a higher value on the lives and preservation of white women, while the lives and well being of women of color were considered expendable. Southern trees would often bear the fruit of black men who in some cases, refused to accept this disregard for their wives, mothers, girlfriends and sisters. Our collective story runs deep and is rife with complexities, some stretching back centuries, some self-imposed, some not, all being part of the rich fabric that is the black female experience. At once beautiful, painful, poignant, enduring and so much more. Yes, so I guess there has never been an easy time to be a black female.