There was a time, I like to believe, that was very long ago (probably not) where my deepest desire was to prove to white people that I belonged. It’s not so much that I admired white people, or that I thought they were special, they’re not. Just at that particular moment of my life, most of the success or even basic mediocrity I ever saw was through white people. The people who looked like me and were also successful were civil rights heroes, athletes, and rappers. And as much as I loved rapping, and basketball, I wasn’t good enough at either to seriously consider them as ways to move past my circumstances.
Everything else in my community seemed grim. From the aggressive and consistent lack of resources to the soul-crushing poverty. Everywhere I looked, Black and Brown folks were down bad. At the time it felt like 99% of the Black and Brown people I knew were struggling, or just getting by. I didn’t want that to be my life, so I decided at the age of 15 that if I were to be successful, I would need to be less of what I was, and more of what mainstream society (white people) demanded. If I could do that, I could live a life of dignity, but more importantly, it would mean that I mattered.
That decision influenced the way I walked, talked, and thought for a long time. I fought so hard to not be like the “typical Black person” that I started erasing the pieces of me that make me who I am. I stopped using the N-word (don’t worry niggas, I’m back at it), I started listening to Rock music (Black people created Rock & Roll beloveds), and went as far as refusing to eat fried chicken.
All of this hard work at self-erasure led me to disdain and indifference for my community that only the most militant of Uncle Toms are able to reach (see Clearance Thomas or Candace Owens). I spent years trying to mold myself into the type of “Black Friend” that white people would be proud of, then the police murdered Sean Bell in cold blood, and none of the officers went to prison for it.
That incident was the first time I really started to question if what I was doing was worth it. Sean was leaving his bachelor party the night before his wedding, and the police fired over 20 rounds into his car, killing him and seriously injuring his friends. Sean didn’t have a gun on him, he didn’t attack the officers, or even present as a mild threat. He was just a black man, with his black friends trying to take his black ass home. So sure, I could erase my love for all things Black, but I couldn’t get rid of this black ass skin.
That verdict was the beginning of a wake-up call for me. I started to ask myself some tough questions. If a man could be killed in cold blood, for no other reason than the color of his skin, and his executioners could walk free, how could I prove I mattered. Was it even possible? Sean’s death shook me out of my delusion, but the straw that finally broke the camel's back was Trayvon Martin. A child was stalked and murdered by a savage and the police didn’t even arrest him at first. When he was finally charged, an army of white people not only donated money to help him with his legal fees, they began to lionize him as some sort of hero. A year later, despite some very clear evidence, Trayvon's murderer was acquitted of all charges. It was after that verdict, and then the brazen murder of Michael Brown that I finally broke free of my Magical Negro aspirations. I decided that if the world would hate me no matter what I did, I would not contort myself into an empty vessel focused on the approval of soulless oppressors.
That decision was one of the best I ever made. Since then, I have spent much of my time trying to answer some simple questions. Who am I, and what does my Blackness mean to me? Does it have to be a political statement, or can I just live free like any other person? While I’m more comfortable than I have ever been, it's still not easy. Some days I look in the mirror and am not quite sure of who/what is looking back. Am I the collection of people, experiences, lessons, heartbreaks, and decisions that I have lived through, or am I still aspiring to attain the acceptance of whiteness, and am just doing it under different circumstances. Working in politics can make it even harder to tell.
So much of this work is grounded in white supremacy, respectability politics, power, and transactional relationships. Is it possible to excel in this space and not become what you are trying to fight against? I try to navigate this conundrum by living/working through my values, but I would be a liar if I told you there was a scenario where I thought I could be impactful without playing the game to some extent. And while I wouldn’t call myself a superstar, I have proven to be effective at times. Therefore, I must have some skill in the attributes I claim to be against. When it’s time to put on a “nice suit”, or pull out a handful of college words to get my point across, I can act with no hesitation. So what does that say about me?
I wasted years of my life doing everything to erase my blackness so that white people would accept me. In the years since I have rebelled against those ideas and done the work to be an authentic me. Every day is a journey to understand who that “me” is.
Good article. Every Black person, especially from middle school and up to college has dealt with what is blackness (Which, to add, every Black person has their own uniqueness but.....the culture doesn't want to hear that mostly)