On the Mess “Petty” Makes

Photo by Color Stock | Words by Taylor Steele

The most popular definition of the word “petty” on Urban Dictionary reads: “When someone takes a small subject and blows it out of proportion. At times, making something otherwise insignificant into something bigger to suit their own agenda.” Though it is a word that exists outside the exclusive lexicon of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), I have often heard “petty” used to belittle Black women and their forthrightness regarding their lived experience. An easy sleight of hand that serves to both distract away from their feelings, and to mystify listeners as to why they would even talk about their feelings in the first place. The weight of their truth dissipates, reduced to nothing more than a joke.

I understand people use “petty” as an immediate response to a flippant or judgemental comment about someone’s appearance or behavior, for example: “I don’t like Penny because she talks to too many people,” to which one might respond, “You’re being petty, Taylor.” I get it, what “petty” is supposed to mean in this context, that the judgement call I’ve made is based on nothing substantive. But, when looking at the word’s definition, outside of Urban Dictionary, it qualifies something as inconsequential. And, sure, on the surface, stating I don't want to hang out with someone who talks to a lot of people seems “narrow-minded,” but neither the statement itself nor calling the statement “petty” are inconsequential. They both have notable consequences: alienation. Black women are already alienated and marginalized, on the basis of Black womanhood alone. So when a Black woman expresses a feeling or opinion, it's important to remember that your personal belief about what seems small or inconsequential isn't final authority on its validity. There is a reason behind every confessed disdain, fear, dislike.

Expand your imagination to include the reality of Black women’s emotionality existing on a wider spectrum than the binary of angry versus apathetic. We live in a country that erases Black women and their voices, so it’s allthemore important to be critical of language that might further downplay their humanity and intelligence. What’s more is that language like “petty” can be intrusive and violent, and can thusly fit within the construct of gaslighting, an abuse tactic that undermines the victim's feelings by making them doubt their reality or the validity of their own thoughts.

Calling someone or their feelings “petty” can make them feel as if their feelings are invalid, or as though they can't trust their natural inclinations or intuition. Then, calling a Black woman “petty” further dehumanizes her when she is already being read as bitch, punchline, expendable body. When a Black woman expresses her anger, fear, and frustration, she is often classified under the stereotype of “Angry Black Woman” or is dismissed entirely for being too loud or too much.

“Petty” is a gun silencer; it kills the possibility of discourse or conversation and prioritizes the discomfort of the audience over the discomfort the person speaking is aiming to articulate. “Petty” doesn't leave room to ask “Why?”

I recently told a friend that I was tired of seeing a particular poet’s name everywhere — all the places they'd been published, the retreats and grants they'd received, the book awards they'd won. Both of our immediate responses to my confession was that I was being petty. But, she asked me why I felt the way I did, and after a few minutes, I realized that I was speaking from a place of hurt and emotional fatigue. Why wasn’t I achieving such successes? Why isn't my name in lights? We talked about our individual journeys, how a lot of work comes from knowing the “right” people, that my path wasn’t meant to mirror theirs. I wasn’t being petty, not mean, or hyperbolic, or narrow-minded. I was, however, honestly expressing jealousy, my insecurities, my desire to do and be seen more. None of that makes me small. It does make me human, though.

The popularity of “petty” also makes me wonder who has the authority to claim the insignificance of a thing, thusly painting whoever talks about that thing irrational, “petty.” What is there for Black women to talk about that won’t end up being ignored? Even when it comes to matters of life and death, to assault and sexual violence, Black women are silenced.

When no one showed up to march for Rekia Boyd, the world showed us that Black women’s lives didn’t matter as much to them as Black men’s. It seemed as though the death of Black women was inconsequential, nothing worth noting -- and that talking about it would derail the work that had been done to fight for Black men. As if, in comparison, Black women weren't as affected by white supremacy as Black men. As if Black women hadn't been at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter Movement since its inception. Their voices were only heard when they spoke of male victims.

We saw it again when over 50 women came forward about Bill Cosby, and, instead of the conversation being about these women and their trauma, it became about the assailant, his discomfort, and his reputation. One of the few women of color who was allegedly assaulted by Cosby, Jewel Allison, hesitated to speak up because she was afraid of the possible backlash she might receive from the Black community. In fact, she had a friend, a Black man, tell her to “stay quiet: ‘You will be eaten alive, and for what? The black community is not going to support you.’ It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I think it was his way of protecting me.” Her grievances would have been deemed “petty,” small in comparison to the man in question and all his successes.

And just because the word “petty” isn’t being used to describe these women, doesn’t mean the sentiment being expressed isn’t the same — speaking your mind creates unnecessary controversy. Black women are not meant to want much, to speak much; they are to take what is given and be grateful.

So, what do we really mean when we call Black women petty? When they talk about being single, listing the reasons they've turned down Joe Schmo, they are told they’re alone because they are too superficial or picky when, perhaps, they just have higher standards than we think they deserve. When they talk about other women, the things they want that these women have, they’re labelled catty instead of simply competitive. When they dismiss or put distance between themselves and others, they are viewed to be rude, when what they might be doing is practicing self-care in being open and honest about who they do and do not trust.

The fourth definition of the word on Urban Dictionary reads: “The act of keeping it too real, while others find it offensive. 100% honesty, even if it's ‘mean.’” When we say “petty,” maybe what we mean is “discerning,” “honest,” “unapologetic,” “human.” Maybe when we say “petty,” what we mean is “I don’t want to hear your truth right now.” And if that's what we mean, we should own that just as much as we are willing to make someone else own their alleged pettiness.

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