Monday, March 16, 2009

From the Vault: Who is black enough?

[Editor's note: From time to time, I'm going to start dusting off some posts from the early days of What Tami Said. I'm pretty sure that I was the only person who read this post, which originally appeared in October 2007, about my level of blackitude, which has often been called insufficient.]
 
I have had my "black card" revoked more times than I can remember. I think the first time was in the 7th grade. I was 12 years old and had left a predominantly white school for a better, and predominantly black, one. My gaffe? Saying "you guys" when "ya'll" was the preferred parlance for black kids. That was one of the first times my speech got me derisively labeled "white girl," but far from the last. Also not helping my race cred was my affection for pop music. Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" was on heavy rotation in my bedroom. My first concert? Air Supply. (Okay, in my defense, I was 12.) Did I mention that I was an honor student whose head was always in a book? I had two black parents—one who worked his way out of the Jim Crow South and made sure my siblings and I knew the history of our people, their fight for equality and the work yet to be done. But I was a pop music lovin', book readin', Midwestern twang havin' little girl, and in the eyes of my peers, not black enough.

Fast forward to college. I went to a big Plains state school with a small black population. I arrived on campus knowing no one, but my dorm mates, mostly white and mostly native to my school's home state, embraced me and quickly became my closest circle of friends. We bought season tickets to football games, hosted floor parties, participated in intramural games, and traveled home with my each other on breaks. I quickly learned, though, that being seen around campus with white friends too often was a faux pas of the highest magnitude among the school's black community. Soon, I saw the rolled eyes and heard the familiar hiss of "white girl" when I passed a group of black students. They seemed not to know that I treasured the friendship of black women, too. All of my closest friends in middle and high school had been black. And in college, where I was so often the only black person in the room, I sometimes longed for the shelter of a group that looked like me, but I worried that I'd find rejection among other blacks who had already branded me an outsider and not black enough.

Five years after college now. I am one of only three black employees on the professional staff of an international public relations agency. One of my co-workers, a black woman who I had considered my friend, informs me that other blacks in the office think that I fake my speech pattern, the one I've had all my life (Remember, the dreaded "you guys" mistake?), to sound like "a white girl." Oh, and I spent too much time with my white colleagues and not enough time speaking to my black ones. I remember feeling a familiar lump in my throat and stinging in my eyes. There it was again. I was being told that I wasn't black enough. Luckily, my black colleagues thought I could be redeemed. Most of them wouldn't even speak to the new black woman in the office, who "sounded whiter" than I and hadn't shown the proper deference to the black sisters and brothers on staff. Now, she really wasn't black enough.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I moved to an exurban town north of a mid-sized Midwestern city. The town of roughly 30,000 people has a Mayberry-esque town square and plenty of cornfields, despite a recent development boom. When my husband told a black colleague at his new job where we would be living, she sniffed, "What, is your wife white?" Once again—not black enough.

If I sound bitter, it's because I am. The old "you think you're white" charge is one of the ugliest ways we as black people find to alienate one other. Did our ancestors not fight for hundreds of years for the freedom to make their own choices about their lives? I expect a racist and patriarchal mainstream to try to push me into a stereotypical box, but not other black people. It is colonized thinking that I hear too often from those who should know better. Witness the hand-wringing over Barack Obama, the "not black enough" presidential candidate. Even Jesse Jackson accused Obama of "acting white," never mind his record of service to some of Chicago's poorest black neighborhoods. On the other side of the political spectrum, Condoleeza Rice is regularly branded as not black enough. Now you may, as I do, deplore Rice's politics, but does being a black woman mean that you don't have the right to think and form your own opinions, no matter how misguided?

Here's the deal. I love Brandi Carlisle, John Legend, the Shins, Aretha Franklin, the Dixie Chicks, the Kooks, classic Journey and dusty soul music. I don't have much rhythm, but I can belly dance. I love collard greens and corn bread, and sushi, too. I faithfully watched The Cosby Show, A Different World, Friends and Seinfeld. I dated men of several races, but married a black man. I love "British humor"--give me Ricky Gervais and Monty Python; keep your Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams. I read bell hooks and Agatha Christie. I am a liberal Democrat with a strong belief in personal responsibility. I was raised a Baptist, but Buddhist philosophy resonates strongly with me. I wear my hair natural and nappy. This is me. Call me quirky. Call me odd. Just don't call me not black enough.

29 comments:

Symphony said...

Good post Tami. Black people who dare to not limit our interests and experiences are criticized by all types of black people.

The group of black people that gets me the most are the ones who constantly demand poor, uneducated Blacks "do better."

