Recently, I sat outside for drinks at Big Bear Cafe in Washington, DC and overheard a conversation about a newborn baby. Young, white parents met with their friends and exchanged standard questions about their recent transition into parenthood. After discussing the baby’s sleep habits and the experience of breastfeeding, one of the mother’s friends leaned into the stroller and spoke to the baby, in an octave higher. She said, “You’re so cute when you smile. But you shouldn’t have to worry about people telling you to smile. Not men on the street, not anyone.” Her friends chuckled at the social commentary mixed with baby talk.
I laughed too, recalling moments when strangers have reminded me to smile or just, “be happy.” One particularly poignant example occurred on the morning I found out that I had lost a friend to osteosarcoma. A man waiting at a crosswalk reminded me, “you’re prettier when you smile, miss.” The female experience is one in which our emotions and our appearance is up for public debate and policing, without our consent.
Opponents of this thought assert that the intentions are pure and that there’s inherent compassion in wishing for someone else’s happiness. Generally, men are averse to the idea of being held accountable for this habit. These are a collection of comments on a Youtube video made by a women who described her experience with strange men telling her to smile.
Clearly, women demanding to be able to express a fuller range of emotions in public hits masculinity in the crux of fragility and toxicity. Women reclaiming their right to don a straight face is met with your typical tropes of, “this can’t be true,” “this isn’t that bad,” “not all men,” but also, “it happens to men too.” In response, we identify as the owners of a resting bitch face and make jokes when we’re meeting our friend’s baby.
If your face naturally forms a scowl or you’re just angry on a particular day, I say serve that face girl. My problem is that many of my fellow white women miss the mark here. It isn’t fair that our emotions and expressions are subject to public criticism but it’s unjust to rock a resting bitch face without acknowledging the privilege embedded. Our sisters in this movement, women of color, find themselves entrenched in an even narrower spectrum of societally allowable emotions.
White women should read Lean In, should shrug off being called bossy, and should ignore anyone who tells us to calm down. Most of all though, we should own the fact that we do so without navigating the risk assumed by women of color when they take the same actions. White women operate from within the small box society draws for us and when we step outside of it people make menstruation jokes. For a black woman, the box is even smaller and the consequences of a misstep are more formidable.
I once worked with a supervisor who had the most tragic unawareness in the difference between these two power distances. Once, she cackled when I mentioned that I taught a sixteen-year-old nonreader. She speaks in a tone that is perpetually filled with contempt and condescension. I have described her to friends as an embodiment of everything problematic about high performing, no excuses charters. Given the opportunity, I would endorse her on LinkedIn for publicly berating people. I’ve heard her respond to criticism about this attribute by appropriating Sheryl Sandberg’s sentiments. She said, “the bitch thing is really played out. I am the way that I am, I can’t help it.” Her reaction suggested that her word choice, tone, and body language were an intractable element of her identity, such as race or sexual orientation. I invite readers to tackle the following questions. Would a male version of her spite garner the same amount of tension in the workplace? More compellingly, how would she fair if she were a black woman? Would she have achieved an administrative position without her white privilege?