Rollersets & Realness: Black Womanhood Defined as Drag Performance

by Shaadi Devereaux

I’m sitting on a plane now, in my flyest pair of kitten heels, hoop earrings, and a Hollywood Glam Lena Horne inspired rollerset to die for. The guy behind me refused to let me even begin to lift my luggage, before jumping up to stow it.


I’m an unapologetic Black Trans woman who loves letting men hold doors for me almost as much as I enjoy decimating them in the boardroom. I make no qualms about my love of being a femme, even as I plant my stiletto square in the eye of cisheteropatriarchy. Coming down from my Black girl feminist high, I notice the woman in the next seat over is staring at my shoes and purse before finally asking, “Your hair is beautiful, how did you get it like that? My God it must take you forever to do!”


I avoid the awkward moment of a white woman trying to unearth my beauty regime in front of an audience full of passengers and the cute guy next to me, by responding, “Oh no, its simple. Just a flat iron and a few rollers,” as always when confronted with this question. But really I’m thinking “Do white people not own flat irons and blowdryers?” I can only imagine the questions that would flow if she knew I was also a Trans woman.


Of course, it did take more than a quick pass of flat irons. More like a good wash with the perfect shampoo and conditioner, a thorough run through with the blow dryer, meticulous passes of the flat iron in small sections, and finally a carefully placed rollerset. That’s my Sunday evening after stuffing myself full of French toast and bottomless mimosas with my homegirls. I’m a girl who loves her hair, it’s my thing. Some women spend all morning on their face, while others stuff their bits into spanks and shapewear. Whether it be ripped stockings, a wrong turn with the liquid liner, or your favorite blowdryer going up in smoke after its last noble ride, many femmes are seasoned veterans and know well the battlefield that is morning prep. And we have an unspoken agreement that it’s all-natural. Everything. Yes, even the fake beauty mark applied to the upper corner of your lip. We all do what we feel we need to do to fit our visions of the kind of women we want to look like, no matter how long it takes. But only some women have that experience put under a microscope and constantly exposed as proof of our fraud and ultimately as proof that we are merely masquerading as women.


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I once tweeted that black womanhood is inherently viewed as drag performance. A loaded statement to be sure, but also one I’m very confident in making. When the image of the perfect woman is coded from childhood as Snow White, the fairest and most sunburned in all the land, the idea becomes that all the rest of us are just donning costumes to imitate true beauty. The assumption is always that Black women are all imitating “true women” with long silky hair, light eyes and a list of features not associated with Blackness. There is surely a scale of womanhood in which black women, trans women, and those with large enough liquor cabinets to attempt both, find ourselves at the bottom. We tend to overlook this in how we view what it means to be trans and cis (presenting in a way deemed normative to the gender you were assigned at birth) and who has access to narratives of womanhood.


I can recall many conversations where in determining what it means to be cis and what it means to be trans, another conversation develops on who exactly can drink from the grape soda fountain of cis privilege. When running down this list of not having your womanhood stigmatized and targeted by the medical industry, facing and being seen as deserving of violence, being treated as less than delicate and woman…many non-trans Black women are left scratching their head at where their cis privilege AARP card went. And Black trans women are left searching for a Tylenol and keys to the mini-bar. Is the gender mailman afraid of Black neighborhoods? Our definitions of what it means to have these identities and thus the resulting conversations, often exclude contexts of institutional racism, transphobia and other oppressions that shape the realities of our womanhood. If we factor race, class, gender and disability what we find is that scale of womanhood often tips in different directions. It balances on an axis in which women of color, trans women, impoverished women, and disabled women are pathologized and measured against the norm of white able-bodied women of means. Asian women become dragon ladies, tiger moms and obedient Geisha stereotypes. Native women become sexualized Pocahontas fantasies or erased completely. Latina women become feisty and hot blooded temptresses. Black women become welfare queens, mules, ugly, mammies, temptresses, sex crazed and anything that suits the mood of the moment. And the list goes on until you find Black Trans women with these intersections at the very bottom. The concept of womanhood is most often constructed on the backs of women of color and trans women, to prop up a chosen few. Pull out your Highlander swords, ladies, there can only be one.


