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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

RedefiningHERstory: Are You “Shifting” Through Your Life? The Double Lives of Black Women in America

"As-salāmu ʿAlaykum," (Peace Be Upon You)


Are You “Shifting” Through Your Life? The Double Lives of Black Women in America

Do you find yourself changing your behaviors based on your socio-cultural groups that you are interacting with? Maybe changing the way you speak or changing mannerisms based on who is in the room? How about changing your outer appearance to fit into these groups? If you answered yes, Girlfriend… You may be “shifting” through your life!

“Shifting” or role-flexing is a concept that was coined by Charisse Jones and Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden in their 2003 book Shifting: the Double Lives of Black Women in America or “Shifting” that identifies Black women as being the inferior and marginalized group within American society purposely change aspects of their characteristics to conform or assimilate within dominate group settings and within society as a whole.

In general, women are faced daily with biases that plague her very existence because she was born female. Whereas, the discriminations that Black women experience on a daily basis are not solely based on our gender but are intersected with views about our race and social status which is referred as being intersectionality.

As Black woman, unfortunately, plenty of us were born with three disadvantages against us: we were born into a system of government designed to keep Black minorities in poverty, we are Black and female. Therefore, shifting has become in essence a defense mechanism that allows us to fit into dominant group settings, but at what cost to ourselves? 

History behind “Shifting”

Black feminist authors, Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson discussed in their 1998 book A Shining Thread of Hope, that shifting’s “code of conduct” has been passed down for generations dating back to beginning of chattel slavery in North America. Slave mothers taught their daughters to have “2 faces” to protect them from rape by their slave masters; “one face was to seem accommodating and tractable to slave owners, but at the same time she was to have a secret place inside herself full of self-respect,” described Hine and Thompson.

Even during the “Jim Crow” period, continued Hine and Thompson, “a large part of the Black community believed that the way to defeat racism was to obey every rule of proper behavior to the letter, to offer no provocation for discrimination.”

Like everything else that has passed down from generations to generations within the Black community these “codes of conduct” were passed down and adapted to the changing times; thus resulting in the concept of “shifting.” As I sit here reflecting, I too am guilty of passing down these “codes of conduct” to my daughters as well as my sons; due to the fact that we may live in a different time since the beginning of slavery, but the struggle remains; therefore, the cycle continues.

Distinguishing Feature of “Shifting”

“Shifting” according to the authors Charisse Jones and Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, stated that the main distinguishing feature of shifting is how Black women present themselves in various group settings. For example, how we change our behavior when we are “shifting” from our personal and professional settings. Black women will “shift in one direction at work each morning, then in another at home each night,” explained Jones and Shorter-Gooden. 

Although, changing different characteristics of one’s demeanor is a part of shifting, there are several core themes to shifting.

“Shifting” to Dummy Oneself Down

One important core theme of “shifting” is when Black women dummy themselves down when they are with their friends so they can fit in and make their friends feel comfortable. On the other hand, with their professional associates, they try to prove their intelligence. 

According to Jones and Shorter-Gooden, another aspect that is connected with this core theme is the changing or dummy down of one’s speech or changing the style of language that they use to fit in with the desired group.

I can remember my senior year of high school, my mom moved to the projects and I tried to adapt to my new environment by not using proper English because my friends would tease me about being so “White” and “proper.” As I sit remembering, I would hide my intelligence and my middle-class background because my friends came from a more improvised backgrounds.

My friends never knew how smart I was until our last assembly and I won “the highest honor award” in each of my classes and I had the highest grade point average out of the whole senior class. It’s funny now that I am remembering this while I am writing this blog… the looks on their faces… pure shock because even though I was rolling with the homies and down for whatever… in reason… I was still about my books! Okay… that’s what I would like to believe, but didn’t want to face the wrath of my parents! Just Saying!

The “Sisterella Complex”

According to Jones and Shorter-Gooden, Black women are more likely to experience restlessness, loneliness or depression and the book explains this as the “sisterella complex” As Black women, we are taught to be strong and “grin and bare it,” because we came from generations of strong Black women. We as Black women, view our trials and tribulations as not being nearly as hard as the Black women before us. Collectively, research has shown that Black women do not view our psychological abnormalities as being an illness, but a token of our hard work to make ends meet. 

