I remember the school guidance counselor telling me how mean I looked all the time. I was in fourth grade. She told me I walked around scowling all day and that it made people not like me. “I don’t wanna walk around cheesing all day, “ I replied. “You don’t have to smile,” she said. “Just look pleasant instead of like you’re ready to fight.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. I remember adults in my neighborhood saying the same to me frequently. And it most certainly wouldn’t be the last time I’d hear it as men, complete strangers, walking past me on the street have remarked how mean I look, telling me, “Smile. You’re too pretty to be looking so mean.”
No one has ever asked me if I was alright before instructing me to just “smile.” No one ever inquired if there was something bothering me before recommending I curl up lips into a grin. No one has ever asked me how I was doing before advising me to put on a happy face. No one simply smiled and greeted me first to see if that would cause me to return the favor. People always automatically pushed me to change that part of my exterior they perceived needing fixing, the frown that made them uncomfortable.
I feel like this succinctly sums up much of the black woman’s experience in this world: No matter how you feel or what you’re going through, you should always be conscious of how you make others feel and how you’re perceived. As a black woman, I must always be likeable and likeable translates to ever pleasant and in a good mood. It’s fine for the world to make snap judgments and characterize me as a person by split-second glances. Whatever problems I may be having are never important enough for me to get lost, allowing my worry or despair show.
At its core, “smile” is just another way to police the body autonomy of women. Just another way to tell me how to use my body to please others. Just another way to demand I present as society expects in order to get the humanity I already deserve. But here’s the thing: I don’t owe anyone a smile.
If I’m walking along minding my own business, I don’t need some patronizing misogynist making assumptions about why I’m not smiling. I don’t need some man I’ve never met giving me instructions. I don’t need to be told how to make myself more attractive, or at least more approachable, by cheesing like a Cheshire cat. I don’t need anyone teaching me how to make the world more comfortable with my inherently hostile black womanhood. I don’t need the advice or faux concern.
Maybe my fucking parents just died. Maybe I just received a cancer diagnosis. Maybe I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to feed my family for the next five days on the $16 I have. Maybe I’m having excruciating menstrual cramps. Maybe I’m exhausted from working a 16-hour shift. Maybe my child’s teacher just called me about some bullshit and I’m tired of dealing with their “prison-to-pipeline” tactics for dealing with my black boy. Maybe I’m worrying about being evicted and ending up homeless. Maybe I’m sick of walking down the street and being hollered at by every other car full of ignorant dicks remarking on my ass. Maybe I’m grappling with whether or not to report that I was raped a couple of nights ago because I know I’ll be met with nothing but skepticism and more invasion of my body via rape kits. Maybe I’m on my way to hospital to comfort my son who’s just had his ass beaten by the pigs. Maybe I just saw a video of my bikini-clad 14-year-old daughter being body slammed by a grown ass man hiding behind a badge. Maybe I’m hot, cold or otherwise uncomfortable. Maybe I’m fighting back tears of anger because they had me train a white girl at my job and then turned around and promoted her to my supervisor when I know I’m better qualified with more seniority. Maybe I’m pissed because the child support I receive is sporadic and whenever I finally receive any money, it’s maybe enough to treat my kids to a movie and fill up my tank. Maybe smiling would be unbearable pain since I’m walking around with a fractured jaw courtesy of a coward whom I thought loved me.
Or maybe I don’t owe you any fucking explanation. Maybe my face is my face and I don’t have to smile if I don’t want to. Maybe I’m actually in a fantastic mood but unconcerned about whether my face conveys that to you. Maybe I don’t give a damn how pretty you think I am or how smiling would make me prettier to you. Maybe I don’t want responsibility for your feelings. Maybe I don’t want to smile because I know it’d be perceived as an invitation for conversation and I’m completely uninterested in conversing with strangers. Maybe I feel like I have to keep on a serious face to let people know I’m not their doormat. Maybe I keep my face like this because it demands the respect so many seek to deny me.
And for me, the lengthy and layered history of requiring black women to hide or police our pain makes my right to wear my sadness or hurt or anger on my face all the more important. For centuries we’ve been refused the right to be complete people, with the range of emotions present in human beings. The narrative of the “strong black woman” able to handle whatever without breaking a sweat, or at least without letting it show, demands we be unbothered by adversity and trauma no matter its severity. To frown or grimace is either to play into the stereotype of the angry black woman or show weakness.
We’re groomed from birth to believe that our worth is intrinsically linked to whether men perceive as sweet and ladylike, and thus, a suitable wife. We’re groomed to always be fighting against the world’s image of us as combative and hostile, not matter how personally untrue. We’re groomed to restrict ourselves to being happy, or at least presenting as happy, no matter what we feel.
But who is to restrict me? Who has the power to dictate how I wear these big lips and chocolate cheeks? Who is to decide I must be conscious of who’s watching at all times? Who? I will clench my jaw and squint whenever I want. My face will be mine and your disapproval will be yours. So, no, I won’t just smile. And I won’t justify my right not to do so by running down my life to you. And I won’t oblige you with a smile when I don’t feel like it. Now kindly move the fuck along!