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.

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