I am six feet and four inches tall. I have been so since I was fourteen years old. I played basketball, volleyball, and ran track in school and wore Jordan’s instead of dress shoes whenever my mother allowed me to. I was called a “tomboy” for not playing dress up. And, although I wore the same super curved acrylic nails all the other girls did – when I could – I didn’t touch a stitch of foundation until I was a month out from my wedding day. My height was always a problem and never an asset for me. And this liability has always been more pronounced in public, predominantly white spaces.
The plight of the big, ominous, black male is not a new one in this country. Caricatures and minstrels are evidence of that. But, tall, black women face both the struggles of intimidating whites and navigating gender politics in public. These two issues in tandem create a completely unique set of difficulties for tall women like me.
When discussing his height on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show in reference to Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman being called a “thug,” Professor Jelani Cobb asserted the following.
“As somebody who stopped growing, who reached the height of 6’3” at fifteen…one of the most important lessons I got was from my sophomore year high school math teacher. Who explained to me – I got up really quick and knocked over a chair – and he explained to me, this was a white teacher in a New York City public school, he said ‘You know, you have to be careful about how you present yourself. He said ‘because white people are afraid of you.’ And it was the first time this ever dawned on me.”
I have had this conversation many times over. But, I had the added dimension of dealing with gender stereotypes at the same time. It wasn’t easy trying to “take up less space”, as a teacher once told me that young ladies were supposed to do. It was virtually impossible to play with kids my age without them fearing I would physically harm them. While other kids got to tussle with one another, I was barred from horseplay for fear I might hurt someone else. My height was often a threat, even to adults.
My first understanding that my height was intimidating was in third grade. I was eight years old and stood at five foot five inches tall. My teacher was about four inches shorter than me. While admonishing me for not wanting to get a filing box off of the top of her cabinet for her (again), she interrupted “don’t you look down at me!” Surprised and confused by her request, I explained that I was looking down at her because she was shorter than me not to be disrespectful. I was promptly sent to the principal’s office for talking out of turn.
As I trudged down the hall, I couldn’t figure out if I was in trouble for looking down on her or if she was truly irritated that I had grown tired of being her “errand boy” retrieving things off of tall shelves. I knew she wouldn’t ask any of the boys in class since I stood at least six inches taller than the tallest boy. Not understanding that this white woman saw me as a tool to be used in her class, I felt as though I had done something wrong by not allowing her to project her needs onto me. It was her resoluteness in forcing me to reach things for her that made me feel both belittled and afraid. I was afraid because I knew that her position of authority meant that my lack of conformity would certainly work against me in the long run.
In her memoir “Redefining Realness,” Janet Mock talks about being “misgendered” by her family members and classmates. Simply, it means being labeled a gender which is incongruent with the gender you label yourself. For me, a self-identified black woman, I am often called ‘sir’ or ‘mister’ at grocery stores or restaurants. I could be wearing a paisley print dress and be called the wrong pronouns him or he. It is just a part of the territory at this point.
For years, I struggled with the shrill shrieks from white folks as we turned corners simultaneously. Sometimes, they’d scream so loud when they saw me come around the corner, other people would turn around to see if they were safe. I came to expect peoples’ fear. I stopped walking quickly around corners. I stopped swinging my arms wildly on the playground. I stopped rebuffing people for standing close to me on hot days using me as their living, breathing “shade.”
Even into adulthood I am often assumed to be a physical threat to others. Any show of emotion or passion – whether in jest or otherwise – is met with recoiling from people around me, especially in corporate environments where my coworkers have always been predominantly white. As one boss told me, “I think you should just stop talking.”
“Stop talking?” I said. It was another time when folks mistook my passion for numbers as anger.
“Yes, just stop talking to people.” Somehow, that was a logical solution to her.
Recently, long time comedienne and writer for SNL, Leslie Jones, offered the narrative of the tall black woman as wanting and never wanted when she reminisced about how she’d be the “number one draft pick” if these were slavery days. She later said her skit came from a place of hurt because she was single. Though her slave skit was horrible and unfunny, it struck a chord with me as a fellow tall woman. Being tall and black and female almost completely disintegrates the idea of aligning with popularized ideals of beauty, aka the petite white woman.
While the sentiments of Cobb and Jones differ immensely, they both point to an underlying issue with being black and tall. Add educated or “well-spoken” and you have the recipe for disaster.
For me, I have decided to no longer contort myself to fit any generalizations and stereotypes about my womanhood. And, unlike Jones, I won’t be reminiscing on a time when I would be used for “breeding” either. I am just going to live my truth. I am going to live free. What others choose to do with that is their business.