Sharla Horton-Williams, Ed.D.
SLSJ | All In Equity
August 27, 2021
My hair is big. She takes up space.
My hair is wild. She is all over the place.
She does what she wants
When she wants.
She has a mind and a spirit of her own.
She will not
Be easily contained or tamed.
She is who she is.
My hair is loud. She makes noise.
And you hear it.
My hair is bold. She walks in the room.
Brilliantly and confidently.
And you see her.
You feel her.
And you never, ever forget her.
I am my hair.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself right now, what does your hair have to do with educational equity, Sharla? Isn’t that what you write about? It’s that your job? Well, kind of. My job is elevating humanity. My job is helping educators create spaces where every student feels seen, heard, and valued so they can thrive academically and non-academically. My job is ensuring that educators are racially conscious and culturally competent so they can teach and lead our kids in ways that affirm them and build them up and promote opportunity and joy for all. And in a society where Black girls make up 6% of school enrollment but are suspended from school six times more than white girls and where Black women report experiencing racism in the workplace more than anywhere else in society, this work is crucial. Because clearly we have a problem with Black girls and Black women. Clearly.
Back to my hair. This is it. This is the way she shows up in the world. And I am my hair. This is the way I show up in the world. Assertive. Bold. Confident. Passionate. Sometimes loud. Almost always discombobulated. And this is the way so many Black girls and women show up in the world. And for so many people, the way we show up is either way too much, or it is never enough.
“You should smile more.”
“You should watch your tone.”
“You are too passionate.”
“You are too loud.”
“You are too bold.”
“You are too direct.”
You are too much of this. You should be more of that.
In other words, don’t be you.
Because as you are, you are either not enough, or you are way too much.
And neither is okay.
Now, listen. I get it. I realized that there are professionalism standards. There are ways of “being” in society. I also know that most often, these standards are rooted in white culture and all but ignore the individuality, the uniqueness, and the cultural realities of the people who don’t - or won’t - or can’t - conform to them. I was written up on my last job for my tone and presence and told that I was “unapproachable.” When I asked for clarification and specific examples, I was told that maybe I “should just smile more” so people would know that they could engage with me.
Just smile more, Sharla.
If you haven’t realized it by now, this is not about hair. It’s about this very clear and painful reality: the world is not kind to Black women. Black women are policed in school. At work. In the grocery store. At church. Online. Offline. Here. There. Everywhere. Because essentially, the world hates Black women. So, how do Black women and Black girls exist and thrive in a world built for whiteness?
And by whiteness, let me be clear: I do not mean white people; I often explain whiteness as a set of norms, behaviors, practices, beliefs, expectations, and values that privilege some and oppress others.
Well, what exactly do you mean by privilege and oppression?
I can just hear it now. Someone somewhere is saying, “It’s 2021. No one is oppressed. Slavery is over.” And, “I am not privileged; I worked hard for everything I have.”
Whew. Okay. That may all be true. But...never mind. Stay focused, Sharla. Stick to the script.
By privilege, I simply mean providing access, advantage, and acceptance. And by oppression, I simply mean denying access, advantage, and acceptance. And all of this is whether it is intentional or not. Whether it is in school, or at work, or in pretty much any context in society, Black women and girls are not free to just be. We are oppressed - denied access to opportunity - because of our tone (which has yet to be quantified) and unwelcoming facial expressions (whatever that mean) and “unprofessional” hair (whatever that is) and, my all-time favorite, attitude - a completely subjective catch-all descriptor that is typically used when nothing else fits.
Most Black women are generally not raised to be “quiet.” Well, to be honest, my parents tried, but being loud was just in my genes (talk to my Creole aunts about it!) so they never had a chance with that one. We are taught from early on that we can be what we want to be, to protect ourselves, to stand up for ourselves and those we love, to be seen and heard in a world that tries to make us invisible. For that, we are called aggressive, bossy, intimidating, mean, cocky, and difficult. I could go on, but you get the point. And we are shunned and criticized for being so. Oppression. Meanwhile, white women who display similar characteristics are dubbed assertive, strong, and confident. And they are rewarded and celebrated for being so. Privilege.
So, I have a question for you. When will Black women be enough? When will it be okay for us to just show up - at school, at work, at church, in the store?
My challenge to you today is to just leave Black women alone. Leave Black girls alone. Don’t label us. Don’t rank us. Don’t try to explain us. Let us be. Just leave Black women and girls alone.
If we are angry, let us be angry. Maybe it is righteous indignation. Maybe she has a right to be angry.
If we are loud, let us be loud. Sometimes when you are not heard or when you are tired of being silenced, you speak louder - because you want to and know that you deserve to be heard.
If we are passionate, let us be passionate. We really care about the things we really care about.
If we are not smiling, let us not smile. After all, it’s hard to wear a smile when you are the constant object of microaggressions, ridicule, criticism, and abuse.
So, before you write up that assertive and vivacious little Black girl for “having an attitude” or for being bossy, ask yourself this question: Who or what is she hurting right now besides my ego?
Before you have a corrective conversation with that confident and capable Black woman for her tone, ask yourself this question: Why do I get to decide what tone this adult uses? And who says my expectations and values get to be the standard?
Before you tell a focused Black woman that she needs to smile more, ask yourself this question: How have I contributed to a school, a workplace, or a society where Black women don’t smile? And who am I to say she has to smile?
Before you judge, correct, or criticize a Black girl or woman, ask yourself this question: What right do I have to project my beliefs, values, standards, norms, and expectations on this person? Why is she not enough as she is?
Before you call a Black girl or woman intimidating, ask yourself this question: Is she intimidating, or am I intimidated? There is a difference. What is it that I see in her that I wish I saw in myself?
Before you say anything to a Black girl or Black woman that is not celebrating her, uplifting her, honoring her, or protecting her, ask yourself this question: Do I just hate Black women? If so, why?
Then walk away, and let that Black woman live.
And try to catch some of the freedom she exists in.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams has a 20-year career in early childhood and PK-8 education and is committed to achieving educational excellence and equity for all students - especially Black students who have historically been underserved in education. She has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Sharla earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the role of the school leader in closing the opportunity-achievement gap. Additionally, Sharla is passionate about normalizing, celebrating, and protecting Black girls and women.
As co-founder and partner of SLSJ (School Leadership for Social Justice) | All In Equity, Sharla works with her best friend and business partner, Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly, where their work is focused on equipping educators to teach and lead for excellence and equity and helping everyone everywhere find their place in achieving a just and equitable society.
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