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I’m Black But I’m Uncomfortable Around Black People

Avatar • Aug 25, 2015

by Danielle Small of Salon

danielle_small

 

It happened. I failed the “black” test. My hair stylist and I were chatting while she was taking a break from retightening my locs. I made a funny quip, and she extended her palm so that we could partake in the standard Black American handshake. In what was most likely the longest three seconds in the universe, I stared at her hand in befuddlement, trying to figure out what she was doing. By the time I realized that this was the handshake, it was too late. I tried to recover with some weird amalgamation of a fist bump and a high five, but the damage had been done. I had revealed myself to be the Carlton to her Fresh Prince.

I replayed the scene over and over in my head during my walk to the train. How could I have been so oblivious to an obvious cultural norm? This set off a mini existential crisis where I came to one of my greatest philosophical epiphanies: I’m uncomfortable around black people. This is a peculiar realization being that I am also a black person.

But you see, my stylist embodies a certain Harlem black cool I’ve always been told (by white people) that I lack. Every time I walk into the black barbershop where she does hair, I feel like I’m going to be “found out.” In my mind when other black people see me, they’re thinking: “She may look black, but she’s not black black, if you know what I mean.”

Where does this discomfort come from? And why do I think of Blackness as a test I am doomed to fail?

Like most psychological problems, it all began in my childhood, specifically the eight years I spent living in all white towns in rural Wisconsin. If there was one phrase I heard more than “nigger,” it was “You’re not black.” Talk about irony. 

Sometimes it was phrased as a “compliment,” meaning you’re one of the good black people. But other times it was meant so white people, whose sole interaction with black culture came through the distorted lens of racist media, could assert their own twisted version of blackness over me.

I’m blacker than you because I know more Tupac songs than you.”

You’re not black. Your lips aren’t even that big.”

You’re not even that black. Look, my ass is fatter than yours.”

I know so many white girls that can gangsta walk better than you.”

You’re not black, you can’t even dance!”

It didn’t surprise me that Rachel Dolezal truly thought she was black. I’ve long known that, for many white people, being black is simply checking off a list of well-worn stereotypes.

I always brushed off those comments, because I knew I was black enough to be called “nigger.”  I was black enough that white people stared at me everywhere I went in those lily-white towns. And I was black enough to be accused of stealing during shopping trips.

But if you hear something enough, it can seep into your unconscious and start to guide your decisions. Somewhere along the way I started believing that I wasn’t black enough, whatever that meant. This is the clusterfuck of all realizations: Racism made me uncomfortable around my own people. Ain’t that some shit?

Click here to read the rest on Salon.com

Sound off! Can you relate?

Danielle Small is a writer based in New York City. Her book, “Confessions of a Token Black Girl,” received rave reviews from her mom and her pet turtle. Follow her on Twitter @danielleabeda.

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Mercy
Mercy
5 years ago

I can relate. However, for me, the scrutiny always came from other black people. Always. I didn’t talk right, my music was weird, the activities I chose were never the ones the other black kids chose. I didn’t dance right. So I hung out with mostly white kids growing up because at least they didn’t constantly question my identity, as if my identity was a performance role I just wasn’t quite right for. I’m over it now, but it really messed with me for a while.

Yoli
Yoli
5 years ago
Reply to  Mercy

I am sorry you went through that. Some children can be cruel and unfortunately lots of adults as well.

kalexa1
kalexa1
5 years ago
Reply to  Yoli

The adults are just the child bullies who grew up.

Sharlotte Dawson
Sharlotte Dawson
5 years ago
Reply to  Mercy

OMG, Mercy, everything you just said rings so true in my life! I do however STILL feel a bit awkward stepping into a room of black people. I feel like I just know they’re judging me by my walk, my talk, how I’m dressed, etc. It’s a damn shame, but I guess it is what it is.

Chevanne
5 years ago
Reply to  Mercy

A similar scenario played out with me during my small bit of predominantly black schooling but as I’ve become more socially and racially aware, I realize people pigeonhole blackness. They’re ignorant of a broader history of which black people are an integral part. We have paved portions of the American culture that are indelible. We are entitled to everything and can do everything. Much of today’s music is inspired (or outright jacked), at its root, from black artists. I didn’t know how to respond then, but now I’d turn it around. My music is weird? There wouldn’t be rock and… Read more »

KrissyK
KrissyK
5 years ago
Reply to  Mercy

Blacks need to stop with this BS about other Black people not being Black enough. Black people are not a cultural monolith and don’t have to act a certain way to be BLACK. I HATE any Black person who tries to degrade another Black person by saying he/she acts White and is not “Black enough”.