You may now be thinking it’s ridiculous. “Shaadi, stop. Black womanhood is viewed as drag performance?! What does that even mean?!” Well let’s try again. Whether it’s non-Black people questioning the authenticity of our hair, asking if its real or how long it took; people assuming we are without partners upon delivering our children; the higher rates of intimate partner violence and incarceration because we aren’t allowed to be seen as victims, vulnerable, or worthy of protection, it’s always assumed that we are tougher, angrier, more hardy, and therefore can take whatever is dished out, while finer women require more gentle care.


It gets even more perilous for Black trans women who face the added violence of transmisogyny, compounding these issues while also denying us our identity on the basis of a strict system of gender that separates people into two neat, incontestable categories upon birth. Everything we do is considered putting on a costume to hide the fact that we are really men, as opposed to acknowledging that we are women partaking in our own rituals of femininity. For transwomen this process is sensationalized to grip the imagination of those for whom we are just another strange creature in a Wonderland novel. And quicker than you can fall through the looking glass of the vanity that graces the start of every trans documentary, trans women become our makeup routines in the narrative of mainstream media. (I swear, if I see one more documentary that starts Noxeema Jackson style with a trans woman putting on make up, I’ll scream.) The performance of our womanhood is constantly sensationalized and viewed as transformation from grizzly beast to beauty. What’s worse is that we’re judged by an even harsher standard because any lack of measuring up to hierarchal images of femme is viewed as us failing femininity and as proof that we are men after all. Femme on your own terms can be a huge source of empowerment. Compulsory femme to gain access to your own womanhood, however? Not so fun.


So yes, I’m one of the Black women who chooses to take at least two hours out of her weekly schedule to style her hair. But why is this questioned and made the subject of misogynist gaze. A form of racialized misogyny, in this case, carried out not only by men but even hierarchically by women of other races. Why is the creation of my hairstyle not taken for what it is and accepted as an unquestionable part of my femininity? Why is my presentation not perceived as simply what’s in front you? There’s almost the feeling that its true and dirty origins must be uncovered to make sense of the world. Particularly in a world that says a Black Trans girl shouldn’t have flyer hair and heels than you. Blackness is assumed to be everyone’s dirty secret and pointing it out is enough to dethrone those who get a little uppity and start feeling ourselves.


The question becomes, Whose femininity do we seek to question and most obsessively seek to uncover its “dirty secrets”? Are other women’s beauty so readily dissected and probed in private boundaries made public? Whose beauty is a deceit, needing to be uncovered, and whose is seen as simply an extension of an inherently beautiful and awe inspiring womanhood? And finally, what does it say about the way we view not only Black women, both cis and trans, but women across the board? What does it say about how mistrustful we are of our own femininity and unsure of our own standing in the context of a patriarchal gaze. When womanhood is so readily deconstructed by the very purveyors of its infinite power and mystery, what hope is there for a feminist revolution? In a society in which womanhood, blackness, and trans womanhood are all pathologized we would do well to collectively challenge hierarchies. What would it look like if we as women collectively pooled our best cards and challenged patriarchy for the grand kitty? How do we expand the definition of womanhood to serve our lives and not the whims of a world that sees us as inherently less than human cut out dolls? Perhaps we can take the bra off womanhood so she breathes a little easier, knock out the wall, and make the powder room a little roomier. Its 2014 and we all need space to fix our makeup and fluff our Lena Horne inspired curls, to take over the World.


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ShaadiShaadi Devereaux is a writer and independent federal contractor working on various Human Rights Programs, a Black Trans Girl with amazing hair, and a community member building narratives for girls like us via social media. Follow her at tgirlinterruptd on Twitter.




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