To conclude our Black mean girl series, we spoke to liberation-focused community healer Shawna Murray-Browne, LCSW-C, of Heal A Sista, about how we can quiet the mean girl inside of ourselves to formulate healthy, long-lasting relationships with other Black women.
When we’re talking about Black women to Black women relationships, the way that we treat each other is usually a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. And so an underlying thing that has to be addressed when we’re talking about folks being mean, talking down, going behind someone’s back to destroy this other Black woman--it is usually due to a sense of our own inadequacy. And there are certain aspects that a particular Black woman is amplifying. Either something we don’t like about ourselves or something that we wish we had and haven’t been able to achieve.
And so, instead of addressing our own insecurities and addressing what’s inside of us that is making us feel inadequate, we project our own negative self-talk onto someone else.
Black women, from a historical perspective, have had to deal with the lack of sovereignty and the experience of scarcity. It has made us believe that everybody can’t be considered good by massa. Some of us might be enduring more abuse, when we add the complexity of colorism to the way we engage with folks.
Then there’s the historic pacification in how we interact with men, the fear of losing a male figure--this is the cis-gendered, heterosexual mean girl.
We can also point to the fact that there is a lot more effort put into our romantic engagements than we put in sister to sister, woman to woman relationships. I think those are the beginning parts of generational trauma. It can be rooted in our concept of self from enslavement.
We project our own negative self-talk onto someone else.
I think it’s important for us to consider, specifically as things are more amplified-- cuz ain’t shit new--racism, colorism, internalized racism or injected oppression. We feel like we have to fight to survive at a more alarming rate. So creating the falsehood of having it together--one of my friends used to say, ‘Looking good losing.’ Wearing the mask on social media is more amplified.
Unless you are specifically deciding that you’re going to cultivate the relationships with your sisters or other women in your life during this pandemic then the isolation is real. And we’re not allowed to say that we’re in pain. Some of us have a hard time articulating that we need help. A good amount of us have not experienced the kind of village, community, unconditional love. And unconditional love can mean a sista that’s going to call you out or call you in. And having an ego to still hear that from your sis without saying, ‘Fuck her. I don’t like her anyway.’
Without the intention to preserve it, we are becoming more disconnected. We are a collective people. When I talk to my god-sister virtually now, I can’t read her body language all the way because I’m only seeing her from the head up. I’m not feeling her energy in the same way. So that breeds space for communication issues, especially if you already sucked at it when we were seeing each other face to face.
We also have to talk about grief. This already existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s being illuminated further now because of the tendency of Black women to take on the role of caregiver, leader, first-generation x,y,z or you have assumed what Dr. CL Woods-Giscombé calls the superwoman schema. Superwoman schema is feeling an obligation to present an image of strength no matter what. Feeling an obligation to suppress your emotions, resistance to being vulnerable. A drive to succeed, even if you don’t have a whole lot of resources--which is good. And then feeling an obligation to help other people at the expense of yourself. The grief that comes up when we’re talking about Black women as caregivers, Black women as moms, Black women that feel like they’re bearing the weight of the world.
Looking good losing.
We have to think about the relationship that the Black woman has had with their mother or mothering figure.
When I think about my own personal experience, my mother struggled with addiction. My grandmother struggled with addiction. My auntie was a caregiver but wasn’t always happy about that. My aunt has sister-friends that she’s kept for years. But my other family, not so much. When we’re talking about what it would take to cultivate genuine sisterhood, it actually means that you have to be willing to do a lot of your own healing work and address the things that impact your personal and interpersonal relationships.
Am I talking about it? How is that grief inflaming the relationships with the women who are a reflection of me? Oftentimes, our issues with mother figures are reenacted in the relationships with our sister-friends.
Many of us have shallow as shit relationships with our sister-friends then we’re wondering why we feel alone. We are quick to backbite them. We’re not trusting of ourselves, we’re not trusting of the women around us. We don’t feel comfortable exploring ourselves and we don’t feel comfortable having her see because if I think that about myself, I don’t want her to think that about me, so I’m not going to tell her.
NSNC: I remember hearing growing up, ‘I don’t have a lot of female friends.’ And that used to be a cool thing to say. People accepted it. Now, it’s like the opposite I have all these friends. My friends are my sisters but for a lot of women nothing’s really changed at the root of how we feel about one another.
It’s important to also frame this within the understanding that is fashionable to have sister-girlfriends. We’re talking about social media versus real life. ‘Look at me, I’m with my sisters. Look at me, I’m with my friends.’ But it doesn’t require the level of depth that it actually takes to actually have healthy, healing relationships.
Be willing to do a lot of your own healing work.
