If a black girl listens to The Civil Wars, and no one’s around to see it, is she still black? Yes. Surprise!
Before I go into my story of asshole-ish behavior, I will say that there’s nothing more obnoxious than telling a black person that they’re not really black because of the way they speak or the things they like. Depending on who says it, they could mean it as a compliment. It doesn’t matter though, because any way you spin it, it’s still insulting to someone. I’ve found that, when white people tell me that I’m “whiter” than them because I love Mumford & Sons or speak eloquently, it’s typically because they assume all black people speak a certain way or like the same things. Or they behave in a way that’s considered stereotypically black, and thus, consider themselves “black on the inside.” I’ve also realized that white people who think this way either haven’t been around a lot of black people (and probably get their knowledge from television/pop culture), or rarely meet other groups of black people outside of those they believe to be “normal”.
If someone has a mentality like this, they’re probably incredibly sheltered and ignorant.
HOWEVER, if a white person tells me that I’m “not like other black people” or safe because I’m “not really black,” then I’m automatically going to assume that they’re a racist.
Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s a conscious thing, because it usually isn’t. It also doesn’t mean that they’re ready to don a white hood and go galloping off into the night. Most people are racist, and just don’t know it because people assume racism is a one dimensional thing. Without going too far into detail (because I don’t have the time nor patience to go deep into the psychology of racism), the media and television have such a stronghold on the image of black people that some people think that any difference from the perceived norm is viewed as an oddity. For whatever reason, it’s hard for some white people to believe that many black people like the things they like and live lives similar to theirs. Black people are typically viewed in a negative light, but when they meet one that differs from their expectations, they don’t think “wow, all black people aren’t the same”; they usually think “oh wow, finally, a GOOD black person!”
On the flip side, some black people view those who don’t behave stereotypically to have a high sense of self hatred. Unfortunately, I realized with time that this belief is steeped in internalized racism. Eloquence and intelligence are connected to “whiteness” in such a polarizing way, that some black people believe that you can’t be black and intelligent at the same time. They genuinely believe that intelligence isn’t a black trait, and thus, some black people believe that wanting to be educated is something black people don’t do. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I was asked why I wanted to be white, just because I liked school or spoke well. It bothered me, because I never once questioned my own identity until other people started denying me of it. I didn’t understand why my speech and interests were so stigmatizing that it made other black people not want to talk to me, and some actually went so far as to make fun of the way I spoke to my face. In hindsight, I think that’s the reason why I developed such a strong superiority complex with time. I was tired of people making fun of me over something I couldn’t change. No matter how much I tried to fit the mold of what a black person “should be,” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t code switch, I didn’t know every rap song, I couldn’t dance and I was far too quiet. So I bought into the idea that all things black are inherently evil, and I wanted to distance myself from blackness as much as I could.
And this is when the asshole behavior began. I considered myself a Good Black Person. I called myself an Oreo: black on the outside, white on the inside! I laughed when my white friends told me that I “wasn’t really black” and rolled my eyes when my black friends made fun of me, summing it up to jealousy over my intelligence.
Writing this now is actually humiliating, because it’s such a toxic way of thinking. And it hit me when I was a junior in high school how truly fucked up it was. After a while, white people began getting too comfortable around me. I noticed this when they would make blatantly racist comments around me, and not even bat an eye at my presence. I’ve even had white people make racist comments about me TO MY FACE, and laugh it off because they thought I was safe enough to insult without repercussions. By my senior year of high school, I began to distance myself from white people. I was tired of hearing the complaints about “ethnic students” getting into colleges before them, or how affirmative action was ruining their chances at going to a good school. And I was tired of being the lone black girl in groups of white boys, and being talked down to because they just assumed I’d have no idea what they were talking about. At this time I still had very few black friends outside of those I gained in middle school, because I was still trying to figure out my own identity. But I knew for sure that my sanity was more important than appearing to be safe.
Fast forward to adulthood.
In college, I’ve had some teachers compliment me on my eloquence by asking if I went to a private high school or if I received any sort of superior education. For whatever reason, they believe that my pattern of speech isn’t intrinsic, but taught. They assume that my eloquence and intelligence stem from money and special circumstances; not public school, because black students who go to public school usually aren’t smart…or whatever. It astounds me, because it’s not out of the ordinary for adults to be well-spoken. And it’s not like I’m a child. I’m twenty one years old, and it’s not exactly outrageous for college students to be eloquent. As an English major, it’s expected that I’d have some grasp on the complexities of the language. Why would it be so amazing that I’m well-spoken in college? It makes no sense.
It’s almost like they’re saying, “Gee! So you actually got into this school for your smarts! Who woulda thought?”
I don’t fit the stereotypical image of a black person, but there’s nothing wrong with those that do. Because that’s just who they are, and aren’t any less deserving of respect because of it. And I don’t want to be viewed as exceptional because I break through the stereotypical image of a black woman, I want to be exceptional because I’m the best student. Period. I’m not going to waste time preaching to people who try to impose this “great black hope” responsibility on black students. It’s not my job to “uplift the race” with my grades, because the black race doesn’t need uplifting. There’s nothing wrong with us. I’m not going to talk down to black people who don’t speak like me, or claim that I don’t associate with black people because of some silly idea that they aren’t good enough for respect. That mentality does nothing, because we’re all in the same boat. Being the only black kid in a class of only white kids, I already know that the teacher (and my peers too) may have low expectations of me from the get go. It doesn’t matter if I want to associate with black people or not (which is silly…you’re going to still be black regardless), because I’m still going to face the same battles.
Now while I might make some self-deprecating jokes about being the one black face in a sea of white at a concert or acknowledging that I have a habit of saying phrases that I know a lot of white girls usually say, that doesn’t mean that I see myself as any less black or that I can’t identify with other black people. I fully embrace my blackness with open arms. And while it took a long time to move on from the internalized racism, I’m happy to say that I’ve grown to view the black experience as a very diverse thing.
THAT BEING SAID,
I don’t want to be the one exception to racist ideology, or someone’s “One Black Friend Who Gets It”.
I just want to listen to my indie folk music in peace.