KrissyK
KrissyK
5 years ago
Reply to  Mercy

I don’t care to relate or associate with any Blacks who believe in pigeonholing Blackness. I refuse to be friends with Black people that hurt other people like that.

Tee Tee
5 years ago

Damn!

sanjidude
sanjidude
5 years ago

We really need to stop drinking the Kool Aid on this one. If I don’t know the proper “black handshake”, will I be followed around stores any less than someone who does? Will a racist cop not accidentally shoot me on the road because I the words to all the right rap songs? No. I’m hoping at some point my judgmental brothers and sisters will accept that we didn’t all grow up in the same hood but are still all a family.

First we must rescue the weave and wig girls, then we can truly have one love LOL!

Sabrina black
Sabrina black
5 years ago

Oh wow. It happens. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Your probably not the only one who has these feelings. It’s nice that you shared that with us. Now you can make others who feel what you feel at ease.

Akwele
Akwele
5 years ago

No big deal. I was in West Africa visiting family. While out shopping I was told not to talk because they would hear my American accent and flock to me to sell their wares.

SKEEWEE
SKEEWEE
5 years ago

Ummm, what is the “standard Black American handshake”??? I guess I’m not Black enough either ?

SLH
SLH
5 years ago
Reply to  SKEEWEE

Same here didn’t know it was standardstandard nor cultural.

Leesha
Leesha
5 years ago

Really? A fist bump? Black? Cultural norm? Okaaaaaaaay. Lol

LBell
LBell
5 years ago

The atoms that made up my Black Card are probably halfway across the galaxy by now, that’s how many times it’s been ripped up by others (mostly black, but some non-black too). I’m too old to care at this point…to paraphrase Jill Scott, I’ve taken my freedom, pulled it off the shelf, put it on my chain, wear it ’round my neck… I really appreciated this part of her essay: “… I knew I was black enough to be called “nigger.” I was black enough that white people stared at me everywhere I went in those lily-white towns. And I was… Read more »

kalexa1
kalexa1
5 years ago
Reply to  LBell

…well said.

Victoria Owl
Victoria Owl
5 years ago

Unfortunately, what the writer has experienced is more common than most people think. I’ve seen black kids constantly bullied and teased by other black kids, because they are different. I have family members who went to alternative schools and for the most part, they were around other like minded black kids but once they started attending your typical public and private schools, they began to experience what this writer has described. Some get over it but often times, these children who were teased become resentful then later on developing a complex. People tend to pigeon hole blackness due to ignorance.… Read more »

kalexa1
kalexa1
5 years ago
Reply to  Victoria Owl

Ironic isn’t it? especially as such bullying and isolation can drive the person being victimised to feel so alienated and labelled that they then decide (on one level or another) to agree that they are in fact not black or not black enough and so distance themselves from their own colour and people/heritage.

Victoria Owl
Victoria Owl
5 years ago
Reply to  kalexa1

Yes, very sad. People of other races already have their pre-conceived notions and or stereotypes about all black people but what’s worse is when our own people pigeon hole blackness and completely giving in to these stereotypes. It breaks my heart when I hear little black girls tell each other, “oh you must not be all black because your hair is so long” or “why do you wear converse, those are white people shoes?” Another one is, “You speak so proper, stop trying to be white.” It drives me insane!! My little cousin was given a pair of jordons for… Read more »

KrissyK
KrissyK
5 years ago

Blacks need to stop with this BS about other Black people not being Black enough. Black people are not a cultural monolith and don’t have to act a certain way to be BLACK. I HATE any Black person who tries to degrade another Black person by saying he/she acts White and is not “Black enough”. Stop buying into stereotypes about your damn selves and stop perpetuating them on to other people. I seriously meant I HATE all of you who demean other BLacks for not being stereotypically BLACK. HATE IS A STRONG WORD AND I MEAN IT WHEN I SAY… Read more »

Mary
Mary
5 years ago

I can relate to strangers always trying to pin you to all these “black stereotypes”. I don’t know why it is a surprise for a black person to be intelligent, eloquent, introverted… the list can go on.
And when someone says, “my one friend is way more black than you, even though she is white. She is so sassy and obnoxious”, that only tells you what that person thinks of black people. It’s irritating. It would be nice to get to know someone by actually revealing who I am, rather than proving their preconceptions wrong at every moment.

bri
bri
5 years ago

I’ve been called weird and unusual my whole life because I do what I want and like what I like and don’t give a damn if anyone has a problem with it.Nothing is wrong with you; you are exactly who you are supposed to be. Life is boring if there’s no variety in the personalities and upbringings of the people we meet! So meet some people who don’t give a damn that you’re different than the stereotype, and even love that you’re just who you are, and you will be fine. You don’t have to be accepted by everyone, just… Read more »

Ocean Child
Ocean Child
5 years ago

I was thinking that too, about the handshake like, when do women really do that in the black community anyway? If someone does that, I probably react the same way as the writer because I’m not used to other black people doing that to me, not because I’m an awkward black girl or whatever.

