Whatever happened to giving people grace?
It's a question that came up repeatedly last week, particularly regarding Black women, when the world met Tessica Brown — the Louisiana woman dubbed “Gorilla Glue Girl” — after she made the unfortunate mistake of spraying her hair in place with the permanent adhesive. Reactions to her predicament were a mixed bag, ranging from sympathy to disbelief and ridicule from both celebrities and social media at large.
Fortunately, Dr. Michael Obeg, the surgeon who performed her hair-saving procedure for free, and the thousands of people who donated toward her medical treatment ($20,000 of which she’ll donate to Obeg’s Restore Foundation), showed her enough grace to provide her relief. But before even undergoing the four-hour procedure, Brown was turned into a meme. The stress from the whole ordeal, she said, has caused her to lose weight and to “cry alone in the bathroom” as a way to protect her children, who have already experienced teasing at school.
Then, later in the week — as if on cue — came a tweet from Khaylah Epps, a contestant on The Bachelor, responding to a Chris Harrison interview that many of the 25th season’s contestants called a defense of racism.
“Yesterday was incredibly upsetting. To see someone do straight up gymnastics to try and excuse racist behavior is inexcusable and a direct slap in the face,” Epps tweeted. “And just on some personal shit, the way I would be portrayed on tv ATE. ME. ALIVE for weeks after I went home bc I know ‘grace’ is never extended to black women. So to see who is deserving of ‘grace’ and who isn’t? K.”
And just on some personal shit, the way I would be portrayed on tv ATE. ME. ALIVE for weeks after I went home bc I know “grace” is never extended to black women. So to see who is deserving of “grace” and who isn’t? K.
— Khaylah (@spperk) February 11, 2021
Her assessment resonated with many, with one user saying, “White folk keep asking for grace for racist white folk because they’re talking about & centering themselves: seeing themselves as victims while they’re oppressing. Asking a Black woman to show grace to racist cosplaying is just more racism.”
Epps wasn't the only one left to wonder why Black women often seem to be the least deserving of grace in pop culture and social media — where all types of people have been known to do all kinds of foolish, risky or harmful things, often for so-called challenges, only to be instantly forgiven. In the past decade alone, many have tried thefire challenge, the pass out challenge, the cinnamon challenge and, most famously, the Tide Pod challenge.
Me watching an entire community that puts rotting food, yeast infection meds, clay, snail slime in their own hair berate and deride a woman for putting something foreign in her hair. pic.twitter.com/CTjXt4JWCR
— Hair by Jennifer-Rose NYC (@JenniferRoseNYC) February 9, 2021
In order to dig into what grace is, who gets it and why, Yahoo Life spoke with Dr. Tamura Lomax, author and professor of African American and African Studies at Michigan State University, and Nikita Haynie, author, educator and assistant editor of the Pedestal Project, which aims to uplift Black women with affirmation.
WHAT IS GRACE?
Grace — a concept often associated with, but not confined to, Christianity — “means to give the same courtesy and room for growth and mistakes that you would want somebody to give you,” Haynie says. “If you're going to say ‘give me grace,’ you also have to be able to extend it to other people.”
Further, Haynie explains, “Even if you’re not a believer [of the Christian faith], I think it’s more of just being a good human. Having compassion and empathy for people whose lived experiences may not be the same as yours, and the different situations that might arise in their lives.”
Lomax says she’s heard grace described as extending to others “the sense of believability that you would like to have for yourself. It is to create space for mistakes, or even wrongdoing.” But, she adds, “we talk about it in terms of the free, unmerited favor of God,” which is something she says Black women are hardly ever afforded.
“Yes, [Tessica] had agency, but she had no idea that [the spray] would cause the damage that it did. Why can't we believe that?” wonders Lomax. “At minimum, I see her as a victim of anti-Black American beauty ideals which center white cultural norms of desirability, respectability and professionalism.”
Unpacking the social influences that surround Black hairstyling, Lomax notes that simply failing to “lay your edges,” can have material consequences and “repercussions” for Black women because of society’s idea of what is considered “unkempt.”
Looking back on the public scrutiny of the hair of both Blue Ivy and Gabby Douglas, she says, “We have to be honest about the fact that there's a lot of pressure to present a certain kind of way. Black women get — rhetorically, at least — slaughtered on the internet, [even] by other Black folks, when their edges aren’t right. We know this. I think we also have to think about class dynamics, and how that means [these criticisms] may not ever matter to [Blue Ivy] in the same way that it does to the everyday around-the-way girl.”
WHO GETS GRACE AND WHO DOESN’T, AND WHY
Experts say that grace isn’t doled out so easily when it comes to Black women, due to racist stereotypes and assumptions about who can claim victimhood. Lomax says that throughout history, an underlying narrative is that “Black women are not allowed to need or ask for help, or be the victims of trauma.”
