This Will Be My Undoing Summary and Review

by Morgan Jerkins
  Has This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. We all want to contribute to making our society a better place, but most of us don’t know where to start. The world that we live in has become increasingly complex and multifaceted. Therefore, navigating the multitude of options of what needs to be done to help marginalized communities can be extremely difficult. One example of a marginalized community is that of American black women - but in order to help them, we first need to be familiar with the historical background and with the context that led to them being a marginalized group in the first place. By drawing inspiration from her own experiences as a black female who grew up and lived in contemporary America, the author identifies the reasons that led this minority to have a difficult life. She also highlights the issues that need to be addressed in order to improve the position of black females in American society. Whether you’re a white man, a white female, or even a black woman yourself, it is important to understand that we all have a role in building a society that is fair for everyone - black women included. Here are some of the key ideas that we’ll discuss throughout this summary of Morgan Jenkins’ This Will Be My Undoing:
  • the crabs-in-a-bucket theory;
  • why skin color should be acknowledged;
  • why touching a black woman’s hair is not a good idea.

THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING CHAPTER #1: Morgan Jenkins, the author of the book, is both a human and a black woman.

When Jerkins was a young girl growing up in the United States, she wanted nothing more than to assimilate into white culture and to cast her blackness aside. A lot of young black girls share this desire as a consequence of living in a white-dominated world. Society teaches them that the color of their skin is a threat and, in order to become less threatening and to have more chances to succeed, they need to tone it dow. As a result, during her formative years, Morgan Jerkins made efforts to change the way her hair looked and bought her jewelry and clothes from stores that were status symbols of whiteness, such as Limited Too and Gap. She also tried to avoid her black classmates as much as she could, especially the ones who rejected white culture. During this time, the author learned when it was in her best interest to adapt to the rules of whiteness and when to use her racial heritage. Soon enough, she realized that, more often than not, white culture always won as the majority of people don’t consider black culture to be a viable option. But why is that? The answer is simple but surprising. It appears that certain people consider the labels “black woman” and “human” to be mutually exclusive. A white man once asked Morgan Jerkins why she considers herself as a black woman, a label that is often negatively stereotyped, instead of a human. Her reply was that she is both a human and a black woman. To this, the man asked her why is it that she doesn’t assume the role of a black woman? Morgan Jerkins did not assume that role because she went to Princeton, she was well-spoken, and she had already worked in publishing. There are all qualities and achievements that do not fit with the white man’s perception of what black women should be like. Additionally, the author would also adjust her mannerisms and align them with the white culture. To “seem more white”, she spoke less loudly, she minimized her gestures, and she avoided certain habits like sucking her teeth. When black women do not abide by the black women stereotype of “sassy black woman”, people consider that that’s when they deny their blackness. The perception that black people are less educated and less worthy than white people is reinforced by this stereotype. Additionally, when a black woman stops adhering to this description, she stops being black, she becomes white, and respectively, human. And so, by this amazingly flawed logic, being both black and human is impossible. Unfortunately, a lot of black women consider being acknowledged as though they are white a compliment.

THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING CHAPTER #2: “Color-blindness” is a myth that has negative consequences.

A lot of white people think that by not acknowledging different skin colors they have a more progressive approach. But that is not true. Being color-blind when it comes to black skin is the same as refusing to acknowledge black history and black culture. The daily struggles of people of color are completely different from those of white people. Nowadays, many white liberal people claim that they do not distinguish between white and black because they think that by acknowledging that someone is black they might be perceived as racists. However, that is not a racist approach. A racist approach would be making negative judgments about people due to the color of their skin. The problem with ignoring a person’s race and skin color is that the social struggles that they face, including the very real systemic racism, can also be overlooked in the process. Additionally, the rich and amazing culture of black people - including all the positive things that contribute to their uniqueness - is also ignored. Claiming to be color-blind is, in fact,  a “universal” standard specific to white people. The “universal” standard is actually the perspective that Europeans and North Americans use to present an inclusive world view. When referring to a black person who is successful and integrated into a white environment, it is easy for white people to claim that they don’t see different skin color. That’s mainly because the black person, as a result of assimilating into the dominant white culture, took on many white characteristics. So, whenever a black person is not regarded as black under the pretense that skin color doesn’t exist, what it actually means is that they did a great job as camouflaging themselves as white. In conclusion, whether someone identifies as black or not, it is not something that white people should have the right to decide. 

THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING CHAPTER #3: Black women’s bodies are the object of white people’s fetishes.

