The advent of the social media era has brought about a great many things—some good, some bad—and notably, it has facilitated the emergence of safe and thriving spaces for underrepresented people of color, both men and women.
Worldwide, communities of black women have been able to stand in their glory and showcase their worth in spite of a patriarchal and institutionally racist society that seems determined to put black women in limiting boxes of what we can and can’t be, what we represent and what we have to offer.
On the whole, this is great. Seeing women use technology to establish their own self-determination in the face of marginalized expectations is fantastic. Taking a peek at hashtags such as #BlackGirlsAreMagic will introduce you to a rich multitude of women who are kicking ass and taking names, whether it be Serena Williams versus arguably performance-enhancing-drug-laden, fairer-skinned European rivals; Gabby Douglas continuing to make waves in the global gymnastics circuit; plus-size women on the cover of Ebony; or women of color being highlighted at the forefront of the current social-justice movement. The list goes on and on, down to the time that my mom somehow returned a smart TV she got on sale and got extra money back for it.
This has also in some ways metastasized into the concept of the “Carefree Black Girl”—the black woman who defies gender and cultural “norms” by doing things on her own terms, with her 3C hair or twist-outs flowing in the wind—bralessness and septum piercing optional but preferred. Tumblr aesthetic aside, on its face, I understand the seeming empowerment behind praising women who appear to set their own terms for how they comport themselves; but “nontraditional” and “carefree” are not synonymous terms and shouldn’t be treated as if they are. Nevertheless, I find myself constantly reading depictions of women with various amount of celebrity being affixed with this “carefree black girl” title, and I find myself at a loss as to why this is happening.
One such recent case is Cardi B—a woman who, through a series of Instagram videos about love, life and strip club etiquette, has won over the heart of the inner hood rat in many of us, present company included. Cardi’s brash and no-holds-barred approach to bopping and thotting is many things—witty, insightful, entertaining (as long as it’s not directed at the brown peanut M&M known as DJ Self)—but carefree it is not.
Cardi is trying to get out of the hood of the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx in New York City; she has openly stated that she got out of stripping to get out of an abusive relationship. Cardi B cares and she cares a lot. The realities of her life don’t allow her to be carefree, but they do allow her to not be afraid of being bold and enterprising, by any means necessary.
This doesn’t apply just to Cardi, either. Most black women, I would argue, care about a great deal of things: how to advance in their careers, how not to be reduced to their sexualized identities, how to find something else to keep them warm at night besides their degrees, how to make sure our black men aren’t continually left for dead in the streets. Personally speaking, on any given day, my range of concerns can be as broad as demanding respect in a male-dominated field, to rerouting my daily path home because of the creep that figured out my schedule, to stressing over the fact that H&M seems to have an eternal vendetta against cutting pants that accommodate my rice-and-plantains-fed behind.
The fact is that most of us simply don’t have the liberty to be carefree beyond a certain point—and that is perfectly OK. The Smith kids may be the “carefree black teens” ambassadors, with their rejection of formal schooling and dabbling in whatever whims come to mind, and that is truly great for them, but I don’t know how we regular folks can really extrapolate that circumstance to our day-to-day lives, although I am more than open to suggestions.
Ultimately, why do we want so badly to have that carefree label? What is so intrinsically better about it? Being a black woman is amazing, and I fervently believe we should celebrate that at every turn possible. It’s also hard, and consequently difficult, to create a “carefree” space in a world where there are so many lenses boring down on us. And that’s OK! It really is. We shouldn’t feel so beholden as to pursue this carefree state of mind when what most people seem to ultimately seek is as much self-determination as possible.
Additionally, why do we label some of the people we do as carefree in the first place? People were heartbroken when they found out that Lianne la Havas was part of the “All Lives Matter” ilk—but why did we associate her with “carefree” and “woke” in the first place? Taking pictures with flowers in your ’fro indicates nothing beyond following the same aesthetic that you see at any FKA twigs concert and says nothing about how you comport yourself in day-to-day life or in black, white or blue spaces. Yes, hair and aesthetics can certainly serve as a political or bold statement, but placing that label on someone who hasn’t claimed it for her- or himself is just as ridiculous as the eternal memes comparing the Ayesha Currys and the Kim Kardashians of the world.
I encourage all of us to use our words and not be so lazy as to describe things as “carefree” when we mean a litany of other things. Creative doesn’t mean carefree. Neither does midnight-blue hair. Or being proud. Or lying in a bed of flowers. Or wearing a crop top year-round. Or making your own deep conditioner. Or having casual sex partners. Or going to the Afropunk Festival. Or engaging in sex work. Or any one of the plethora of ways that people choose to go against the grain of the limited selection of boxes that black women seem to be allowed to check.
We can celebrate the array of ways that black women have chosen to represent themselves without reducing it to a catch-all term that seems to run counter to the reality of being a black woman not just in America but in much of the world. Most of us don’t have the pleasure of truly being free from anxiety or responsibility—but more and more, we’re finding ways to carve out our own flourishing spaces despite that. And that is more than remarkable enough for me.
Shamira Ibrahim is a 20-something New Yorker who likes all things Dipset. You can join her as she waxes poetic about chicken, Cam’ron and gentrification (gotta have some balance) under the influence of varying amounts of brown liquor at Very Smart Brothas.