We can accept that we have to do healing work and talk in our intimate relationships. We don’t talk about that in sisterhood relationships. I don’t think it’s because we don’t want it. We really want real sisterhood. But I also don’t think we know what to do with big emotion. We’re not being taught how to deal when our sister really, really hurts us. So we call her a bitch and cut her off so we don’t have to feel the emotion. When in all actuality, a conversation like: ‘Sis, when you did this I felt like this. It also made me think about this and I don’t know why you keep saying that. I’m crying now but don’t judge me because I’m being vulnerable.’
Many of us don’t have the words for that or we’re interacting with other sisters who don’t know how to receive it. They’re taking it as a time to be defensive instead of a time for growth. There are sister circles that are so cool now. Folks are hashtagging. There are healing circles, sister spaces. It’s profitable and most of those spaces are very short term.
So we’ll talk about this for 12 weeks and then bye. But we know that you don’t really know somebody for real until you go through all of the seasons and all of the emotions. And how many of us have been put in the position naturally-- not sorority experiences. I’m not discounting that--But I’m talking about the natural progression of relationships. How many of those sister circles are fortifying and teaching us how to deal with conflict? And how to recognize when you are being triggered emotionally? What do you do with that? How do you address it helpfully? How do you take care of yourself? How do you grapple with I don’t let no one see me cry but I’m going to let her see me cry. It’s a risk.
NSNC: To that point, how do you know when you should be vulnerable with someone? Should you lead with vulnerability and then remove it when they prove they’re not trustworthy?
I’m going to tell you how I deal with it and how I’ve noticed other folks deal with it. I’m a straight shooter. Maybe it’s because I’m a Leo. Maybe it’s because I just don’t like bullshit. I don’t know. When I was dating my then-boyfriend, now husband I was like, ‘Ok, what are we doing? Are we just hanging out? Are you looking for a relationship? If you’re not looking for something serious, this won’t work.’ In the same way I set certain boundaries through the dating relationship, I similarly have candid conversations with my sister-friends about their expectations in friendship.
And some of my friends have been like, ‘Shawna, nobody be doing that, yo.’ Some of my friends have said, ‘I really appreciate that you did that. And this is the reason why our relationship is so deep and nobody else does this.’
I have candid conversations with my sister-friends about their expectations in friendship.
If a sis says something, ‘Uhnn nnnhh that’s making me feel like I can’t trust you, I just say it out loud.’ Most people think it. I make sure I say it--not when I’m feeling emotional or pissed but later, I’ll say, ‘So when you said that, that sounded like some real gossiping ass…for me to feel secure in our friendship. Ima need to know that you’re not going to be out here running your mouth or speaking bad about me.’ So I am assertive in that.
As a result of that, the friendships that I have, none of them are shallow. Every one of them learns my personality. I know myself really well, so I can listen, do you want the truth or do you want me to just listen. Do you want Shawna lite or do you really want me to say it? Because I’m going to be honest. I’m not going to destroy you. It’s going to be out of love but it’s going to be honest. So I also ask permission. What do you need in this sisterhood relationship?
Then it’s about time. If I am in a sister-friend relationship, I study my friends in the way I study my partner. Like ‘Mmm sis you did that thing. Your facial expression is looking like something is wrong. What’s wrong? What’s going on? I feel like you’re lying. Stop lying boo.’ I use humor but this is how I am in real life.
And because of that transparency and the fact that I’m the same every time allows space for the number one thing which is building trust. Trust is earned through multiple life experiences and being able to count on that person to show up each time. All of my friends have told me that they’ve learned from our sisterhood relationship and applied those same concepts in their other friendships. But most of the time, I think what we do is, ‘If a sister falls off, we make the assumption I guess she don’t want to talk to me.’ And I think a healthy way to do that, instead of just assuming is to say, ‘Hey are you okay? Did I do something to hurt your feelings?’ Communication.
A good signal that you know it’s okay to open up is when the other person has opened up. Another good signal is how do you find they are talking about their other friends. If they’re telling you all of their friends secrets--sometimes we need spaces to vent--but if there’s no caveat like, ‘I need your insight.’... How is she talking about her other friends? Is she downing her? Would you say that to her face? Don’t say anything about me that you wouldn’t say to me.
Reliability, honesty and a commitment to growth. So if you say something that hurt my feelings--however you want to say it. ‘That blew the shit outta me.’ ‘That pissed me off.’ Are they willing to have the conversation about something small? If it’s a small thing that they do that irritates you, can you talk about it? It doesn’t mean that she’s going to change. But if you’re able to talk about the little things, oftentimes that gives you a glimpse if you were able to share some of the bigger stuff.
Don’t say anything about me that you wouldn’t say to me.
NSNC: A lot of us just don’t know. We think we’re good communicators but we’re not. And a lot of times we don’t know how to say things without feeling like it will hurt someone else so we keep a lot of it in.