Lomax also points out that Brown, despite suffering in secret for over a month, and experiencing a decline in emotional well-being, she repeatedly told one interviewer “how she has refused help in fear of — she doesn't say this — but it is in fear of being seen as a gold digger, which is an age-old racial stereotype that continues to plague Black women who are simply trying to ascertain their basic needs in a society where they have been cut off.”
Haynie acknowledges that for virtually everyone, “errors will be made [in life].” Still, she adds, “[It’s] funny that people are willing to give those with narcissistic, problematic, psychopathic or toxic behaviors more grace than they are for people who make [mistakes] like what happened with Tessica.” As just one more example, she recalls the 2019 Jordyn Woods cheating scandal, which prompted her to ask, “Where is the space for growth, for Black women specifically?”
Grace, she adds, “wasn’t extended to her. They definitely demonized her.”
And while Woods being a light-skinned woman still didn’t help her in this case, “[Brown] is a dark-skinned woman and mother — we cannot ignore that,” Lomax says. “I think many have assumed that she is a single mother, and there’s so many racial stereotypes that say we are not to extend her any grace. We are to problematize her. As a brown-skinned woman with short hair, she does not align with the Eurocentric beauty standards of America, and if she was lighter or [otherwise] aligned more with the ideals of beauty culture,” she might have elicited more sympathy, she says.
Haynie adds, “Being a Black woman is a very unique experience and there’s layers to it. I definitely think we should give Tessica grace. Growth is a real thing, so I just wish that people would broaden and decolonize their minds when it comes to certain things — specifically within the Black community. Prayerfully, she has learned from this moment and [we] won’t see anyone else doing this.”
Unfortunately, there has been an uptick in people sharing their experiences of using Gorilla Glue products on the body since Brown’s mishap — by some as an unsuccessful way to prove that she was lying, as well as to gain notoriety of their own.
Still, why did so many people struggle to empathize with Brown at first glance?
A LACK OF EMPATHY
Lomax says that empathy is a large part of the concept of grace, explaining that many fall short when asked to “understand and empathize with Black women and girls,” in part because “the plight of Black women and girls is so distinct, that it's difficult for folks to even understand what we go through every day from every angle — not just in terms of racism, but in terms of sexism and classism within and without the [Black] community.”
“I think about how Black women continue to save America, and for me, Black women are the most divine creatures in this world,” says Lomax, “yet the historical narrative and mythology is not that of divinity. [Instead,] it's that Black women are seen as the worst of everything, and as being inherently “problemed” people, so it’s hard for the world to extend grace to this collective. But it must be up to Black women to extend the grace that we desire to each other — and that’s not always the case.”
Looking back at the most recent elections, Haynie points out, “People were online saying, ‘Black women saved us,’ but then when we need to be saved, who saves us? Either we saving ourselves or we saving each other, but nobody ever protects us.” Further, she says, “I don’t think [Black women] are given [grace] enough — at all, actually — because there’s this unspoken narrative that Black women are superhuman. Some of that we have created for ourselves, and then other factors of it is what the world has created.”
Haynie goes on to quote Mikki Kendall’s New York Times best-selling book, Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot, in which she denounces one of the most common stereotypes that Black women are subject to: the strong Black woman.
“I am a strong person; I am a flawed person. What I am not is superhuman. Nor am I a Strong Black Woman™,” wrote Kendall. “No one can live up to the standards set by racist stereotypes like this that position black women as so strong they don't need help, protection, care, or concern. Such stereotypes leave little to no room for real black women with real problems. In fact, even the most ‘positive’ tropes about women of color are harmful precisely because they dehumanize us and erase the damage that can be done to us by those who might mean well, but whose actions show that they don't actually respect us or our right to self-determination what happens on our behalf.”
“Even just thinking about Black women going to their jobs on a day-to-day basis and the different things that we’re experiencing,” says Haynie, “even in that space [we’re] the tokenized Black woman or the strong Black woman or we often take on the role of being the nurturer in the office. The ‘strong Black woman’ narrative has been damaging to us because we internalize it and try to do all these things, but when we’re run into the ground nobody cares for us — we care for each other.”
Speaking to Brown’s sticky situation, Haynie says, “We oftentimes look at people and say, ‘I would never do that, that will never happen to me,’ but you don’t know what will happen to you. If anything, 2020 has taught us that you can never be prepared for how life will flip upside down. You can never say what circumstance or situation that you won’t be in, so it is important to have empathy and compassion for the situations that we might see our Black sisters go through. Life has a way of making us humble and making us eat the words that we put out into the atmosphere. I am a strong believer in never saying never.”
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