First, many of them do this not because they care but because they know the whole of black people are judged by the worst of us and they hate that non-blacks judge them this way.

But, to the point of your post. These same black people want you to "do better" only to a certain point. Dare to like a different kind of music or like a TV show without black characters and they are the first ones to rail on you.

But it changes names. You aren't acting white, now you're buying into mainstream's characterization/ assassination of the black image and you're unaware there are no black faces on TV.

bittersweet said...

Tami, thanks for sharing this. The stories that I could tell! I was scarred by the "not Black enough" looks and talk and isolation from other Black kids/young adults from middle school until I became a woman in my twenties, out of college, and I read and learned and finally understood that I am my own Black woman. No one else gets to decide. I was marginalized by the marginalized, and I finally appreciated and integrated my view from the margins instead of feeling like a freak.

Anonymous said...

I am ashamed to admit that, although I have been subject to this sort of characterization, I have been guilty of thinking this about other black people. I have been very proative in removing this type of thinking, but sometimes it still creeps back up. I guess I've always worn my blackness like a cloak, amplified it because it was always, always, ALWAYS challenged. Growing up, I was too white in education and diction. In the professional world, I was the "safe" black, and therefore not really black. As an adult woman, I've been mistaken for latina (mostly by black men, which is very disappointing). I guess I try to cling to the idea of blackness that was formed in the inner city, and instead of defining myself, I've been carrying around others' definitions. Well, I can learn and move forward.

Renee said...

Tami I so needed to read this today. You are so right to point out the disciplining of blackness is an ongoing thing. I get it a lot the minute people find out my unhusband is white. How does his race mean I am somehow less black? It disturbs me to no end the many ways in which we can find to be cruel to each other rather than uplift one another. Though we say that there really is no such thing as being black that is not the case at all. We have a very strong definition and when anyone chooses to be the least individual they are immediately shamed and silenced.

PioneerValleyWoman said...

It seems to me that this notion of "acting white"/not being "black enough" has more to do with those making the accusations than the individual being accused. This is a realization I've developed over time.

People who feel self-conscious about their changing class status, ie., being in a white middle class educational or professional environment, latch onto those attitudes as a defense of some sort, to prove, perhaps that they are still "authentic" in who they are. This authenticity, though, always seems to be grounded in a jealousy of those who seem to easily cross class and race boundaries, and it always seems to define "authenticity" in ways that are troubling.

Be articulate, live in a nice area, be open-minded and eager to learn about the world, other people, cultures, etc., all which are seen by many people as perfectly normal, becomes instead an insult.

So black people should not be articulate? They should not live in nice communities? They should not be open-minded? They should only want to live limited lives?

Thus, the "not black enough" mindset should be rejected at every turn. It is only a means of stunting individual black people's growth and development.

dollyspeaks said...

I reall liked this post! I don't think it's fair that people judge others based on whether they fit the current cultural mold of blackness or whiteness or whatever race. So many people today are biracial too (like Barack Obama). Are they doomed to never be "enough" of one thing or another? That's not right. We should be able to just be ourselves, free of others' judgment. :)

Monica Roberts said...

Tami,
Been there. Let's see, I'm not Black enough because:

I speak the Queen's English, am a transwoman, played wargames at one time on my life, read extensively, loved disco, have a rainbow coalition of friends, went to a predominately white college,love sci-fi....

Hmm did I forget anything?

Tei Tetua said...

I don't think it's unrealistic to imagine a world where members of a minority group would be able to emphasize whichever they want, being a member of their subgroup or being accepted as a first-class citizen of the whole community. With no conflicts about doing that, from either side! This story makes it sound as if once the ghetto gets torn down, some people want it back.

ravengal said...

Having had my "black card" pulled more times than I can count throughout the years, it saddens me that my children now have to deal with this 1984-esque groupthink.

Dark Moon said...

Hmm. I have never had my Black card revoked despite my eclectic interests. I believe it is because I can relate to all types of Black people without incredulity, trepidation or shame. Talking to another Black person with humanity without the need to interject Shakespeare or Keats allows me greater access to appreciate and really see the diversity of Black people. And I can certainly brag about listening to Opera and Jazz interchangeably while appreciating reggae, ska and Funk, but it is only putting forth an aura of specialness that I don’t need crow about in order to be seen as special type of black person above --what is perceived to be by the majority---as the Black experience, therefore I don’t have this pervading cognitive dissonance. I just never experienced this particular angst when relating to the Black community.

