I stand before you today a black woman with a shocking secret: I wasn’t born black.
I know what you’re thinking (#NoDolezal). And I assure you that on a frigid winter day in the early Reagan era, my parents did indeed bring home a peanut butter-colored baby.
But the Council of Negrotude (AKA my extended family) quickly vetoed my application. For one, black people didn’t ski. They didn’t take dance lessons. They didn’t eat kale or speak “properly” or wear Spiegel separates. Basically, I was not black.
Did I not want to be black? Would I grow into black? Could I buy my black card somewhere? These questions dominated my youth, a rough trudge through self-rejection, self-reflection and eventually self-acceptance.
Today I can look back and understand the psycho-social traumas that led those around me to equate authentic blackness with struggle. And I can celebrate the evolution that continues to dismantle those ideas, making it easier for black folks to enjoy the full spectrum of human experience without forfeiting anything (real or imagined) in the process.
My mother was not born of means, growing up with five siblings and, by her telling, a GANG of mice. Nonetheless, by the early ’80s, she’d met and married a man from up North. In him she had secured the bag: Dad was childless, Howard-educated and entering the burgeoning computer industry. The comeup was very real and I was the beneficiary: I grew up in a spacious split-level in Prince George’s County, Md. with all the piano lessons, canopy beds and child-sized pea coats you could want.
I found it profoundly embarrassing. Legit, I just wanted to live in Barry Farms with a cool nickname like Pooh.
I wasn’t really about that fried bologna sammich life. But I had quickly learned that privilege made me a pariah. My mom was part of the wave of black upward mobility that swept up so many during the Huxtable era. But the same wave didn’t quite sweep up the entire family. And so, tensions and accusations of “uppity” grew between my mother and her siblings. That in turn trickled down to the cousins, who never missed a chance to let me know I was a provisional negro at best.
Is your moms really setting out gold-plated flatware? White. My nig, is you 8 years old wearing deck shoes? White. Why you think everybody a drug dealer? White. Why we got mittens and you got a muff? White. Why you carry your books in a satchel? White. WTF even is a satchel? Whiiiiiite!
(Full disclosure: My suburban naïveté didn’t help. At age 9, I loudly asked my aunt if that big paper thing she was unrolling to buy groceries was Canadian money. I don’t have to tell you it was a food stamp. *facepalm*)
The irony of it all was that I never wanted to be white—I didn’t see what was so great about them. They didn’t have anything I couldn’t get and some of them were straight up ugly. Maybe I was hanging around the wrong whites!
My sense of inadequacy built until middle school when, after a decade of mockery, my desire for acceptance by “real” black people hardened into jagged resentment. My ironic inferiority complex increasingly erupted in cruel comments meant to belittle those I felt had so long looked down on me.
To hood people, I was stuck up. To me, they were. In reality, we were each caught up in age old class tensions.
From day one, black Americans have been forced to turn lemons into lemonade. But somewhere along the way, for many of us, the struggle became tantamount to black identity. Upward mobility turned into a thing to be regarded with suspicion, its beneficiaries shunned as being “white.” The resulting mistrust only serves to harden class divisions, pushing those with means to uplift the community further outside the black community.
Fortunately, I feel like times have seriously changed. I don’t doubt there are still kids on playgrounds calling somebody white-acting. But overall, as we’ve climbed the social ladder, I feel like black folks have dropped many of the old rigid limitations on our identities. Now authentically black can mean the Real Housewives of the Potomac and Boyz N the Hood. Look at gawd!
My own story took a turn around college. By then I was solidly in the LGBT community, the acceptance of other brown folks secondary to a sense of belonging in the rainbow tribe. I’d picked up a little chill for sure (no more saying grace over candy!) but I had also become much more comfortable in my skin.
I never did get my black card in the mail. So, I printed my own. Nowadays, I like dogs and yoga (Common, I’m looking at you) but I also twerk with aplomb. I love a good charcuterie but I’m finally appreciating oxtails. I fucks with NPR the long way—and I say things like “the long way.” I’m a perfectly confusing amalgam of all the things people associate with blackness, whiteness and everything elseness. And I don’t care if anyone approves.