One of things I think is important to remember is that you can’t control how other people feel. You can be thoughtful. You can even preface it with, ‘I was thinking a lot about this because I didn’t want it to hurt your feelings. I’ve been trying to find the words for this.’ And then you say it. Utilize other friends in your circle. Not the ones you know suck at saying stuff. But calling on a friend and asking, ‘Does this sound mean?’ In the same way we might say, ‘Listen, I’m ‘bout to email my supervisor. How does this sound?’ Seeking counsel and insight around how we communicate is also really helpful.
And then, if you’ve been gifted an elder woman that you’ve found has been very sisterly to you or has really solid friends, ask them for insight. The older women in my life, they’ve gone through sister-friends. They can give insight. They can tell you one time when they really messed up a friendship. And things that they wish they knew. You can ask older women how to navigate it--those that we think have some wisdom to share. Because you can be older and still suck at this. You only really learn it by acknowledging that all relationships require some vulnerability.
NSNC: We talk about this concept of a mean girl but we don’t always see ourselves in it. But we all have the potential to play that role in somebody’s life. So how can you recognize when you’re being a mean girl to another Black woman?
The process of knowing yourself is really big. So the way that I sort of teach and hold the space for Black women to get a look inside themselves is to do some reflection about times they’ve been on the receiving end of mean girl behavior and then to acknowledge how they felt about it. Acknowledge what was triggered in them and then to also acknowledge what are your triggers? What makes you go 0-100 real quick? What makes you feel defensive or some type of way? Because we don’t always have words to describe our emotions. What makes you feel really uncomfortable? What are things anybody can do that does that for you?
After you get to a level of consistency about checking in with yourself about those sorts of things, then you can think about when you’ve been on the receiving end of mean girl experiences and when have you done some of those things to other people?
It’s important to start with when you were on the receiving end because some of us don’t have the foresight to see ourselves in other people. Having empathy is really important in recognizing when you’re replicating that behavior. So when you recognize how it feels for you, you can ask yourself, ‘Damn, when did I hurt my sis? When did I withhold information? When did I call sis out her name? When did I lie? When did I ignore what she said because I didn’t have the capacity to handle it?’
Seek counsel and insight around how we communicate
And then doing some self forgiveness so that you can address the defensiveness that can come if you decide to make reparation. Repairing the relationship doesn’t mean she has to accept your apology. You just want to make it so there’s not bad energy in the air.
Do an assessment of past experiences. I’ve found that also looking at your teenage self is really, really helpful. Because listen, we all was assholes. We might have thought that we’re reformed but that’s a good question. When you think about yourself in high school--because we can be really honest about that. ‘Oh, I was a child.’ Then juxtapose that with your experience now as an adult and ask, ‘How is the way that you’re in relationship with women the same or different?’
Then you’re able to have a clear understanding of who you have been and sit with who you’d like to become. What behaviors are there and then you can get to the root of it.
NSNC: Can you speak to the richness of having close, sister-friends? What is it that we miss out on when we forsake our community and ourselves by not having deep friendships with other Black women?
I’m speaking to this from having a history of having horrible relationships up through college with other women. I was yearning for sisterhood. I was grieving, still, the mothering I didn’t get as a child because of my mother’s addiction. I wanted other mothering so that I could heal. So my perspective comes out of a place where none of my relationships were deep. All of them were shallow and I didn’t really know what to do.
Now, I’m on this continued journey--because it isn’t a destination--of doing my healing work and then holding space for other folks.
I was yearning for sisterhood.
What I can now speak to is-- like my godsister Camille, who I met through a year-long rites of passage process. We wasn’t all the way that tight in the first year. But she’s like my biological sister, basically when you think about what you really wish for in a biological sister.
She loves my daughter like her own child. I can call her in the middle of the night, at the end of the night, in the middle of any sort of whirlwind and she will arrive no matter what. Questions asked but later. Many questions asked.
So I have someone to have fun with--snot because I’m laughing so hard and snot because I’m grieving so deeply.
And our families have become family. Our husbands function like brothers. They hang out because of our ongoing growth and relationship.
My other sister-friend Vanessa, we laugh sometimes about that first good argument that we had. And it was not cute. It was bad. We were in Brazil, in the middle of nowhere, broke a little bit. It was our first real good, ‘I don’t know if I want to be your friend no more’ conversation.
What we have now, she reads my body language. We have dreams about each other. We support each other in our goals. She’s building her business and she’s going to come to me. We’re visioning for our future and our greatest selves together. We’re able to acknowledge both of our skills. We’re able to call out when somebody’s envy is showing and what that is really about.
We’ve said to one another, ‘That didn’t make me feel good when you said that.’ And to be able to glow and grow together.
We went house shopping together so her house is walking distance from mine. You begin to have a kind of thing where you are building your family relationships around the support of each other.
Shawna Murray-Browne, LCSW-C, is a liberation focused community healer whose work began with teaching young girls and eventually grown women how to be sisters. You can follow her @HealASista on Instagram and learn more about her courses and services here.