“You looked like you were drowning in the whiteness, girl.” This astute observation came from my new co-worker, a fellow Black girl, who I had only known for the better half of an hour. She wasn’t wrong.
I had been coming into the office once a week as was mandatory and each time, like bile creeping up the back of my throat, dread would settle in. There was nothing wrong with my office per se, my team was perfectly polite, and it was almost amusing to listen to them discuss the inner workings of TikTok and their disdain for the app, but in all honesty, I wasn’t acting like myself there. I was code-switching within an inch of my life; I didn’t easily slide into their conversations because they were covertly exclusionary. I would eat lunch alone because I could breathe and feel a little like myself for an hour a day. As my new co-worker stated, I was indeed drowning in the whiteness and the only thing that saved me was her smile.
What is the ‘Black girl smile’?
The ‘Black girl smile’ is the direct equivalent to the ‘Black nod’, a reassuring gesture shared between Black strangers around the globe, especially when we are a visible minority. It’s an affirming physical personification of the statement ‘I see you.’ The smile is reassuring and it comes from a place of love and mutual understanding. When the smile meets that of another Black woman, it’s a silent message that can unfetter the weight of a bad day or week, heck, even a year. The hour that my co-worker and I spent kiki-ing over lunch broke through the armor I wore each time I went into the office. We giggled over the debauchery she had witnessed at DLT Malta Festival and talked about our hair. I diplomatically told her the lay of the land, and we spoke about fitness goals, fashion, celebrity gossip, and TikTok. We flowed from topic to topic with ease and I could feel myself unfurling, my arms which were typically crossed over my chest were animatedly flying around as we talked. “They’re going to think we know each other,” she said to me when our hour ended. This stranger felt like a kindred spirit and undid everything I had felt at work over the course of three months in an hour and it all started with a smile.
“The smile is a reflection of acceptance, joy, and love,” says occupational psychologist Dr. Patricia Britto to R29 Unbothered. “We all have an inherent need to not only feel loved but also to belong. That smile helps you to feel that sense of belonging when you experience it from any individual, but even more so when you experience it from someone who looks similar to you,” Dr. Britto explains.
“Smiling is actually a very great mechanism to trigger happy hormones in the brain,” Dr. Britto continues “So when someone smiles at you regardless of their race, it will make you feel good on the inside because it releases positive hormones that make you feel calm and relaxed. “When it's someone who looks like you, that is smiling at you, I believe that you have even more increased feelings because you get that feeling of acceptance.”
What is vicarious trauma?
During our conversation, Dr. Britto dropped a term that I had never heard before but it neatly summed up how we, as Black people, sometimes move through the world: the word was ‘vicarious trauma’. “[It’s] a psychological experience where Black people, in particular, have inherited the struggle, the trauma that our ancestors may have experienced and some current people are experiencing,” Dr. Bitto explains. “So sometimes you could have post-traumatic stress and feelings of an event that you may not have been present, or you may not have witnessed, but because you know that it happened to people that look like you, it can have a negative effect on one's mental health.”
These events such as the isolation of COVID and George Floyd’s murder, have led to many adopting a more hardened veneer that, according to Dr. Britto, can be difficult to shed. The symbolism of the smile is tied to the journey of healing and peace many of us are on. It’s something we cling to in a world of being othered 365 days of the year.
Writer and founder of Black Girl Playground Aley Arion recently went viral on TikTok because of her video about the Black girl smile. In her video, she enthusiastically lists the smile as one of her favorite exchanges between Black women. “Being a Black woman is such an honor for me that whenever I get to encounter other Black women, whether it's because of their style, their hair, their beauty, their personality, just their overall aura, I can’t help but smile,” says Arion.
Our shared experience of being Black, women, and in the same place at any given time is part of the catalyst for why we smile at one another. Its importance isn’t lost on the co-founder of eco-luxury marketplace Yard & Parish Alesha Bailey who moved from Canada to Germany recently. She describes the Black girl smile as pleasantly unexpected especially when navigating a new country. “It’s affirming and it means quite a lot to me because it reinforces a sense of belonging, especially in Europe, where we don't necessarily have as much claim geographically,” says Bailey.
Bailey describes her pure chance encounter with a Black woman she didn’t know, as a burst of good fortune, because of how special it made her feel. Upon moving to Berlin, Bailey remembers walking through her mainly Turkish neighborhood and feeling very much like an outsider. This unsettled feeling followed her on the way to the supermarket until she passed another Black person who smiled at her. “There was someone else there who looked just like me who acknowledged me,” says Bailey. “It made my day.”
We know what happens when you receive a smile, but what happens when you don’t? The divisiveness of this conversation is what led Aley Arion to turn off the comments on her TikTok video because the girls were tussling left, right, and center. For Arion, a moment of joy turned ugly when Black women shared their grievances about the smile not being reciprocated or happening at all where they were located. The comment section was filled with remarks such as, ‘They don’t do that where I’m at’ and ‘If you do that in New York they try to fight you.’
“It's not about expecting it out of every Black woman you see because, to be honest, whether it's a Black man, white man, or white woman telling us we need to smile more it's not our responsibility to appease somebody, and make them feel comfortable through a smile,” says Arion. Truthfully, not every random encounter will inspire the Black girl smile because we are all moving through the world with our own traumas and are all at different stages of our journey through life and healing.
There are many reasons why someone may not offer the smile; they might have had a horrible day, their culture might not recognize it for what it is, and they may have blinkers on and miss it entirely. “If you have social communication difficulties, smiling will not come easy to you, and interpreting other people's social cues in terms of understanding that somebody else wants you to give them a smile back may not be easy for everyone,” says Dr Patricia Britto. Some allowances need to be made because another Black woman walking past you without smiling isn’t a slight against you but more so a glimpse of someone who just doesn’t have the skills coupled with extenuating circumstances.
As Black women we tend to oscillate between being on display and being ignored daily, so a gesture as small as a smile can alleviate some of these stressors — from the stress of feeling like a background character (especially in Europe), isolation in the workplace or the lack of safety in public spaces. As Black women navigate the world, the smile is an acknowledgment and a resounding confirmation of:
Yes, you do belong.
It’s an ‘I see you sis’.
It’s an ‘I’m here for you’.
It’s an ‘I love you Black girl’.