I have spent the majority of my life being the “wrong kind of black.” When I was eight, a distance cousin told me I “talked white.” I could count the number of black friends I had on one hand so yes, I probably spoke like the majority of my friends and the characters in the books I was reading and the shows/movies I watched. She also assured the other cousins that I probably cussed when I was alone in my room (spoiler alert: I didn’t even know what the term meant & probably didn’t cuss for the first time until roughly eight years later).
When I was in high school, a guy friend expressed disappointment that I lacked all of the cool qualities black people were supposed to have, namely speaking and acting “ghetto.” I wrote him a letter explaining all the other negative less “cool” things the ghetto was associated with. To this day I have no idea if he read it.
High school also introduced me to my first group of black girl friends, which was awesome, but also confusing. To be automatically friends with people because of the color of their skin was a strange concept to me. It made me question whether my blackness was supposed to look more like theirs because at the moment it didn’t really. It also made me question whether my skin color actually affected who I was on the inside. By the end of high school I had decided I was just going to be me instead of who I was “supposed” to be because of the color of my skin. I couldn’t change the fact that I was black, but I decided it didn’t really have much bearing on who I was on the inside.
In college, I studied TV and film and met a wonderful black male professor who waxed poetic about Shonda Rhimes constantly (executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder). I had never heard of her and eventually grew to admire her girl boss-ness, but her shows weren’t really up my alley. When I sent an application essay to said professor to critique, it returned to me with a whole section about how Shonda inspired me. To this day I have never seen a single episode of one of her shows because I rarely watch anything that doesn’t star a twenty something pretending to be a teenager. I deleted the sentences I didn’t write and never brought it up.
In college, I started dating a white guy who told me he wasn’t racist, but some of his extended family was. I was left to wonder what that meant for our future. Would he defend me if I ever met them? Would they boycott our wedding? How many racist conversations had he sat silent in to be so assured of this fact? Months after our breakup, I happened to be present when someone who didn’t know our past asked if he was into black girls. He looked at my white roommate, who he was now hooking up with, smirked at me and said, “Not anymore.”
I remember my first real job interview. I spent so much time straightening my hair to make it look “professional” only to walk in and see a black girl with a full afro on the floor and feel foolish. A few months later, a customer I barely recognized waved at me, then realizing I wasn’t my coworker said, “Sorry, I thought you were the other one.” People asked her if we were sisters.
I remember having lunch with a Latino friend around the same time. We were talking about work with my brother and I found myself saying out loud, “When I deal with a rude customer, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or I’m black or they’re just rude.” My friend looked at me for a moment as what I just said sunk in for both of us then said, “Either way they’re rude.”
It was in that moment that I realized my blackness would define me for the rest of my life. Regardless of how I saw myself or who I was as a person, the color of my skin was the first thing people saw when they looked at me. It was the first label they attributed to me and it came with whatever biases, prejudices and preconceived notions that was attached with that for each individual person.
I now realize I would not be who I am today if I wasn’t black. I move through the world differently than my white friends. Or my Latinx friends. Or my Asian friends, etc. And those experiences shape who I am as a person. I can now say I am a proud black woman. I love my dark brown eyes and my golden brown skin and my curly hair. I love that I come from a rich history of strong people who have fought for everything they achieved and beat the odds over and over again. But I would be lying if I said I still don’t have serious internal work to do to convince myself that I am just as pretty as my non-black friends or just as deserving of love or success or fill-in-the-blank here as my friends of other ethnicities.
So yes, I’m mad. I’m angry at the systems in place that worked so seamlessly to convince me that not only am I not enough because I was born black, but that I must also be a certain type of black to be enough and that criteria will shift depending on the circumstances. I am grateful for the conversations we’re having now and the freedom I feel to be angry and to now define my blackness for myself. Because I am black and I am beautiful and I am part of an incredible global community of other beautiful black people. This is not a trend. We’re just getting started.