I hate writing about race. Whenever anyone asks me why I don’t dive head first into one of my most identifying features I wince and try to change the subject as fast as I can. It’s not because I’m afraid of playing up “the race card” – I could care less about pissing off the wrong people by discussing my ethnicity, it’s more that my experience as an African-American woman in this day and age is vastly different than a lot of my peers.
I grew up in a small hippie beach town just south of San Francisco. The African-American population was a handful at best while the rest included a mix of free loving Caucasians and 1st and 2nd generation Mexican and Mexican-Americans that worked a migrant workers in the Central Coast farms around where I lived. It wasn’t exactly the United Nations but it was fairly diverse by California standards. I didn’t really realize it as a hindrance to my “black” development until I was in middle school and one of my teachers, who had transferred out down from an Oakland title 1 school, commented on how “smart and articulate” I sounded. It was true, my vocabulary was always impressive because as a child I spent most of my time with my nose pliantly firmly in a book, but I had never heard anyone comment on my speaking abilities. A few years later, in high school, it became even more noticeable that I was different from the other African-American kids in my class. I had mostly white friends, dated white guys, listened to “white music” and wore Abercrombie & Fitch clothes. They labeled me an “Oreo”, a term used to define people of color who act white. I wasn’t offended by it (because who doesn’t love Oreos?) but I was aware of its connotation within the black community and usually shied away from speaking when amongst a group of black people to save myself the embarrassment.
This became an impossible task once I moved to Washington DC for school. At the time, it was still one of the only major cities left in America where the majority of the population was African-American. The entire SE and a significant portion of the rest of the city were considered “urban” and held within them years of black history and black families. When I would go out in those areas no one knew or cared what I sounded like, I was black! My hair was the same texture, my body had the same curves, if I was to walk into a store I received the same treatment. Within my many internships I was an anomaly. Politics was and still is (even in the Obama years) dominated by privileged white men. Walking through the Capitol halls and the K Street corridors I felt like some exception to a rule I didn’t know existed. It was an extremely eye opening and isolating feeling. Once I became a White House intern there were more who looked like me and yet they were different too. A lot of them came from HBCU (historical black colleges) while I attend George Washington on the other side of the city. They bonded together, taking advantage of the small professional network of African-Americans in the DC circle while I always felt ironically like the black sheep in the family. Even though we looked the same I was different and no one ever let me forget that.
So, you ask, what does being black mean? The answer is – it means many things to many different people. While I am proud of who and what I am, I was never welcomed with open arms into the black community. I have more Katy Perry in my iTunes library than Kendrick Lamar, and turn on MTV way before scrolling to BET. But is that what we define as being “black”?! Do those outside markers that silent gauge how “ride or die” you are define your identity? Does how I speak and who I date define my African-American experience, or is it a lot more complicated and complex than that? Are we a community that wants to break free of these labels or are we the ones putting ourselves into this box that marginalizes who we are as people? Every time someone asks me to write about being black I look at them sadly and shake my head thinking it’s too hard to explain in less than 1000 words why I am the way I am and how that differs from the other black girls I know. But maybe it’s a Pandora’s box worth opening. Starting a discussion, a dialog, on how we perceive race in this country, and within this generation where biracial children are becoming the norm, how do we define ourselves? I told you my story, so why don’t you tell me yours.