Of course, I went to a majority White school and lived in a majority Black neighborhood but I was never accused of acting or being White. I am not embarrassed by others dysfunction (although I am angry that others can’t see the diversity within the Black community) and I am proud to be part of the Black community with all my foibles. Bi-racials way back when were also proud to be Black and were some of the greatest contributors to the panorama of said Black culture. In fact with my varied somewhat arcane interests, I find it hard sometimes to connect with Black and White people who don’t share the same curiosity and think that I am pedantic bore. And the biggest group that has questioned my interests and wondered why a Black woman would like such and such has consistently been White (and Asian oddly enough) people.

Pamela Lyn said...

OK Tami, Were we separated at birth or something? :-)

I wonder if it strikes anyone else as funny that many of the same people throwing out the "acting white" insult are themselves afraid of being too dark skinned or having hair too nappy.

What's fascinating is the number of people who've expressed that they've shared this experience. Maybe one day there will me more of us than the haters and then this silly "black enough" business will end.

bluemorpho said...

Bless you for being yourself. I'm sorry for the pain you must receive on multiple fronts, including from your own sisters.

Your emotional and psychological well-being is most compelling, important reason to be yourself, *but* for what it's worth -

one of the ah-hahs that put my on this neverending path towards dismantling white privilege was when I realized that there were Black nerds.

!

The myth of a monolithic Black culture was one of the lies I'd absorbed growing up. When I realized that I could geek out with a woman of color over Lord of the Rings, it made me start to ask what other lies I'd been taking as truth.

I hope your courage to be yourself and tune out the "black enough" talk sets other people free as well.

L. said...

Thinking about it, I wonder if this is something common among most marginalized groups. For example, you could hear the same sentiments in Latin@, Asian-American, Native, and other racial/ethnic groups. You could also hear it once those with working-class roots aspire to and become the bourgeoisie and don't speak about their past class affiliation (though I realize that class is something changeable). It has me wondering if this behavior is prevalent among those who, because of marginality from the dominant society, they feel that any deviance from the perceived norm is a threat to much-needed solidarity? Or maybe it's just any identity-based group?

Anonymous said...

You definitely aren't the only person who read it; I remember emailing you at the time to thank you for posting it. :-) Thanks for the repost.

Lady C said...

I grew up in a predominantly AA community. Everyone I grew up with was AA. We attended the same elementary school, junior high school and senior high school.

Sonny and Cher were my favorite duo, and Cher was and still is my girl. I watched Star Trek every week. I loved Billy Joe Royal, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, The Young Rascals and on and on and on.

I was very good at school academically, but did not do well socially outside a circle of friends.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I was considered strange. I danced to the beat of a different drum and I really didn't give a flip about what anyone one said or thought about me.

It was not until I got away from the neighborhood and had to traverse the larger society that I began to feel uncomfortable and unsure of myself. The AA community had insulated us, but it had also made us strong.

What difference does it make what someone says or thinks about someone else? If it is not what you are about, don't take it as your burden. Insecurities manifest themselves in many forms, and this kind of thinking (not black enough) is common but not prevalent in the AA community.

If someone thinks you're not black enough, that is their problem. To own it is playing into some kind of guilt trip they are trying to send you on.

Sassy J said...

Within the first few lines of your post, Tami, I reminisced about this boy that I liked; I may have been in the sixth grade. We were on the phone and he was, like, disgusted that I said "please, hold for a moment" when I had to break from the phone...it was to be "hold on". My most favorite was "forehead" = foehead. OMG, the torture. To this day, I am accused of talking white or being a valley girl...come on, I'm from California! Even up until last year, this guy that I had this weird attraction to thought I wasn't "done for the streets"...I think his ego was bruised because I'm gay! Loser!

PioneerValleyWoman said: Thus, the "not black enough" mindset should be rejected at every turn. It is only a means of stunting individual black people's growth and development.

I agree

The Spartan said...

I experienced this too when I lived in America... Perhaps somewhat ironically, I wasn't black enough because I'm Ghanaian and grew up in Japan (therefore my influences on pop culture/interests were African and Asian), and somehow that makes me "acting white".

Tami said...

Thanks all for helping me think through this. I actually think I want to explore this further in another post. It seems to me that the "not black enough" thing and the "those folks have got to do better" thing (per: Symphony), are byproducts of racism--another dull ache that people of color have to put up with because we live in a society where we are marginalized. It's "community policing" to ensure we are perceived positively by larger society, but also so that members of our groups show proper fealty to their race.

I agree with those who don't give the "haters" much thought. I don't either...anymore. But it so hard for children.

