I was sitting with a friend in his studio apartment. There wasn’t a bookcase, so all his books were stacked on the floor. Around his room was a little mini-fort decorated with names like Foucault, Derrida and Chomsky.
At point blank he asked me, “What’s it like to be black?” I paused, because I had never been asked that the before.
I couldn’t answer. I’m very conscious of my blackness; it’s hard not to be when you’re often the only black person in the room. But to articulate what being black is like, and on the spot, with no warning? I was at a loss for words.
“I really don’t know,” I said. Staircase wit is a wonderful thing. Had I been thinking clearly, I would have asked him what it’s like to be white.
Still, my friend posed an interesting question: What is it like to be black today?
You never forget the first time. Mine happened in my grandmother’s kitchen. I dutifully sat in a chair, even though I was squirming like little kids are known to do. My cousin took all the proper precautions, putting on gloves and putting a towel around my shoulders. You did not want to get this stuff on your skin, after all. My cousin then began the task of slathering pungent gunk over my hair, making sure it got coated from root to end. Then I sat there, with my hair heavy and smelly, full of this weird pinkish–white gunk.
And then the burning started. It started as a minor irritation and turned into a full-blown inferno on the top of my head. I cried. I cried the next few times after that, too.
I looked over to the counter. On it sat a box with the words “Just for me.” It had a picture of a happy black girl with shiny straightened hair and a curled side ponytail. I was going to be that girl. Eyes on the prize.
For the next decade of my life, this would become a bi-monthly ritual. I got used to the burning.
My last name is a not a slave name. Or so the family legend goes. My father’s great (or was it great-great?) grandfather was a criminal who had to go on the run. Thus, he made the change from whatever his last name was, to Austin. There are no records of this; my family history gets really murky before the 1920s. I still like this story. It’s not the same story every black kid can tell, where they come to class, mumble something about Africa, and go back their seat. It sets me apart from those kids. It gives me agency. Most importantly, it’s my story.
There are times when I consider getting a DNA test, even though I’m sure it won’t yield any results that I couldn’t have guessed myself. West African tribe, some whiteness (or even Native American-ness, if we’re being generous) somewhere down the line. It never seemed that interesting to me.
I grew up in an upwardly mobile middle-class black family. I’ll sometimes joke about my parents trying to “whiten” my brother and me. We used to live on Charlotte Street, a stone’s throw away from Troost, that great racial dividing line of Kansas City. I know it by a less nice name: the ghetto. We didn’t want to be there. We wanted to be in a nice, clean suburb with a big house and a huge deck.
And so I went to an exclusive Catholic school. My brother and I took French lessons.
It’s hard to explain the impulses of my parents without explaining my parents themselves. My dad was from rural Mississippi and graduated from a school that only started to legally desegregate in the 1970s. Time moves differently in the Deep South. I’ve been to his hometown, his old neighborhood. The roads are made of dirt and gravel. Crops line every front yard. Clusters of tiny homes that surround plantation houses make up the neighborhoods. My mother, like me, is a Kansas City native. She grew up with a mailman father and a nurse for a mother. My grandmother, the nurse, worked in a Jewish hospital because it was one of the only ones that would hire black people. A devout Methodist, she kept a Menorah in her dining room until the day she died.
My grandparents wanted things to be better for their children and my parents wanted things to be better for us. They wanted something other than daily reminders of the racist world around them.
It took me a long while to appreciate my culture. For a great deal of my life, I’ve internalized the message people tell me about my culture: that I have none.
When people do acknowledge a black culture, there’s a tendency to only acknowledge negatives. We’re lazy, we don’t value hard work, etc. Our culture is hip-hop culture; we only care about material things, making money, objectifying women (no matter if those things are already part of the mainstream culture) and leeching off everyone else.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe I ever bought into this. Even though I joke about my parents wanting to “whiten” me up, they made efforts to let me know that I do, in fact, have a culture.
Throughout our home, you’ll find objects embellished with black and gold, pink and sea-green. My father is unapologetic member of Alpha Phi Alpha, beamingly proud of those seven men in 1906, and still attends weekly meetings. Before I was exposed to the white, “privileged jock” stereotypes of fraternities and sororities, I understood them as the organizations that helped out black kids in inner cities.
My father, a jazz aficionado, made it a point to take my brother and me up to the museum on 18th and Vine, and learn about our musical legacy. We went to summer enrichment programs where we learned the meaning of “40 acres and a mule.” Mildred D. Taylor and Virginia Hamilton were names that were as familiar to me as Madeleine L’Engle and J.R.R. Tolkien were to my friends.
