Welcome to my monthly column Some Of Us Are Brave. This space is all about the intersected identities and experiences of American women. My focus will be race, but I’ll also tackle age, class and other issues. Ideas for a column? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Compared with other labels laid upon middle-aged women, “auntie” is cheerful, familial, ostensibly harmless. But the term for Black women of a certain age that is currently popular online is still sexist and ageist. It is sly confirmation, sometimes dressed as compliment, that as Black women age, we lose our beauty and sexual currency, becoming more valuable for our ability to nurture and counsel. And this makes me, and many other women over 40 that I spoke to, deeply uncomfortable.
“I don’t like it,” says Tracy Adams, a Brooklynite and physical therapist. “I think [the term] is used to make fun of women of a certain age enjoying themselves and living life. More specifically, it’s used to make fun of women for enjoying things that apparently are supposed to be for young(er) women/people: dancing, drinking adult beverages, flirting, having sex…”
What bothers Adams and me is not the honorific bestowed on women with nieces, nephews, and friends with small children. Our beef is with “auntie” as in #auntietwitter, which is now, officially, “a thing.” The Black “auntie” of the internet is generally out of touch, unsexy, and uncool. She tries to stay in the game, putting on her most durable shapewear, freakum dress, and kitten heels for the New Edition revival concert. But a middle-aged woman swaying to “Can You Stand the Rain” is hardly what Woman Crush Wednesdays are made of. The idea that a woman of a certain age believes herself attractive is mostly met with condescension. She is old and unfuckable in a culture that deifies youth and the look-back-at-it Instagram shot.
Good Black women over 40 are meant to be nurturing caretakers, not sexual beings. Internet “auntie” is best when she is an example of rectitude, bringing potato salad and stern looks at the family barbecue and wisdom to the youngins on social media. Some folks posting under #auntietwitter have talked about compiling lists solely populated with black women of a certain age. Twitter lists of smart black female activists, writers, and academics, while meant as a show of respect, still unduly categorize those women. What is so special about middle age that it merits being the primary lens through which women, and primarily women, are seen?
A clue to the sexism inherent in “auntie” can be found in fact that, while there is an #uncletwitter, the term “uncle” seems to be employed far less often as a blanket term for Black men over 40. Men do not automatically become “uncle” at middle age because men are seen as relevant to society well past then. Male power and vitality is believed to grow with age. Because female power is assumed to be beauty, and female beauty is latched tight to youth, our power is believed to fade over time. Denzel Washington is in his 60s, but he wasn’t called “uncle” until he strolled into the 2015 Pacquiao vs. Mayweather fight looking like he was running to the corner store for a pack of Newports. Usually, Denzel is seen as a mature bae, not “uncle.”
Idris Elba is 43 and nobody is calling him “uncle.” “Daddy,” maybe… It is important to note that in some Desi, Southeast Asian, and African cultures, “auntie” and “uncle” are used as terms of respect. But Black Americans have a very different history with “auntie.” And that history reveals that the use of “auntie” in relation to black women is not only sexist and ageist, but also racist. The stereotype of the mammy—the affable, sexless, tireless caretaker—has chased black American women for hundreds of years. Mammy historically has been society’s standard for what Black women should be—indefatigable workers and nurturers. And many Black women, who raised white children and cleaned white homes, were called “auntie” by their owners and employers, a twisted sign of respect that simply reinforced black women’s places as workhorses. Aunt Jemima still offers comfort through a gentle smile and carbohydrates in millions of American homes.
“‘Auntie’ is another way to attach a woman to children,” says Keturah Kendrick, a Black American teacher working in Rwanda. “The older I get, the more irritated I am by the default notion that womanhood equals nurturer or caretaker of children. Miss? Hot thang? Smartie? Exceptional human? None of those feel as normal to you as auntie?” For many Black women, “auntie” feels like a way to turn us into mammies, squeezing us into sexlessness and aged wisdom. We don’t wish to be defined by our age—respectfully or otherwise. We want to be complicated WOMEN, not flat stereotypes.