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Growing up, my blackness — or perceived lack thereof — was always a matter of discussion. From a very young age I remember being told that my speech, mannerisms, and my interests were not black enough. I was considered an “Oreo,” black on the outside, white on the inside by my peers and even my parents. While my step-sister and play cousins were memorizing the words to the latest Lauryn Hill song, I was trying to get the dance moves down to the new Britney Spears video. Even in grade school I was never able to double dutch or to master any of the more complicated hand games. As a shy and insecure child being constantly told I was different — and not in a good way — for simply being myself, hurt. I couldn’t understand why race was such a big deal and why it was so important for me to fit inside of the designated “black girl box.”
As I got older, being constantly reminded of how non-black I was got old. I began to rebel by embracing all things white and running away from my blackness all together. I adopted a bevy of white girlfriends, plastered the walls of my bedroom with pictures of the latest white teen pop stars, and developed a distaste for things that are typically indicative of mainstream black culture. I turned my nose up at the black girls were in my high school and shunned any potential boyfriend prospects I deemed too black-acting.
But secretly (or maybe not so secretly) I was just as black as anyone else. Saddled with a less-than-present mother who was struggling with her own issues, my father practically raised me on his own from adolescence on up. Drug abuse was rampant among my extended family, and I had a few close relative who were serving time in prison. In hindsight, I was angry at a lot of my peers and family members. Why couldn’t they just “pick themselves up by their bootstraps” and not be stereotypes?
I was 15 years old when my father sat me down to hold a back-to-black intervention. For nearly half an hour he talked at me about the pitfalls of being too immersed in white culture and shared with me his own adolescent struggles as a whitewashed jock in a post-civil-rights-era Cleveland. It was evident that he was still smarting from the wounds from some racist incidents that had happen to him. Like the time a white childhood friend told him, “Man, I feel sorry that you were born black.” Or the white high school girlfriend who cheated on him. He felt sure that the infidelity happened because he was black and not just because they were hot to trot teenagers. My father ended his diatribe by encouraging me to snap out of it and to “blacken it up,” so to speak.
His mediation tactics didn’t exactly work and I continued to believe that black people were the ones who were making race such a big deal. In my world, it was the truth until I got more life experience and was able to see that society still discriminates against black people and anyone else with brown skin. I found out that some of my white best friends’ parents didn’t mind us being friends, but that dating would be out of the question.
Suddenly, instead of being disappointed in everyone around me, I was disappointed in myself. I had drunk the Kool-Aid. Over the years I dropped my dating ban and came out of the closet about my love for hip-hop and hood movies. It’s great seeing life through new lenses. On one hand, letting go of my old way of thinking has freed up room in my life for a lot of different people and experiences that I wouldn’t have encountered before. On the other hand, in some ways I am more conflicted now than I was before.
I see things now that I didn’t see when I was younger. I now understand what my parents meant when they said that we must work twice as hard to get half of what white people have. This has become all the more apparent since graduating college and entering the workforce. Finding beauty in myself as a black woman when the standard of mainstream beauty is still so white can be frustrating and challenging, to say the least. Sometimes I find myself muttering “Damn white people” under my breath when someone assumes something like I am from “the hood” because I grew up in Cleveland.
I no longer think of little brown boys being shot in the back for no reason as being isolated incidents.
Even though my eyes are wide open now, there are plenty of times when I don’t feel “authentically” black. I still love alternative female rock singers, my favorite movie will always be Clueless, and I still have white friends. There isn’t a formula for being perfectly black. Over the last few years I’ve formed stronger bonds with more black people and I’m really happy with how my sense of self has evolved and developed. There isn’t just one way to be black and there isn’t some checklist to aspire to. My blackness isn’t up for debate; it just is. And that’s all right with me. Finally.