As a Black girl growing up in the United States, I was taught many lessons by my parents and teachers: in addition to raising my hand when I wanted to speak, these included being quiet, sitting still, and staying calm. My father was all about minding your manners and never missed an opportunity to remind me of my place. My grandmother taught me that I needed to be the best student in the class in order to succeed. There was no room for error if I was to be something in this world, and under no circumstance was I to take up any more room than I needed to.
We are reprimanded by our teachers as little girls, labeled as having bad behavior, and suffer greater consequences for actions, similar to children of other ethnic groups. So, along the way, we learn to minimize our presence, in some cases by being quiet, reserved, and holding our tongues. We learn the “correct” behavior to move through life—from language to stating opinions—as a way to make others around us more comfortable.
As a teen, I was told to be aware of my emotions and to stay calm around “mixed” company, lest what I say become misconstrued as having an attitude. I watched my words and tone at all times—especially at work. And still, on more than one occasion, when voicing my opinion or having a disagreement, I was told to “calm down.” As I got older, I noticed that how I carried myself, the words that I spoke, and even how I chose to dress and wear my hair was all about blending in and making those around me feel comfortable.
Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., and host of the podcast Therapy for Black Girls explains that the notion of taking up space comes from how we [Black girls] were raised as children. She describes being reprimanded by adults as a little girl because she and her female cousins were too noisy, being told they “should be seen and not heard…In a space like that, we got the message that what we were doing and who we are is too much.”
This belief of being too much is also present in society, especially in media where Black female characters are often portrayed as loud and sassy in television shows and movies. And because media often portrays Black women as taking up too much space, therefore, when we do decide to speak up for ourselves, it’s construed as negative. This feeling of always having to be aware of one’s own behavior can create feelings of stress or anxiety because we are not being our true selves. And these feelings can ultimately lead to chronic stress.
When we have this mindset of not taking up too much space we are not giving ourselves permission to be ourselves, but authenticity is a key ingredient of being an inspiring leader. As a leader, we have to take up space in order to lead others. So let’s be loud, bold, honest, and true to ourselves.