Dark Moon,

"Hmm. I have never had my Black card revoked despite my eclectic interests. I believe it is because I can relate to all types of Black people without incredulity, trepidation or shame. Talking to another Black person with humanity without the need to interject Shakespeare or Keats allows me greater access to appreciate and really see the diversity of Black people. And I can certainly brag about listening to Opera and Jazz interchangeably while appreciating reggae, ska and Funk, but it is only putting forth an aura of specialness that I don’t need crow about in order to be seen as special type of black person above --what is perceived to be by the majority---as the Black experience, therefore I don’t have this pervading cognitive dissonance. I just never experienced this particular angst when relating to the Black community."

This assumes that black people whose interests and mannerisms are not stereotypically "black," view themselves as "better than." I don't agree with that, though I do believe that many of the "culture cops" who seek to call out race traitors do so out of missplaced feelings of inferiority that are then projected on another.

For the record, I have never had a problem relating to other black people. However, some black people have a hard time relating to ME.

Julia said...

Oh, I find this post heartbreaking, Tami. I fear that my son will encounter this stuff, too. Thanks so much for writing about this.

Dark Moon said...

This assumes that black people whose interests and mannerisms are not stereotypically "black," view themselves as "better than." I don't agree with that, though I do believe that many of the "culture cops" who seek to call out race traitors do so out of missplaced feelings of inferiority that are then projected on another.

For the record, I have never had a problem relating to other black people. However, some black people have a hard time relating to ME.

Noted. Based on my personal experience I have seen that to be the case. Some black people who have different tastes do often feel that they are special for having discovered something outside Gospel, Omar Tyree novels or the Madea franchise. Again I have never had black inferiority projected unto me because my taste ran counter to what is supposedly expected of the Black community. Or perhaps I was too absent minded to care. I don’t expect people to be able to relate to me although it would be nice to discuss a breadth of topics outside of Reality TV. Still, I have noticed that Black and White Americans are anti-intellectual in general thus I do not think that Black people alone should be charged for culturally abusing and stifling those whose taste may be idiosyncratic. If you look at the tastes of the Average white American who supposedly live in real America—you would observe it to be stunningly banal and uninteresting, which explains why the very creative or curious ones—end up leaving.

That is my experience, yours is different therefore agree to disagree on this matter.

Tami said...

Dark Moon said: Still, I have noticed that Black and White Americans are anti-intellectual in general...

Amen to that!

I don't pretend that all my tastes are intellectual or interesting, because they are not stereotypically black. I did admit to attending an Air Supply concert as a teen--talk about banal. My contention is that our individual interests shouldn't be markers of how down with our race we are. Maybe you love The Roots. Maybe you love Wilco. It doesn't matter. Both are good bands. Both are worthy. It's just taste.

Dark Moon said: Still, I have noticed that Black and White Americans are anti-intellectual in general thus I do not think that Black people alone should be charged for culturally abusing and stifling those whose taste may be idiosyncratic.

Here I disagree. I think the kind of cultural bullying that I am talking about is unique to people of color and is a result of the racism that we endure. Rarely do you see a white kid calling another white kid who is into hip hop a race traitor.

allie.c said...

Tami, Thank you for this post. I've heard "you're not black enough" throughout my life. I have always viewed my life and family as multi-racial. Most of this (my family) I didn't choose. However, other aspects of my life that have been characterized as "acting white" where solid life choices. I chose to study ballet and to play the cello. My eclectic music and reading interests and passion for yoga has been criticized and labels me as black/white. I've been called more names than I can remember. Or I've been asked if I'm from every country or region except
the small midwest town where I was raised. That question for me is just as hurtful as the name calling. Because my parents are two beautiful and amazing black people who made very specific choices about where and how they would raise their children. Their choices and influence encouraged me to be and to know exactly who I am and to cherish my choices everyday.

postpostracial said...

As many commenters have noted, this has also been a frequent experience for me. As I am now in my 40s, I have a different perception about this phenomenon than I did in my 30s, 20s, and especially teens. However, having young children and seeing this issue remain unresolved makes it impossible for me to totally dismiss it.

One thing I have tried to do is to look at this from the perspective of those making the "you're not Black enough" and similar claims. There are many ways to "belong" somewhere but one way is to appoint oneself gatekeeper. However, being a gatekeeper requires that one deem others as not deserving of entrance--or of deserving of being kicked out and having their "membership" revoked.

Those who seem not to care that they are not being offered membership can be seen as a particular threat. What does that make the gatekeeper and what the gatekeeper is guarding if more and more people no longer want to enter?

It is interesting that this type of thing is still going on in intraracial circles. I think it will actually increase instead of decrease as people are forced to consider still more intersections of identity and more people choose to self-identify and behave in more diverse ways.

