Hands whirling, sipping coffee, snickering and giggling—this was how I began one particular Sunday afternoon. A friend and I were having brunch, and enjoying our time catching up. The mood was light, as it usually is when we get together, but she made a comment that quickly caught me off guard. We were talking about someone and she said, without hesitation, “Oh she’s chill. Nice and quiet. You know, girl—not loud.” I was stopped cold and crushed mid-laughter.
My friend had no way of knowing the wound she opened when she said “not loud.” I knew what she meant, and hearing her place a negative connotation on being “loud” felt like the same slap in the face I was all too familiar with from being called “out of line,” “too much,” “dramatic,” and other kryptonite-like words my entire life.
People have long subscribed to the belief that being quiet and meek is synonymous with being a good girl, and that the anti-good girl is the one who is loud, especially if she is Black. Hurt and perplexed by her comment, I wondered, what’s wrong with being a LOUD Black Girl?
As far as stereotypes go, a Black woman is generally considered out of line and disrespectful if she is loud and opinionated. That widely held and oversimplified idea is magnified tenfold if an opinionated Black girl has some style, a little sparkle, and thinks she’s cute. This false image — presented online, in the movies, and on television channels – undermine what I truly believe, and have defined, a “loud” girl to be: a Black girl or woman who is loud in voice and spirit. She is bold. She speaks up for herself and her beliefs, and for those who cannot speak up for themselves. She is a truth-teller and a thinker. Straightforward, innovative, and passionate, she is one who thinks she is cute.
I, for one, have always been “loud.” I speak loudly and have a heavy, deep voice. I’m usually either the most talkative or most outgoing in the group, with two high school yearbook titles to prove it. I am also very loud in other ways. My hair is big and wild (Chaka Khan is a personal hair hero of mine), and when it comes to how I dress, I live for bright colors. Anything with a pattern, I purchase, because I believe style is as robust a form of expression as one’s voice.
Speaking up is another part of my “loud.” Throughout my life, I always spoke up for my beliefs with vivacity — but then I entered the workforce. I was a young, bright-eyed stage manager for high profile events. I would use my loud, clear voice backstage to lay down directions for celebrities and politicians, all while keeping everybody’s energy grooving like a soul-train line. Instead of being commended, my wit, vigor, and flavor were met with questions, opposition, and long quiet stares from my colleagues and supervisors.
On one occasion I walked a senator to the greenroom, welcoming him to the event with pleasant conversation, and he and I were genuinely laughing it up. My supervisor later reminded me “we were here to work, not make friends.” The contrasting reactions to my natural voice left me feeling empty and confused. All of a sudden I had to wonder when to talk, what to say, and, honestly, who to be.
Over the years, I have realized this confusing duality is a concern for Black girls nationwide. A study conducted by ESSENCE Magazine found that 80 percent of Black women feel attitude adjustments are necessary to be successful at work and another 70 percent fear being labeled as “angry.”
On the other hand, a young White feminist like Emma Watson is quickly accepted as “passionate” when she uses her voice and speaks up. White businesswoman Diane von Fürstenberg is viewed as “fearless” and “fly” when she uses her voice and speaks up, and a big mouth White lady comedian like Joy Behar is simply “telling it like it is.”
It’s clear that the dualism surrounding when and where to be outspoken only applies to Black women, and even more when it comes to loud Black women. I have seen “loud” spirited women make adjustments in their life because of their energy, thinking that their interjection will be received as a Real Housewives of Atlanta excerpt when they’re really just speaking with flair. They earn a seat at the conference room table because they are sharp and think differently, but are then afraid their additions will be labeled temperamental. I can just imagine these sistas in their chairs full of damn good ideas and not speaking up. Yet, what if her suggestion is the answer? What if her brave thought is what’s needed?
I know how these sistas feel. I’ve been there.
Many years ago, I was hired to help plan events for a Black hair products tour. I was in a conference room sitting side-by-side with White hipster executives who were self-proclaimed experts on Black hair. As they discussed plans for the tour, I realized they were dead wrong about their judgments of the consumer. When they stated “natural hair consumers don’t care about natural product ingredients,” I knew it wasn’t true. I needed to say something—this was the third meeting about the same subject and I had to speak up. Not only for me but for the sistas who would attend the tour and receive the wrong information about their hair! I was sitting at a table I deserved to be at, in a chair I had rightfully earned, and I heard a voice inside me saying,
Say something, Thysha.”
Simultaneously, I flashbacked to times that I had offered corrections and solutions, only to have them neutralized and stonewalled with a judging look, an interruption and a glaring side-eye from the “experts.”
I ignored the voice.
I was fearful that any interjection, no matter the tone, would be perceived as a threat. Opposition. A reality show excerpt. A play out of the non-team player handbook. So I sat quietly and reserved my “loud.”
Sadness sent me home to my couch, a weekend of Hulu reality shows, and ice cream binging. I was bombarded with “loud” women painted as bad girls in every episode. As I watched them fighting for communication in well-manipulated segments, I was drawn into their flair.
Amid the images of these sistas who were edited into sound bites came back the policing words of my friend — “not loud.” I thought about how my Mamma, who is 6 feet tall and loves floor length minks, would come up to the school and advocate weekly for the education of her two Black children, often spending entire days in the classroom with us. I thought about my “loud” aunties with bangles jingling, who would speak up and start letter writing campaigns at work about their shifts at their blue-collar jobs where they were being overworked and underpaid. I thought about all the other Black women I knew. If the Black women in my life were not “loud” they would have made absolutely no progress for their children and lived with tattered self-esteems.
Thinking about them, and then about my own experiences, I became vulnerable. I had to admit to myself that there were times I turned my back on their examples — especially at work. I started reviewing all of my “loud” voice, perceived and real. There were moments when I loved it, and then moments when I loved it even more. I started to understand the power of my voice, and the value it held in every space. I began to appreciate all that came with my voice: my extraness, my views, and my energy — were all worthy. This was now my responsibility and duty. What I started to use as an adjective, a noun, and write in all caps — my LOUD — was special.
Of course, it was not all Kumbaya — everyone did not celebrate my newfound love for my voice, and spirit. I was quickly reminded that “they all roll their eyes” and “they are so aggressive” are firm and often quoted stereotypes of LOUD Black women. Challenges with the White hipster executives on the hair tour went on until I stopped working on that project. The labels they placed on me, the same labels placed on other LOUD Black women, were created to silence and to convince the world that censorship of the loud Black woman’s voice is deserved, and damn near needed. I learned that no matter how you speak out and what you speak out about, your voice — your LOUD, Black girl—is still under attack even when you have love for it. It is a daunting reality.
However, life can be no other way for me and for LOUD Girls everywhere. We must speak with all of our flair. LOUD Black girl, use all of your extraness everywhere you go in the face of every untrue belief, and add to your work the fight against the judgment of “loud” spirited Black women. There is nothing wrong with you.
Thysha M. Shabazz is the founder of the LOUD Girl Movement, a culture worker and a serial entrepreneur. You can find her at @thyshasmhabazz everywhere.