I can’t seem to catch a break.
Whether I’m hitting up a bar with friends, grabbing a bite or competing in league sports, a white, often gay man peers into my face. His head tilts sideways, the eyebrows furrow and the mouth gapes open just enough to underscore how stupefied he is. Without fail, my blank facial expression becomes a referendum on how my appearance makes them feel.
“You look angry. Why aren’t you smiling?” they ask, even when there’s absolutely nothing visibly bothering me. It’s just how my face looks in a neutral state. I make that abundantly clear. But it continues, with a gentle rebuke: “You just need to smile more.”
Attention White Men: please stop.
I already know some of you will ask, “Why do you have to make it about race?” Because this is about an ongoing trend where white folks emotionally police minorities. It’s also an unfortunate play on sexist tropes aimed at controlling the temperament of women—what the Gradient Lair blog has termed misogynoir: an anti-Black hatred of women.
In a 2012 interview with CBS News, she spoke out about her common portrayal as “deeply frustrated and insecure” or militant, as parodied on a controversial New Yorker cover. Obama argued, “That’s been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I’m some kind of angry black woman.”
But even Bachmann attracted sexist ridicule for being an expressive female, rather than for her fringe worldview, stemming from the infamous Newsweek “Queen of Rage” cover. Because, as patriarchal wisdom otherwise dictates, women can’t be normal human beings with a spectrum of emotions.
To be clear, even as a queer man of color, I’d stop short of overidentifying with the specific struggles of women and Black women. But there are common threads here, including how facial and emotional policing functions as a sexist trick from pick-up-artists and so-called “nice guys.” They seem to think it’s okay to tell women just how much more sexy they’d be if their default face was a pageant winner’s smile.
In a December 2011 post on Brute Reason, writer Miri Mogilevsky (who is also a contributor at the Daily Dot) slammed the long string of men who told her she needed to “smile more.” She, too, knew the jig was up.
“Some of these responses are passive-aggressive attempts to chastise me for not doing my womanly duty to keep everyone around me happy at all times. Others are genuine attempts to understand me, or genuine concern that I might be in a bad mood,” Mogilevsky said—highlighting that, sometimes, the questions are well-intentioned.
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Mogilevsky noted, “What they all have in common, though, is the shared assumption that underlies them—that there is something “wrong” with my facial expression and that this fact is anybody’s business but mine.”
Many feminists believe such questions and remarks about “smiling more” and “appearing less bitchy” are forms of street harassment—while their detractors, including PUAs and men’s rights activists, consider it flattery.
When white, gay men target me with their “smile more” questions, it’s usually because they think I’d “look better” to them when my face isn’t in a neutral state. Nowadays, I don’t ignore it anymore, challenging it by responding that “my face doesn’t exist to be the object of your attraction.” The usual rebuttal sounds something like what one guy told me: “I’m just trying to help you become even more of a commodity.”
To him I give round of applause, because now he’s just objectified me; I’m a raw good just waiting to be harvested, traded and sold (think about that for a moment). Men like him seem to believe they’re entitled to my happiness, my smile, no matter what—even when my non-verbals cue that I’m not willing to engage them.
This policing means that my existence is all the more subject to the white male gaze than it is already. If I as much move my hands, mouth or eyes the wrong way at a white man with institutional and systemic power on his side, I’m subject to racial profiling, police brutality, attempts to undermine my intelligence and agency, and even death for being emotionally expressive.
In an April 2012 interview with Ebony magazine, UNC Chapel Hill professor and researcher Wizdom Powell Hammond emphasized how racism restricts the ability for Black men to have their emotions affirmed and deemed valid. In a study, Hammond concluded that Black men who openly discuss their everyday struggles with racial discrimination are less likely to suffer depression than those who keep their feelings inside.
“Anger is a legitimate emotion. To not express it when it’s an appropriate response is, to me, problematic. We also have to be comfortable with the full range of emotions, to [accept that] anger is not the only response Black men have,” Hammond said. “Black boys and men need too feel free in the world.”
Sometimes my face is an expression of that very freedom: a blank and emotionless state. But it doesn’t mean I’m angry. Perhaps someone’s milquetoast personality has me drifting into space. Maybe I’m just admiring the scenery and glancing at a magnificent object on the wall. And I just may very well be listening and focusing on my conversation partners.
One thing’s for sure, guys: If you keep asking me why I don’t “smile more,” I will get angry—which is an OK emotion to have.
And, trust me, you won’t like me when I’m (actually) angry.
Derrick Clifton is a Chicago-based journalist and writer primarily covering race, gender and LGBT issues, and their intersections with politics. Follow him on Twitter, on Facebook, or visit derrickclifton.com for more information on his work.