I Can’t Articulate What Being Black Means To Me

Something bothered me the other day. A phrase I’ve heard time and time again throughout my life:

“You’re not black.”

But it was different this time. It came from someone I hold in very high regard. I’m not writing this to attack that person. They know who they are, and they know that they’re one of the people I hold most dear and respect immensely.

Besides, it wasn’t even derogatory in context, it was a matter-of-fact statement. He was right, I am not black. My mother and father are Panamanian and Guyanese immigrants, respectively. We were discussing racial relations in America and why it seems to be at a standstill when the comment was made, and there I was, stammering. He asked me to elaborate on ways I relate to the community, and in the days following our talk, it hit me.

Black, is simultaneously the most broad and limited word I’ve ever experienced. And I can’t really articulate what it means to me.

Predominately, I try to live the broad strokes. My black is beautiful and mine alone and I don’t want to be anything or anyone else. Why yes, I am indeed a strong, independent black woman that don’t need no man. But often, I get knocked into the limiting aspect of the word. You speak so well for a black girl. Have you ever met your father? I want to hear you say nigger, it’ll be funny coming from you.

I reach better conclusions when I think out loud. Identity will be the biggest paradox I ever face. How do you begin to define yourself when every word that passes through you is indicative and representative of those past and the ones you precede? What do I get to keep for myself? I don’t feel I carry the weight of my race on my shoulders at all times, but the abrupt glances and “we shouldn’t talk about this in front of Rodericka”s I’ve gotten since grade school whenever race was mentioned begs the notion that someone feels I should. I should aspire to be the mouthpiece for an entire race and all of its nuances. Not only within the confines of a classroom, but the entire country too.

I’m starting my journey. I want to become, to realize, to include. I want to understand where people feel race is, what it all means, and their ideas for moving us forward. Is that even an attainable goal? We’ll never get there if we keep living within the bounds of our individual familiarity. I know I’m not doing anything novel, but there is no manual that will get me any closer to understanding what being a part of the black community means, the qualifications needed, or what people really expect of me. Interactions with peers and strangers alike imply that simply producing enough melanin to check a certain box on surveys isn’t a reliable benchmark. I need dialogue, discussion, crossfire, the uncomfortable feeling when a touchy topic is introduced and the triumph in approaching it with grace and understanding.

Modern society seems to prefer passive toleration over genuine consideration. It’s the easier thing to do. People will faster list how many multi-cultural people are in their life faster than they will sit down with those same people and have a discussion about what life is really like for the other. We completely freeze when race is brought up because we don’t know how to handle it. I respect the reasoning behind that thoughtless response; no one wants to be labeled the offensive bigot. Unfortunately, this does more harm than good.

Last year, as Lorde’s “Royals” was beginning to gain traction, along with allegations that it contained twinges of racism, I noticed that a different trend is forming. As society steadily becomes more progressive, we are beginning to overcompensate for the things we don’t actually understand as we seek public displays of how open-minded we are. The mention of gold teeth in the song made people furious and disappointed in the rising star. How could such a young woman hailing from a country where less than 1% of the population could qualify as black (though they wouldn’t identify as such, they’re African) harbor so much bias? Is any place untainted by cultural prejudice anymore? There doesn’t seem to be a safe way to mention musical genres if they tend to be dominated by a certain race.

Not even that. If a non-black person alludes to “black culture”, more often than not, people flag it as racist then say that no one is qualified to challenge or employ it unless they are a POC. Person of Color.

Personally, I have a problem with the term. Aren’t we all people of color? When did white people become transparent? Though it passes itself off as an inclusive term, its connotation is almost always used to describe black people. I am a person, not a symbol. Call me anything else and you run the risk of reducing me, and my essence, to fit the misconstrued connotations of the terms you’re using.

That being said, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re not allowed to have an opinion on something, whether it directly involves you or not. There is no right or wrong opinion but there is a right and wrong way to present it. It is important to remember that racism is as complicated and relative a topic as race is. There are obviously hard lines to this. We can all agree that the KKK is racist. We can all agree that telling someone that they can’t do something because of the color of their skin is racist. However, it’s not healthy to view it as a zero-sum game in all instances. It implies that some interpretations and the personal experiences that drive them should be valued higher than others and it’s exactly that approach that deters meaningful dialogue.

Black and non-black people alike found Lorde’s song to be racist while I didn’t and that is okay. Explaining why you find something offensive or don’t should be seen as just that and that’s what I’d like to open up the floor for with my writing. I can only speak for myself, but I hope to create an environment where people can learn how racial groups outside their own view the same things. Let’s begin.

Ask me anything. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Flickr / I Love Trees

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