Several months ago, just as a pandemic weary world was getting excited about a new app called Clubhouse, I hosted a conversation that I cheekily called “The Audacity of Nope.” I had zero expectations, it was my first foray on the app, but I figured that if Eckhart Tolle popularized the “Power of Now,” and Shonda Rhimes gave us “The Year of Yes,” then it was due time to explore the power of “no.”
Much to my delight, one after another, Black women took to the virtual stage to share how one single, audacious, well-timed “no” had profoundly altered their destiny, leading them to find dream partners, and land dream careers. One of those women was entertainment editor Joi-Marie McKenzie Lewis, who after five years of shape-shifting and praying for one man’s proposal, suddenly found herself turning it down.
“I had been stewing in a 5-year relationship, wondering should I stay or go,” Joi-Marie tells ZORA. “My guy came back, gifts in hand, ready to propose and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say yes. This time, I’d listen to that small still voice telling me, ‘This ain’t it, sis.’ Because of that one ‘no’, a few years later I met my now-husband and father of my beautiful baby boy.”
Joi-Marie’s story, which she chronicles in her memoir The Engagement Game: Why I Said “I Don’t” To Marriage, and “I Do” to Me, follows a clear pattern I watched emerge that night. Whether these women were searching for real love, or more money, summoning the courage to reject what they didn’t want, put them in position to receive what they did.
Our lives aren’t determined by what we want. Our lives are determined by what we allow.
“No” is by far the most powerful word in the English language. It communicates agency, boundaries and self-worth in one breath, but in a society that so often encourages Black women to settle, it isn’t always easy to say. In fact, far more women on that Clubhouse call could relate to feeling pressured to take what they could get, whether that was in love or career.
Black women get 61 cents for every dollar earned by their White male counterparts according to a 2019 report from the National Women’s Law Center, and what this says is that our society severely undervalues Black women. That may come as little surprise, but the persistent wage gap, disparaging tropes, and headlines about our chronic singleness signal to Black women that there isn’t enough love or money to go around. Many of us were raised on scarcity rhetoric, well-meaning people who encouraged us to take what we can get rather than expect — let alone ask — for our worth. The repercussions are undeniable.
Our reluctance to refuse results in being low-balled in the boardroom, and the bedroom. It signals to people that we don’t negotiate, and what is dating if not a complex negotiation to determine the terms of sex?
The truth is, our lives aren’t determined by what we want. Our lives are determined by what we allow. All of the people and experiences that we allow into our lives, over time, exert the most profound impact on our beliefs about who we are, and what we deserve. When we tolerate treatment that undermines our sense of emotional and physical wellbeing, when what we are allowing contradicts what we want, our self-esteem crumbles — compelling us to settle even more. It’s not until we audaciously reject toxic people and dead-end opportunities that we begin to create the energetic space for our desires to manifest.
Saying “no” isn’t necessarily nice, and many of us are hardwired to prioritize being liked over getting what we want.
“No” is also the primary way we communicate our boundaries, the behaviors that we won’t tolerate being done to us, or around us. In fact, settling has more to do with how we are treated, than with who we date. Boundaries allow us to love freely, while still feeling safe, and seen, and in our casual sex culture where encounters easily slide into a gray area of consent, embracing refusal is tantamount. We don’t have nearly enough conversations about how our reluctance to say “no” leads to unwanted sexual encounters.
The problem is, saying “no” isn’t necessarily nice, and many of us are hardwired to prioritize being liked over getting what we want. If you learned, like many women, to view self-sacrifice as a virtue, then “no” triggers deep pangs of guilt and a fear of abandonment. For Black women, the pressures to acquiesce are even more complex as our defiance carries stiffer social repercussions.
The “angry Black woman” trope is routinely weaponized against Black women to put them in a double bind. When we assert ourselves, we are dismissed as angry and when we don’t, we’re complicit, and so many Black women have learned to say less in hopes of not being cast in a pejorative light. Even the “strength” we extol as the hallmark of Black femininity is derived from being silent about our pain.
Even a society that seems hellbent on encouraging Black women to settle, be fearless in your “no.”
We ridicule single Black women for being too picky. Tyler Perry spearheaded an entire genre of heavy-handed movies where Black women find love only after struggle, and significantly relaxing their standards. Youtube personalities build cult followings based on humbling, and humiliating, Black women — telling them they are too mediocre to have any standards. The cultural messaging is clear. We’ve normalized telling Black women that they aren’t good enough to say “no.”
“So many women are scared to say no because they’re afraid of what’s on the other side of the unknown. They’re much more comfortable with the devil they know rather than going out, putting mascara on, a bra, a new wig, trying to see if he’s Mr. Right or if She’s Mrs. Right or if they’re simply right.” noted Joi-Marie.
When we hold on to the relationships that fail to affirm us we also hold on to the underlying fears that we aren’t enough, and there isn’t enough. It’s this quiet fear that drives our most devastating decisions, and releasing this fear, with a firm “no,” is how we shift from self-doubt to self-belief. This is how “no” works. It’s for you, more than them.
Our willingness to refuse improves when we get clear about what we want, and raise our expectations. Even in a society that seems hellbent on encouraging Black women to settle, be fearless in your no. Let it be rooted in love and the truth of who you are. It’s a powerful word.