This Will Be My Undoing (2018) delves into the author’s experiences as a black woman living in modern-day America. By examining race, culture and feminism, the book demonstrates why and how black women have been marginalized and offers suggestions on how this serious situation can be improved.
When Jerkins was a young girl, she wanted to cast aside her blackness and assimilate into white culture.
This is a common desire among young black girls wanting to make it in a white-dominated world. They understand that their blackness is a threat and that in order to be nonthreatening and succeed in the world, it should be toned down.
Therefore, during her teenage years, Jerkins didn’t leave her hair in its natural state and wore jewelry and clothes that were status symbols of whiteness – such as items from Gap and Limited Too – and sought to avoid black classmates who shunned white culture.
During this time, Jerkins learned when it was advantageous to use her racial heritage and when to adapt to the rules of whiteness. She soon realized that, in most cases, white culture always won because many people don’t see black culture as a viable option. Why is this so?
Remarkably, the answer is that some white people see the labels “human” and “black woman” as mutually exclusive.
Once, a white man asked Jerkins why she didn’t just define herself as a human instead of as a black woman – a label that many white people stereotype negatively. Her reply was that she is both; however, the man said that she didn’t assume the role of a black woman. Why?
Because Jerkins was well-spoken, went to Princeton and worked in publishing – all qualities that didn’t fit with the man’s perception of a black woman, the man didn’t see her as a “typical” black woman. Moreover, Jerkins sometimes adjusts her mannerisms to fall more in line with white culture; she minimizes gestures, avoids sucking her teeth and doesn’t talk as loudly.
Blackness is denied when black women don’t conform to the stereotype of “sassy black woman.” This stereotype reinforces the perception that black people aren’t as educated or worthy as white people, and if a black woman doesn’t fit this description, then she isn’t black but rather white – and thus human. And so, by this logic, it is impossible to be both black and human.
Unfortunately, acknowledging a black person as though she or he were white is still considered a compliment.