I think the worst aspect of being black in America is the “you know what that is?” look I get from white people. I am very adept at spotting the oh-so-subtle raised eyebrows my fellow Americans give me when I describe dining in Italy or living in Sweden. Note: I said my fellow Americans, with whom I am supposed to share a common national identity with. Why are you surprised? Because that’s not what black people do in your mind. Along with camping, swimming without a cap, and pronouncing the word “ask” correctly. And I never say anything except to smile and continue and wait for the foot-in-mouth feelings of embarrassment that inevitably will cloud your chubby, pink face.. As Raven-Symone broke it down to Oprah (that’s so Raven, right?), she is an American first. While I don’t believe in being a “colorless” person or whatever overly politically correct mantra she had to repeat to herself, I do agree with her.
There is so much shrouded in being a person of color, especially in the United States. First of all, swallowing the pill that no matter what you do, someone will see just as beneath them with no context to who you are. It is a fact both domestically and abroad. Secondly, it is a lot of pressure to perform and conform. Perform as if you are being watched at all times. Conform to survive. Justin Simien in his directorial debut Dear White People perfectly captured this dynamic in the words of his main character Sam who said “there are only a few ways we can survive in a [predominantly white institution]”. One can either “black it up” in short bursts, allowing their exoticism to play out comedically while maintaining social respectability. Or, find the tight-knit group of black kids sitting together in the cafeteria and try to stay sane as a black face in a white place. Me, like some others, chose the former for years and years, while not fully understanding my place as a novelty in my social circle.
It would take a minor in Africana Studies to grasp my sense of self in comparison to others. I became a fan of bell hooks, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Alice Walker. I shaved my head and let my hair grow freely (and kinkily) from my scalp. I still had white friends and white romantic partners, but suddenly I felt my blackness was no longer the elephant in the room. During a late-night pillow talk session with my Jewish boyfriend at the time, I asked him whether he ever felt privileged being a white male. He said no but empathized by claiming that he believed the only color that mattered in America was green. It took a while to comprehend that, but in his world, he was correct. There is a long, documented history of the black elite in the United States, banding together black professionals from the medical, legal, business, and financial spheres. I was lucky to see that professionalism in my own family; my granduncle was a black Municipal Court Judge in my city. My grandfather’s best friend was the fourth man of color in my state to be appointed a Circuit Court judge in 1968. While they celebrated their advancement, riots destroyed black communities as a result of Dr. King’s death. Does that diminish their accomplishments? No. Sometimes, the best and only thing you can do as a person of color is remind yourself who YOU are and work it. Proudly proclaim it.
I am a creative; a critical mind always in need of something to analyze and create. I have depression. I am a cat owner. I am agnostic. I am five-foot-eight. I can sing almost any song sung by man or woman. In my mind, music of most genres stopped being good after 2005. I can do a bevy of accents. I love Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I have seen many Tyler Perry movies. I am a fan of The Coen Brothers and Lars von Trier. I have travelled abroad a half dozen times. I have never had a serious relationship with a black man. Yet, here I am, proclaiming loud and clear (and with perfect diction, might I add), that I am a black woman. There are no mistakes about it. The collective, educated, black millennials no longer want our skin color to be our only definition. In the wake of #blacklivesmatter, we need to use the crow-like attention of our nation to our advantage and not let it slip away to news of a lion being shot in Zimbabwe (RIP Cecil). The “talented tenth” is no more; the notion of the educated, socially conscious, critical person of color is prevalent and everywhere if we just look past the Fetty Wops and the savage WorldStarHipHop “sheeple”. If only I could get someone to see past my sweet, caramel skin.