Newly Minted

Newly Minted
Right after I was hooded

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I have no other code to switch to and I am simply not Black Enough

I sent a panicked text to my colleague at Syracuse University: How old do I have to be, how long do I have to do this work, before I am black enough? He sent back a text with kind words of support. His institution had just hosted a speaker who had given a good lecture on this exact topic in regards to President Obama. My colleague also apologized for not remembering to invite me to that event.

I have spent the last two weeks, as I have many times in the last 40 years, authenticating my blackness. Let me clarify the allegation against which I am defending myself: I am simply not black enough. No, that is a simplification of the allegation. The allegation is that I don't like black people, that I prefer white people and that I think black men are idiots. Apparently even the way I introduce myself is uppity and deserving of physical violence. I am in desperate need of reprogramming in an attempt to correct my poor behavior around black folks.

Here is the deal: I have no other code to switch to. This is who I am, it is not a performance of any kind. This is how I perform blackness. This is the only way I know how to carry myself (too upright); introduce myself (with an accompanying analogy that helps people remember my name); dress myself (as if I am going to a meeting); do my hair (which is "natural" but apparently still not black enough because it is not "straigtened"); and speak (too proper for casual settings - too proper for any setting really). I have no other code to switch to.

Some of the other crimes attributed to my race traitorous behavior are the fact that I am married to a white man, the fact I do not try to hide that I was raised by a white mother, and the fact that my daughter has the audacity to have beautiful blond hair and light hazel eyes. And, if I try to speak slang (the urge overcomes me at times) I sound all the whiter and then I am accussed of making "fun" of people. Yet, it seems perfectly appropriate to level these accusations against me. It is great sport to share these judgements against me over a cup of rum. But I am always the one who is wrong. No matter what.

The reality of the situation: I crave time with black people. When I get the chance to be in a space where black people are willing to let me join them (or so I think, I often find out later I was unwelcome but too dumb to leave) I feel a sense of community and belonging. Apparently imagined community and belonging. Perhaps my inability to read the warning signs, the ones that suggest I don't belong, stems from always having been in situations where I basically did not belong and having learned how to negotiate those spaces. I keep talking, listening, and working until I am accepted. I am starting to realize that I have been using this skill alot in the converse (usually it is in an attempt to gain access to white spaces) lately. I am now hanging in there until, somehow, black folks decide I am okay and allow me to stay. Perhaps this is all a bit harsh and I shouldn't allow myself to abstract a few confirmed cases of exclusion, but each of those cases cuts so deeply I find my ability to recover and the will to keep trying are getting harder and harder to hang on to.

My girlfriend (our boys play football together) had a labor day party this year. Myself and my family were invited, mysels and two of my children were able to attend. It was the day of our first varsity football game of the season, a cause for great celbration here in Tiger country. With hard leomonade in hand and lot's of soul food; I was getting to capture a little piece of something I lost when my biological mother gave me away - loud, loving black folk. It was a moment to be around a family that looked like me and that is a want that cannot be expressed, it is not translateable to those raised with their biological family, only other adoptees understand.

My girlfriend's sister is a big, beautiful, black matriarch. She is what I imagine my biolgical grandmother to be. I had heard a lot about this woman and was excited to meet her. I introduced myself to her, she seemed a little cold, in hind sight, but nothing that prepared me for the realization five hours later that she had wanted to knock me out. While we were sitting in my lawn chairs, me with her grand child on my lap, she revealed to me that she had asked her sister to put up the rum "because I told her if I got drunk I was going to jack your uppity ass up". I was stunned. The pain in my chest and stomached stopped me from breathing. I was 14 again; that was how old I was the first time a black female rejected me based on how culturally white I seemed to be (except at 14 I didn't catch on until she "jacked me up"). I wanted to run and hide. Everyone was laughing; for them it was over. For me it was just beginning an endless loop of not belonging that I never seemed to be able to outrun. There I sat with the sun beating down on me, my hard lemonade buzz gone, wishing I could turn back the last five minutes. I would rather not have known. "It's okay" she said "I like you now" but it wasn't okay, it wasn't enough.

A few days ago, on 9/11, a student from one of our multicultural student organizations came to see me in the office. The night before I had brought concerns about the exclusionary behavior some of our freshman reported experiencing at the hands of our black females. I forget that my belief that what people are experiencing COUNTS regardless of other perspectives is not a universal belief. I asked the females in the Black Student Union, Carribiean Student Union, and La Familia Latina if they could be more welcoming to our new students of color in particular and new students in general. There was a near riot. The girls expressed to me that it was the job of the new females to approach THEM and introduce THEMSELVES. This totally goes against what I know about good social behavior and my belief is that being welcoming is a good social behavior regardless of what culture you are in or from. My students did not agree. There was yelling. We ended with hugs and I went home. The next morning one of my students came to tell me that she appreciated the conversation (yelling) the night before. She told me that she had learned a lot about me and that she owed me an apology for her misinterpretation of me. I, like a complete idiot (HOW I didn't know what the answer was going to be is BEYOND me), asked why her first impression of me was. She told me "honestly, that you didn't like black people, that you didn't want to associate with them, and that you would prefer to be around white people".

I asked her what gave her that impression and she told me that she misperceived some things I had said last semester about being more comfortable around white people because I was raised in white communities. At that time I was trying to get the point across how it was important that we love our sisters no matter how they perform blackness. I clearly needed to contextualize or provide more time and education before I tried to have that conversation. That moment, today, looks like my attempt to get the women of color around me to embrace me. My agenda...failed. She also said that it was more a feeling than any particular thing I said or did. I asked her if it was the way I spoke. She said "No, I am used to uppity females my aunt is a real bitch".

While I realize this young woman was APOLOGIZING to me, it still hurts because she was one of my favorites. Before that moment, I would have counted her among my supporters, among my sisters, and certainly on my side. Again, it is so painful having not even known she didn't care for me AND that she disliked me even, and she certainly didn't trust me... The conversation ended with "I like you now" and "I am going to tell the other girls how great you are". But again, it simply wasn't enough. I went to the 9/11 rememberance ceremony with a hole in my heart.

I will never be black enough. I will never be white. I am almost 40 years old, it is too late to think that someday I will be able to perform blackness in a way that will end this cycle of rejection or the demands for authentication. These two recent experiences really opened up some old wounds. I can intelletualize the interactions, and I question whether my shock and hurt stems from an unacknowleged priviliege that I have or am preceived to have. Right now i just feel angry, alone, and ready to quit. And I certainly don't feel Black Enough.

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