See, in American culture, women have and continue to fight for our independence. Thus, the independent women era. We as women, are steadily fighting for equal rights and equal pay regardless of race/ethnic background or social status. However, the difference between the Black woman's experiences and other women are our ideals of going to the doctor office is a generational one.

These generational ideals have been ingrained in us as Black women and has become a source of our survival. See, most of us have been raised to believe that going to a doctor is a sign of weakness and we as Black women are stronger than that. Getting psychological help is viewed negatively in our black communities; so we suffer in silence and “keep it moving,” not realizing that we are slowly killing ourselves. 

The “Lily Complex”

Some Black women even alter their appearances so they can be accepted into “white society.” In “Shifting” the authors Jones and Shorter-Gooden called this the “lily complex.” They described this as “the pressure to look like someone other than themselves, to look more European and less African… altering, disguising and covering up your physical self in order to assimilate, to be accepted as attractive is one of the most common behavioral manifestations of shifting.,” explained Jones and Shorter-Gooden. 

This brings to mind a 2008 episode of the Tyra Bank Show and on this particular episode that aired on September 9, 2008, I was really embarrassed by the Black women she had on her show. She was interviewing Black women who bleach their skin so they could be lighter because they were ashamed of their dark skin tones. One of the women even was making her three sons bleach their skin; the darkest of the three had to endure double treatments of the dangerous bleaching cream.

If only these Black women understood that the skin color wars within the Black communities has conditioned us to believe that every aspect of “White society” is promoted through mediated sources as being the norm since chattel slavery and we have been brainwashed into believing this for many generations.

According to Hine and Thompson, “white society” continues to take advantage of our desire to fit into their society. They continue to invent and advertise products promising to “straighten our hair and lighten skin” and these products were the most popular among the black community” explained Hine and Thompson. 

The Essence of “Shifting”

The true essence of “Shifting” is what I would call is “Welcome to Black Female Life” and unfortunately is our oppressive “social realities.” However… in my opinion… the key underline meaning of Shifting is for Black women to break the generational cycle of our slave mentalities through being real, accepting and most of all truthful with ourselves. We as Black women need to break the “Sisterella Complex” cycle by immediately seeking out help. 

I too have trouble finding the time to get to my doctor when something is wrong with me. I am like… I am too busy… I have to write this research paper or finish up this report for work… or some activity to do with the kids… my thinking was… it will pass and if not, I’ll go next week. Hecks, almost killed my crazy self with that mentality and ended up in the emergency room. My blood pressure was so high that the doctors said I was a walking stroke or heartache! I am better now and thanks for caring!

We can break the “lily complex” cycle through remembering that “Black is Beautiful” and by being extremely proud of our Black heritage. Traditionally, male White societal norms have often times duplicated and incorporated majority of our Black culture in this so called “normal world.” Remember that certain members of society have spent billions daily to achieve what came to us naturally. So in essence… the normative White societal standards that Black women “shift” into for acceptance, are stolen replications of Black life.

As a Black woman, culture and society have conditioned me that if I want to be taken seriously as a professional or be successful within White dominant settings or society as a whole, than I must behave as they do. However, I never felt comfortable with this “code of conduct” because there is an ongoing conflict with my “real” and “fake” personas, but in order for me to survive, sometimes I feel pushed to keep up with appearances.

So I ask you… What happens when the real and the fake collide? Please leave your comments below.

Stay Blessed Queens!


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Red Question Mark and Gear Cogs by Andrei MarincasRetrived from:


Hine, D. C., & Thompson, K. (1998). A Shining Thread of Hope. New York: Broadway Books.

Jones, C., & Shorter-Gooden, K. (2003). Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Shorter-Gooden, K. (2004). Multiple resistance strategies: How African American women cope with racism and sexism. Journal of Black Psychology, pp. 406-425 . (2008). The dangers of skin bleaching. Retrieved from:

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