Defining Blackness: A Journey of Self-Revelation
When I was nine, my parents sent me to stay with my grandmother in E. Saint Louis for the summer. I was a little nervous, but mostly excited at the thought of spending three months with family I didn’t know well. Because I hadn’t seen my grandma in years, when I stepped off the plane and saw her waiting for me, I was overly formal. She picked me up and drove me back to her house where I met my cousins from North Carolina. When I spoke to them for the first time they asked, “Why do you talk so white?” I couldn’t answer that question. I spoke the way I had all my life, I didn’t know there was a Black and White way of speaking. After that my family gave me the lovely nickname, “White Girl”. Throughout the summer, I heard various questions and comments that challenged my Black identity. The way I talked, dressed, and acted was constantly being ridiculed and questioned. Barely being accepted by my Black family was a difficult experience for a nine-year-old to navigate alone.But when I got back to school, I received the opposite. Kids constantly came up to me to grab my arm and put it next to theirs to show the difference in pigment. I was usually the darkest one, and received questions like, “How are you still so tan in the wintertime?”
When I wore my natural curly hair to school, my classmates would ask, “Why is your hair so big? How do you get it like that? Why don’t you wear it straight?” Compared to my all-white classmates with their stick-straight blonde hair, I was visibly very different. And they loved pointing it out to me.
But if I was too White for my Black family, yet too Black for my White classmates, then what was I? This created a distinctly “Other” category that I existed in: not quite Black, not White. Just Other.
But how do we as a society define blackness? Was it just my skin color that alienated me from both sides?
America’s history of the “one-drop” rule still affects identity today. The one-drop rule meant that if you were of any African descent at all, you were considered Black. This was derived from the racist ideology that whiteness is pure, and everything that isn’t white is unclean and taints that pure whiteness. Although less pronounced, modern society still exists by this unspoken rule. Although skin color plays a huge part in Black identity, there is much more to the story.
Blackness is also your culture and your connection to your African ancestry. You can find this culture in music, dance, clothing, literature, hair, food, and in a million other undefined places. However, there are two distinct categories of Black Culture. Justin Simien, creator of the film Dear White People, believes that, “Black Culture, sans quotes, is the sum total of cultural contributions to the mainstream by the Black subculture.” It is a fluid and multifaceted, often contradictory thing. Meanwhile "Black Culture" is a lifestyle standard made of assumptions about Black identity, often used successfully by marketers, studio heads, fashion brands and music labels to make money. “Black Culture” includes music, slang, beauty trends and clothes.
Growing up surrounded by White people, I was disconnected from this aspect of “Black Culture”. This really showed itself when I got to college. At Dartmouth, I’ve met people from Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Kenya, Denmark, and so many other places and they all talk very differently than we do back home. In the Fall term, I remember sitting around talking to a few of my friends and listening to all the different variations of slang. I felt lost and disconnected from my own community because I wasn’t familiar with their vocabulary. However, the use of slang doesn’t make you Black. Yes, it is a facet of Black culture, but it is not correlated to Black identity. Yet, I felt as though my lack of knowledge of slang was a reflection of my own "blackness".
And this is because for my entire life, I have been told by the media and by other Black people, that Black identity is tied to “Black Culture”. Even though “Black Culture” is a culmination of stereotypes. People begin to believe the stereotypes perpetuated by the media about how we should act. This is what creates comments such as, “You’re not Black enough” and, “You act and talk white”. These comments create division within an already-small community. There is already a great division between Black and White America, so why are we perpetuating further divisiveness within our own communities?
This division in the Black community must stop. Defining blackness is impossible. Blackness comes in all shades, colors and personality traits. No two Black people are the same. We don’t all like or enjoy the same things, and our opinions on pop culture and politics are as varied as the shades we come in. Blackness cannot be defined just by liking certain types of music or clothes, or by doing your hair a certain type of way. Confining ourselves to these stereotypes is reductive and will limit the growth of our community.
Being Black isn’t just the color of your skin. To me, it’s a social and political construct as well. It is your experience going through the world. Being Black in America means facing discrimination. It means working twice as hard to get half of what your white counterparts get.
We are Black simply because they are White.
To be on top, White people need someone to be on the bottom, and skin color is the easiest identifier. As a community, we need to accept all of our Black brothers and sisters regardless of the shade of their skin, the music they like or their hair texture; because when a White person looks at us, they just see another Black body. Racist America does not see our differences; they look at one of us and believe they are looking at all of us.
We as a Black community cannot expect acceptance and equality from others when we still do not accept our own people. Embrace your blackness. Embrace your Black brothers and sisters’ blackness in whatever form they choose to show it. Stop perpetrating degrading stereotypes on one another, and allow all of us to be authentically ourselves without attempting to exist within the “norms” of culture and fear of being rejected by the community. Stop limiting your interests to distinctly “Black” things.
When we as a community eliminate this divisiveness and begin accepting each other for exactly how we are, only then will we as a community will be able to really grow. Self-love is the first step to equality.