I can remember sitting in the UMKC cafeteria, my friends complaining about their roommates. The girl to the side of me said that they were loud and obnoxious. Same old, same old. My other friend, not missing a single beat, asked, “Are they black?” The other girl nodded in agreement.
Believe it or not, I understand the impulses of my friends. I “talk white” ergo, I don’t speak with African American Vernacular English. My natural introversion and quietness is inviting. Somehow that translates into people feeling comfortable enough to tell me that they’re scared of black men or about their loud black neighbors or that black lady acting so ghetto, all without a hint of remorse or a sense of irony. It’s at times like these that I often wonder if I’ve made myself too accessible, too white-friendly.
Activists have a phrase for moments like the one in the cafeteria: teachable moments. Theoretically, in these kinds of situations, I should take the lead in explaining to my friends and colleagues that hey, what they said was offensive and not at all okay.
In reality, things are much easier said than done. I never want to be that person, the one who’s always on her soapbox about one thing or another. And more than that, it’s just uncomfortable. When my friends make it clear they’ve got some negative preconceptions about black people, the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself.
And then there’s the matter of feeling responsible, both for my friends’ educations, and for these loud people I have never met.
When Ronald Reagan fed America the lie of the “welfare queen” myth, he made black women the enemy of the American taxpayer. And though I was not even born during his administration, I still feel its impact. Throughout my childhood, my parents warned me of the dangers of total financial dependence. I should want to be successful in my own right. On the radio, Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle sang about being independent women who paid their own bills. Conversely, I watched as “Independent black woman who don’t need no man” became its own twisted stereotype.
I didn’t want to be poor, lest I become a welfare queen. I didn’t want to be one of those women who bragged about being self-sufficient. Either way, you became the butt of a joke or the source of someone’s ire.
This weird feeling of responsibility, this fear of scrutiny has a name: respectability politics. It’s a way of telling black people “before you can be accepted as an equal, you must behave in a way we find acceptable.” Therein lies the problem: anybody who has conditions for which black people are and are not acceptable will never see you as an equal. You just become “one of the good ones.” Respectability politics is just one of many impacts racism has on the black psyche, and it runs rampant both inside and outside of the community.
In an article for Talking Points Memo, Aurin Squire likened black respectability politics to “being in a job interview. Forever. It is a state of always striving to impress and never arriving at the promised land of equality.” It’s like the perm that burned my scalp; It hurt, but it’s required in order to be acceptable. There’s this pervasive, ever-present consciousness of who you are and how others see you. Everything you say, like or do is examined under a microscope and then projected onto every other black person in America.
While respectability politics is often manifested inward, directed at the self, it can manifest itself in another way that Melissa Harris-Perry calls the “cringe” factor. The “cringe” is that feeling black people often get when they see another of their race behaving in a way that is stereotypical. Or to put it another way, it’s when black people act in way that’s unacceptable. Some people call them niggers. As in, “well, I only call those people niggers.” These people are the ones who chastised for “bringing us down.” They’re the ones pundits point to when they want to disparage us. They’re the ones who need to stop acting so ignorant, to pull their pants up. This “cringe” is what leads black people to lash out at other members of their race.
Where does this need to lash out come from?
There’s a collectivist element of black culture; there’s very little of African American rhetoric that doesn’t have those words “we, us, our.” We Negroes. Us black folk. Our brothers and sisters. Our little black girls. Our teenage sons.
We take a sense of pride in our culture. We take pride in knowing about the achievements of Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. The flipside to this is the shame we feel for the way others act, even if it the act is not inherently shameful. When we see someone speaking loudly, crudely, or just in a dialect that isn’t approved, they aren’t just hurting their own chances at being taken seriously, they’re hurting all of us. In an essay for The Advocate, transgender activist Laverne Cox writes about this.
“When I was perceived as a black man I became a threat to public safety. When I was dressed as myself, it was my safety that was threatened. It was usually other black people who policed my gender, called me out, or made fun of me on subways, street corners, and in delicatessens. I believe it is because I am also black that I became their target,” Cox said. “These same folks would often ignore white trans and gender nonconforming folks in the same spaces, even those who passed even less than I did at the time. Systemic racism not only encourages the state and non-black individuals to police and monitor black bodies, white supremacy encourages other black folks to do so as well.”
If we accept that in order to be considered equal, we must conform, then black people who don’t conform are a threat to equality.
In the end, I still really can’t say what being black is or isn’t like.
For me being black is like this: It’s learning how to do your own hair in your 20s because your hair has been chemically straightened most of your life.
It’s hearing your own friends disparage your race, and realizing that they don’t see you as a member of that race.
It’s feeling responsible for the actions of other members of your race.
It’s being very aware that you are the only black person in the room.