Wednesday, September 23, 2009

From the vault: Not black enough

[originally posted Oct. 14, 2007. What can I say? This is a busy week and I'm trotting out some old posts to keep ya'll entertained.]

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--cause that needs defense purely on a musical level--I was 12. And technically, my grandparents took me to see the Jackson 5 when I was about 5, so...) 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 small 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. (And what if his wife had been white? How offensive a comment was that?)

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 Jill Scott, John Legend, erykah badu, Maxwell, U2, Radiohead, Green Day, alt-country and classic Journey. 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 think Patton Oswalt is hilarious; Kat Williams is not. I read bell hooks and Agatha Christie. I am a very liberal Democrat with a strong belief in personal responsibility (not in the icky conservative way, though). I was raised a Baptist, but find great wisdom in Buddhist thought. I wear my hair natural and nappy. This is me. Call me quirky. Call me odd. Just don’t call me not black enough.


kristine said...

thank you for this! what a wonderful vault you must have!

hope your week is not too insane. and please don't hesitate pulling from the vault.

genderbitch said...


Geez. I thought that kind of nasty classification policing was only really endemic in the trans community. My white lack of perspective strikes again.

I'm so sorry you went through that. I know how much it hurts to be called not trans and misgendered, so if it's anything like that then it really sucks.

Don't feel bad about Air Supply, I listened to Avril Lavigne at 15. >_>

Sista GP said...

Criticism from those we care for the most seems to effect us the most.
I have friends of different races. It doesn't matter to me what people think when we are together, what matters is what I know of myself.

What I don't understand is why people think I am not from Georgia.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you were a little insecure. People pick up on that. You have a husband a job and your health thank goodness for the small things. Take 4 bitter pills and call the Doctor in the morning.

Laurinda said...

Great post! You would think in the 21st century we could get past this. I've had the same criticism. I've stopped letting it break my stride. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy!

Black Butterfly said...

"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."

Being born in the North and raised by a mother (born and raised in the South) that believed grammatically correct speech and diction was the ONLY way to speak was a normalcy that was definitely challenged in Jr High after moving to the South (dealing with accent and dialect differences was also added) and throughout the years. So I definitely feel the sting of questioning that comes with it from some people. It bothered me that people from my ethnic group questioned my speech pattern as a rating of blackness and I was equally as offended by white people questioning my ability to speak well because I was a Black person. You know... the shock and awe that comes from someone speaking to you on the phone for an interview,sales call etc. and then you show up and you can see the complete shock on their face because they expected you to be.... well, not black.

Anywho, I guess the point that I am trying to make after taking up so much space (sorry) is that because we all are/have grown up in America I don't expect or accept it from Black people or this racist patriarchal society! Because as you said it is 'colonized thinking' and I think that ALL should know better! I have so little patience for that crap these days and it causes problems at times because I will say something to both sides if confronted with that way of thinking.

Sabrina Messenger said...

Variety is the spice of life. I've been a Rick Springfield fan since '72 age 11 and yeah, folks busted my chops for it bigtime, but I got to meet DaMan in person so guess who got the last laugh there! I say it's best to be YOU not what someone think you should be based on how much melanin there is in the skin.

Anonymous said...

I think people who move well among different classes and races are foolishly attacked by their own group...not black enough, not feminine enough, not ... the old lobster pot.

If we actually become less racist, we love people for who they are. When you first start school away from home, it's always nice when you make those first new friends.

People don't tell me I'm not lesbian enough, however. I am very proud that I fit almost every lesbian stereotype-- not one feminine bone in my body, except my love of the arts, and my wild enthusiasm that is so characteristic of women. My lesbian friends who are very femme get this carping all the time, however.

Guess you can't win. The thing we all need to know is integration is about keeping your own power, but assimilation is giving in to values not your own. There's a difference, and people often get this confused.

Thanks for a great post Tami. I just told another group of women about your blog today!! :-)

Halei said...

I couldn't have said it better myself :)

I don't think it has to do with your insecurities, but others. At least that's what my mother told me when all the black girls teased me endlessly in school :)

Cindy said...

First of all I must say it's a shame you and I can't hang out. There is some huge overlap in our interests!

I had a friend who received similar criticism her whole life. Add to her perfect diction and utterly expansive vocabulary (drilled by her teacher mother) the fact that she is fair skinned and green eyed. She gets the "high yellow" discrimination from her black peers and has had more than one white person tell her she is not really black. This happened often enough that it became a joke between the two of us.

We often attack out of our own fear our own self-esteem issues and our own ego-centric perspective. That's not to excuse inane behavior, but I don't believe it comes from some innate meanness. By age four or five we already have learned to poke fun at the non-conformist. Unfortunately, some just never outgrow the playground taunt.

corvedacosta said...

Someone left on my blog "stop acting so white."

I was shocked reading the comment because no place on my blog do I discuss race relations, anything that would lead her to that conclusion.

I find people that are obsessed with race and acting black enough are silly. From her standards I was not brought up reminded I am black or I should act black. On the contrast I was brought up forced to speak English - although there is a dialect here.

My question is, when someone asks you to act black what are they hinting at? Should you be mediocre or aim for the highest.


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