Ocean Child
Ocean Child
5 years ago

The handshake part? She really shouldn’t fret over that. Do black women really even do that? I do sympathize with almost everything else she said. These things affect people differently, though. I remember growing up feeling different. People–only other kids, never adults–would tell me I talked too “proper”, and even asked me why I wasn’t “ghetto”, like that was the only way to be Black, but unlike the author, I was able to feel fine in my skin no matter who I’m around. I hope she moves past it, and I also wish people would stop painting us all with… Read more »

kalexa1
kalexa1
5 years ago
Reply to  Ocean Child

Sadly too many of our own colour have swallowed down the stereotypes promoted/held by whites about black people and view themselves and other black people the same way. It’s time to wake up and smell the BS.

Kaitlin
Kaitlin
5 years ago

I can so relate! I’ve become more comfortable around other black kids as I’ve gotten older, but when i was younger, at church all if could feel was that everyone was thinking about the way i speak or how quiet I am or how I could not tell you anything about I am… Sasha Fierce. But like I said, I’m much more comfortable nowadays, having met black people who I love dearly and who I really relate to. However, the “you’re not black” comments have yet to cease, and it gets frustrating when people act like being black is a… Read more »

ALew
ALew
5 years ago

I get it. Every time I hear someone say “We’re goin to take your black card” I say “You can’t take me out of the skin I’m in.” Determining my level of blackness is other people’s problem, not mine, and 9 times out of 10 the ideals they have of “blackness” are the stereotypes that I don’t want associated with my race. White people speak “articulately,” Latinos are “hard workers,” Asians are “smart,” and we got stuck with lazy, ignorant, late, and uneducated. If you’re going to be stereotyped you might as well have a good one. I say define… Read more »

kalexa1
kalexa1
5 years ago
Reply to  ALew

I can so relate to your experiences described here. If I had a pound for every time a white person at work has ‘complimented’ me with the statement “You’re so ARTICULATE!” .… the unsaid follow-up statement being “for a black person”. One corporate manager told me in amazement, “you speak better than my children!” … I felt like asking “and why wouldn’t I??” but kept silent and smiled. She wouldn’t promote me; though I fascinated her (obviously in some zoo-like way) I just didn’t fit her stereotype of what a (white) manager should be. Racism and prejudice runs deep indeed.

Kfy
Kfy
5 years ago

I relate to this. I’m half hnative american and half white. Reading this article made me laufg =) Because I used to feel similar. What this experience taht me was that peo0le are people.^_^

The Darling Kinkshamer
The Darling Kinkshamer
5 years ago

Uh…there is no “Black American handshake.” –black American lady I was told that I was “not like other black people”, as a kid, but when I grew up I realized that the people who said this were referring to their own stereotypical conceptualization of blackness. We can be many different things all at once. Yes I was probably the only black kid who listened to classical music and didn’t know who Tupac was until I was in my 20’s; a white teenager told me about him. But my skin is brown and both of my parents are black. Blackness is… Read more »

3caramel7
3caramel7
5 years ago

You know what is nice, is that one day you will wake up and and none of it will matter and it won’t matter what people say. It will be yeah yeah, whatever. And you will realise what a fantastic person you are. And that you’re the secure one, not them and what they have to say about you, you’ve heard it a million times already,yawn, next!

Kita Adams
Kita Adams
5 years ago

I’ve heard the same phrase a time or two in my life.….all because I don’t speak ebonics, I say everyone instead of errybody. I don’t like sweat potatoes and I don’t act ghetto in public. So Yea Danielle Small, I can relate. And you know what, don’t feel bad, I don’t. We are who we are.