From a historical point of view, it was not uncommon for the bodies of black women to be put on display so that white people could openly stare at them. For instance, in nineteenth-century South Africa, a black woman names Hottentot Venus was turned into a freak show by the Dutch colonists due to her extraordinarily big bottom. Although this is a distasteful display that doesn’t really happen in such an obvious way nowadays, the mentality behind such horrendous acts is still present. For centuries black women have been dehumanized and used for entertainment purposes. Because they were once slaves, black women had no right over their own bodies, which were the property of their white owners. Back then, a lot of black women were subject to some form of rape, which led to the overly sexualized image that we see today in the media. The idea that black women are overly sexual creatures has been a part of our society for hundreds of years. Black girls are being discouraged to embrace their sexuality as it might be used against them. Unfortunately, this teaching greatly restricts their process of self-discovery. Fetishizing a black woman, even if it is intended as a compliment, can rob her of her agency. For example, asking a black woman if you can touch her hair is not a good idea and it will make her feel objectified. Whether you simply want to touch her hair because you think it’s beautiful is beside the point. The point is that by making such a request, you step beyond the boundaries of personal space. This can be quite difficult for white people to understand because they never had to defend themselves from something similar. Touching or petting a living being is, in general, a way of exerting and expressing power, so understanding why this might be upsetting for another human being is important. There’s a lot of culture and tradition about black people’s hair. Therefore, trivializing and reducing it to something that is fun to touch is a total disregard towards its cultural significance. Black hairstyles, such as braids and twists, and natural black hair, in general, is considered a bold choice by white standards. Furthermore, it has even become a political statement or a sign of nonconformity towards white culture and mainstream. As a result, when a white person tries to reduce this political statement to something that is just fun and interesting can be seen as a degrading, offensive act. THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING CHAPTER #4: The experiences and struggles of black women are usually negated and belittled by mainstream feminism. The main character of Celine Sciamma’s 2014 film Girlhood, is a young, black French girl. As mentioned above, the director of the movie was a white woman, who claimed that her movie is not about the experiences and hardships of a young black girl but of a young girl in general. Although her intentions were probably noble, by making this statement, which is a perfect example of misguided color-blindness, she managed to negate and overlook the real facts and experiences of black girls. When white women take it upon themselves to tell the stories of black women, the results can sometimes be belittling and oppressing. But despite what the director of the movie Girlhood has claimed, it is completely inaccurate to generalize the experiences of a young black girl as they are unique and undeniably different from a white girl’s. Above all, it completely ignores a huge issue - the fact that young black girls are seen in an overly sexual way when most white girls aren’t. For example, in a lot of coming-of-age TV shows, when a white girl experiments with drugs, she does it to rebel and to challenge the constraints of society. On the other hand, most black girls who experiment on drugs on TV are very likely to become addicts. Generally speaking, there aren’t many portrayals of a black girl’s potential role in society. Instead, black women are often seen as the minority black Barbie dolls and they are cast as main characters only to portray a black female who is a university student, a lawyer, or a successful doctor. In order to change this lack of representation, women need to understand it and to come to terms with the fact that they can never fully empathize. But that doesn’t mean that it’s forbidden for white women to talk about black women. It is not, but it important that when they do it, they realize that there are many unfamiliar aspects that they will never truly grasp. Ultimately, the feminist movement can’t succeed as long as it fails to accept the differences between women and between the colors of their skin.

THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING CHAPTER #5: White women have appropriated black womanhood without understanding its complexity.

Black womanhood is not a homogenous concept. It is, however, perceived that way by people who are unable to understand its complexity and its different aspects.  Oftentimes, black women are restrained by the negative stereotypes that white people, and even their own communities, forced upon them. One such stereotype is the idea that they are strong and can handle a lot of pain and suffering without ever succumbing under the pressure because that’s what their ancestors did. In many black communities, signs of vulnerability are rejected because they consider being at the bottom of the social hierarchy already. This unhealthy stereotype is further perpetuated by black women who use it as a weapon to protect themselves and their daughters. In a world where you already feel vulnerable, each defense mechanism seems like a good solution. Unfortunately, this kind of teaching ends up preventing black girls from expressing their emotions and from trusting other people. Furthermore, by being forced to stay strong and to endure, these girls are destined to carry an unnecessary burden. While there are many positive and negative connotations attached to being a black woman, the positive ones are only observed and acknowledged once they have been integrated into the white culture. Sexualizing black women is a stereotype that diminishes and limits their existence and prevents them from becoming intelligent human beings who love their body and have control over it. Meanwhile, twerking and other dance moves that are derived from black culture, are currently appropriated by white women. But this situation is extremely ironic because when white women perform these traditional black moves, they are celebrated and receive positive reinforcement. When black women do the same thing, they are often frowned upon. Twerking is a great example because Miley Cyrus profited from it greatly. On the other hand, when Nicky Minaj did the exact same thing, she was deemed a bad example. Another good example of appropriation was Kylie Jenner’s decision to get cornrows. She received a lot of praise in the media, but a lot of women and black girls are forbidden from wearing cornrows at school or at work.

THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING CHAPTER #6: Black women who are successful must be supportive and help other black women.

As we’ve mentioned above, modern society is not as accommodating and comfortable for black women as we think. Black women have different daily struggles and, in order to succeed, they need to make greater efforts. But just because becoming a successful black woman is difficult, that doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t help each other. Instead of feeling threatened by another woman’s success, helping and elevating fellow black women can be empowering. Just think of the crabs-in-a-bucket theory. The crabs, much like the members of black communities, wish to escape their confines. Once they escape the bucket, they are advised not to look back and not to help another crab up, as they might get dragged back down themselves. This mentality is quite natural and it stems from our instincts towards self-preservation. Black people, and black women, in particular, learn to fight for their self-preservation because they lack other opportunities. The resulting mentality is along the lines of if you help someone else, they might take your place, and you might fall back down. In reality, by working together and helping others succeed, the barrel could be emptied. One black woman who succeeds can safely help others and shouldn’t fear to be dragged back down. Finding that members of the African-American community have strong connections even when they are complete strangers shouldn’t come as a surprise. This bond often originates from a shared feeling of sadness, but sharing feelings of joy is equally important. When a young man who is black is killed by the police unlawfully, the entire community is saddened and they suffer as if they lost their own child. This shared sadness results from the subconscious idea that something similar can happen to a loved one. Similarly, a black girl who becomes successful in a world dominated by white men should be a cherished by all black girls and women. Whenever a young black woman succeeds, all black parents should be happy and inspired by her success. They should look towards the future and realize that one girl’s story of success can validate their children’s dreams and hopes and might make their lives a little better. Whether white or black, feminists should never stop fighting for the rights and progress of black women.


What is the key message of Morgan Jerkins’ book This Will Be My Undoing? In the United States, black women have been fetishized and dehumanized for centuries and now their skin color is being ignored by feminists. To overcome their daily struggles, black women need to encourage and help each other, and white feminists need to learn how to become sensitive and inclusive without appropriating black culture.