Krystal (aka Pirouette) said...

Story of my life! Thanks for sharing.

karayan said...

Interesting.
I can say I both experienced this and didn't experience this.

It is like the pressure was always there, always individuals and cliques trying to narrowly define 'blackness', but when I took a deep breath and stepped back the comforting diversity I knew existed was still there. It also seemed like those most likely to make the "you're not black enough" claims tended to be low-income and urban and whereas I was always tapped into the middle and upper classes in my hometown, I always had friends whose had similarities with me, and both of my parents were raised in super rural areas that were very different culturally with overlapping yet divergent family histories I was always exposed to even just African Americans (much less the many black folks with roots elsewhere) from diverse environments and backgrounds.

I just learned early that one regional socioeconomic group didn't hold THE definition and culture of us all. I was as shocked as my accusers when I realized that the general group history, family history, rural culture and importance of strong ties to roots were missing in their definition of embracing blackness. I was actually horrified at the lack of knowledge of black history. I just couldn't accept that the culture of large urban centers was more authentic than the small towns and rural areas of the South that often had a greater sense of continuity.
It also helped that my Dad grew up a 'not really black' black person who didn't give a crap, did what he wanted, and was always pro-black and African diaspora and my mom grew up in a centuries old black community that encompassed physical, educational, class and other social spectra.

karayan said...

I do agree with Dark Moon to an extent.
I have run into so many black people that carried their love of rock, opera, hiking, knitting, languages, museums, etc like a cross or some kind of badge of honor. Always declaring how unaccepted they were, how regular black people just can't understand... and are usually surprised at my interests, that my parents and family share many of them, and that I have actual black friends that share them or do not ostracize me because I love Metallica, skiing and falafel.

I just let them know that just like they do not like being boxed in or stereotyped because of race and assumptions of what they should like they shouldn't stereotype other blacks as some monolith representing the folks (kids/ teens usually) who mocked them. Its usually a reflection of the types of folks you're exposed to.

I'm not in any way refuting your experiences. I've been on the receiving end of that bs myself. I just think there is a flip side where some individuals feel they are so special and unique, overemphasizing cultural/racial issues.

ooh - and I went to an overwhelmingly white private school, trust me that psychological warfare to keep people in line socially and culturally is not limited to black folks

Eli Reed said...

Thanks for sharing, Tami.

Our experiences are similar.

I was a shy, geeky girl who liked to read, liked grammar, liked rock music (REM, Violent Femmes, when it should have been Boyz II Men and rap).

I also just happen to be light-skinned. One or the other was bad enough in inner city Detroit. Either one would have gotten me called "not black enough" - but both combined?

I was a bit of an outcast. My being "not black enough" was present in my "high yellow" skin and freckles.

I don't think my musical tastes, or the way I spoke or my love of learning made me "special", but it made me different and to inner city black kids in Detroit, that made me bad and wrong.

For a while, it seemed like rejecting the people who rejected me was the only solution.

It took me a long time to reclaim my black identity from what a bunch of other people said it was.

Jay said...

I know I'm kinda late but...

I think this post rules! Thank you sooo much for sharing this Tami!

Like Eli not only am I light skinned but I also love theatre and performing. Throughout high school I had to deal with the cool black kids not liking me and thinking I acted white and spoke white. Even though I had friends of every race, not just white, I tried my best to prove to them just how black I was. I would do and say all the typical things I thought black people would. In return, my friends referred to me as "ghetto" and at first I liked it but then I started to hate it! I knew I really wasn't ghetto and I still didn't understand why the black kids didn't like me even though I was clearly black. (My mom worked as a counselor at my high school and the black kids loved her for being so cool)I thought all it took to be considered black enough was to simply have black parents! Lol... boy was I wrong.

Fast forward to college.

I went to THE ONE AND ONLY Howard University and I still didn't get it. I thought that surrounding myself by black people would force the blackness in me to click or I'd get some "secondhand blackness". I realized soon enough that there is no such thing. I really think going to Howard made me want for people to tell me I "act white". It makes me happy to know that I'm nothing like the soul food eatin, lil wayne lovin, bottle poppin, BET watchin, black people who ARE black enough.

Whatever.

Anonymous said...

OMG...and I thought I was the only Black person to get flack for saying "you guys" instead of y'all when I was in jr. high school. I definitely caught a lot of crap for not 'being black enough' and still do to this days and I'm nearly 50. You wouldn't happen to be a Rick Springfield fan by chance? Boy, do I catch hell for that one sometimes...

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...