Hannah O
Hannah O
5 years ago
Reply to  Kita Adams

You’re not a special snowflake. Not all black people speak african american vernacular english nor do they “act ghetto” in public. Ghetto is a noun not an adjective. (Also speaking african american vernacular english in no way determines a persons IQ)

Kristina Chin
Kristina Chin
4 years ago
Reply to  Kita Adams

WHY do other black people do this!? Not every black person talks the same same way, and you know what? Speaking proper English doesn’t make you better than anyone. That, and WHAT even is “acting ghetto”? If you spend time with other people long enough you’ll realize how ignorant judging a person’s behavior as low class just because it’s the behavior of extroverted people, is. I mean have you ever been around white people? They can act roudy and crazy all they want and nobody will say a thing, but watch black people get loud and everyone’s quick to judge… Read more »

polina
polina
5 years ago

Do you think these ideas about black people being loud, extroverted, “wild”, are promoted by mainstream hiphop and rap industry? I admit I was surprised to hear some black women talk about being introverted (For example in an episode of the French vlog Flaner). Because obviously, musicians that suceed are going to be a bit louder and more extroverted.

Renee Ivy
Renee Ivy
5 years ago
Reply to  polina

I have to admit, if your black and are ignorant to the The Struggle, I don’t count you as culturally black but will acknowledge your ethnically black. But as far as a checklist, it’s something insecure people made up to have an identity. PS I don’t dap because I don’t think it’s a bonding as people make it out to be. So I wouldn’t swear over missing the que

Chel
Chel
5 years ago

I’ve heard a few “you’re not black, you talk and act white,” when I was a teen. Back then I was awkward and kind of introverted around people who were not close friends, so I didn’t know how to respond other than to awkwardly laugh. Now I’m 25 and could give two shits what a black or white person wants to comment about my blackness. I’m black, point blank. If anyone is surprised that I’m not sassy, that I listen to alternative bands and ambient music, or that I don’t like watermelon, or that I can’t twerk, nor have a… Read more »

Kristina Chin
Kristina Chin
4 years ago

Um this is a year late, but you do realize that being black is more about heritage right? It’s about having a shared identity based on linI age and culture. So she is black as long as she considers herself black, because her family’s history is black history . And knowing and owning your blackness is so important because a part of personal identity comes from learning about the your family’s heritage.

B Sykes
B Sykes
5 years ago

So many people could live lives filled with peace, joy and love if they could only NOT CARE about others opinions of them…

kalexa1
kalexa1
5 years ago
Reply to  B Sykes

…I agree. Unfortunately caring is an innate characteristic we’re born with and develop naturally as a survival instinct. We’re not solitary creatures us humans.

Stacie
Stacie
5 years ago

Damn this is my child hood all over again! I grew up in a white neighborhood and I heard all that junk. I was so confused as a kid, I was neither accepted by my white peers because of my blackness but yet I wasn’t black enough, or my black peers because I was an “Oreo”. I grew up hurting because I didn’t know my place. I resented everyone and wanted nothing to do with anyone. When I got to college things were different I made friends and I found my place. I also found out that it is me… Read more »

Lori
Lori
5 years ago

Ok. She lost a bit with the comment about the handshake. The handshake is not big deal, is not universal and in my case as a woman, rarely ever done. I can’t remember the last time if ever a black woman tried the black handshake on me. So, please don’t measure your blackness by that. I can relate to some of the other things she said, but African-American is a diaspora. We’re not monolithic. You don’t have to be a good dancer or speak ‘black’ or dress a certain way, or listen to any particular type of music or have all… Read more »

Claudette UK
Claudette UK
5 years ago

I’m a black woman who can clap in time but can’t dance to save her life. I don’t worry about some obscure ‘blackness checklist’. I am dark skinned, dark haired, dark eyed and definitely black and secure in my blackness.

Dee Hines
Dee Hines
5 years ago

I had a similar experience growing up but it was mostly from relatives and other black kids. I grew up in a upper middle class white area and when I would visit my grandparents it was usually cousins and neighborhood kids that would talk about how suburban I was. Which was just code for white but they probably would’ve gotten in trouble if they would have phrased it like that. The way I talked, dressed, the genre of music I primarily listened to, etc. They’d just look at me as though I were crazy. I didn’t meet their “criteria” for… Read more »

Kelea
Kelea
5 years ago

I totally get it, even though the context of my upbringing is different. I was born and raised in Senegal, West Africa by a white mother and a black father. I have been called at least once a month “white girl” for 25 years by my fellow country-men. One of my former classmate – who didn’t really liked me – even told me “you may have been born here but you are not really Senegalese”. One time I was reading a book called “I thought it was just me” by Brene Brown. In it, she defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling… Read more »

Brianna Nicolas
Brianna Nicolas
5 years ago
Reply to  Kelea

Honestly, you just stated you have a white parent, so how are you black? You are biracial and should love being biracial. Love yourself. Of course you’re not going to accepted in either group. You re not apart of either group. The only reason you are seen as black by some in America is because of the racist one drop rule. This notion in America is swiftly changing. I think we should all love who we are.

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