It’s black history month! That means it’s the perfect time to write about how racism is a hell of a thing! While I totally believe that calling people out, or alternatively- calling people in, is a really decent way of getting others to re-examine their problematic behavior, I also feel that we fail to recognize those same toxic attitudes within our own social groups. For instance, I hear a lot about racism in white people, but very little about black people examining those same internalized behaviors within themselves and their communities. As a young activist, I’m learning that racism is really fucked up in the sense that it affects everyone in one way or another, without them even realizing it. This is where things like white privilege and “black people don’t do that” come from. Without us noticing, blackness suddenly became this performance, something we not only had to wake up every day and do, but also something so precious and with so much value, that having it metaphorically revoked can spark deep emotion within us.
I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. There were latinx people there, and a few white people too, but most of us identified as black or black adjacent due to the fact that we all came from similar economic statuses and also, we all used the n-word (which apparently makes you as good as black).
When I was in high school, I went out of my way to not be perceived as a stereotypically loud, aggressive, black woman, despite the fact that I was all of these things. My behavior stemmed from friends and family telling me I didn’t behave “blackly”. I didn’t watch “black t.v” or listen to “black music”. I also failed to conform to black hyper femininity. My mother desperately wanted me to be like the girls in my class. She wanted me to always have my hair done, to have the best clothes, the cleanest shoes, the newest everything. My nails had to be done, I was supposed to gain weight, because girls my age had already started to develop plumpness in places I hadn’t and, how was I supposed to garner the attention of men if I didn’t. Didn’t I want a boyfriend? My behavior was less than black, which meant it was white. I was behaving whitely.
There was a brief moment of time where it hurt a lot to think that I was a dark skinned black woman, from a family of other dark skinned black people, who lived in a mostly black neighborhood, went to a mostly black school and yet still, somehow, wasn’t black enough. It wasn’t long before being called white was less of an insult and more of something like appraisal, or approval. People called me white, yes, but they also called me very intelligent. I wasn’t like the other kids in my school. I was white, smart, successful, going places. Inevitably, I began associating being successful with non-blackness, and the situations my peers were facing with “typical black behavior”, rather than just normal shit teenagers go through despite their race. At the same time, I suppressed parts of me that were performing too blackly, especially around people who were white. I became smaller, quieter, complacent. I lost a lot of myself doing this.
I didn’t think I needed to change. After all, though no one would admit it outright, the ability to make oneself less black was of high value. I found myself being asked by my peers how to speak more clearly, without their blaccent, or how to sound more white to people who might be listening. I wonder how much of them I erased. “Why can’t you act like Anika, look how well behaved she is,” words spoken by teachers, suddenly became more like “why can’t you act more white”.
I’m not quite sure when change happened, but eventually it did. For a long time, I was this really smart black girl who spoke “properly” and read Game of Thrones and then suddenly I wasn’t anymore. If I had to guess when my mindset shifted, it would be around the time I came out publicly. So about when I was 15/16. Around this time, I began to care less about how blackly I was being perceived and more about how gayly I was being perceived.
The grand reveal that I was problematic didn’t happen until long after I stopped behaving like that. No one ever told me I was obnoxious and full of self-hatred. I had to figure that out myself. I think people thought it was okay to have me acting a whole fool because I was smart, and there was a lot of fear about me not ‘making it’ because I was black. There is a really old mindset that being smart comes second to being black, unless you’re willing to conform, which I obviously was. I think people thought that it doesn’t matter how smart, rich, or successful you are if you’re black while doing it. In a way, they are correct about that. The first thing anyone will ever notice about me is that I am black, whether they mean to or not. Racism is still raging on today, so there is no guarantee that it won’t affect me. I have seen intelligence and talent wasted because the person was black and performed so stereotypically. In cases where intelligence and talent isn’t fostered because the person was too loud, too angry, or too aggressive, blackness as a performance is chosen for them as the only thing they will ever be. It was somehow okay for me to sacrifice my blackness for success. As though, you can only pick one.
I believe if change is ever going to happen, we need to allow children of color to perform as loudly, or as quietly, as they please, and see them less as people who need conformity, and more as children who have the right to self-expression. We’re getting there. It is worth it to believe that, otherwise how can we hope?
I understand why we might not want to speak about this behavior within ourselves and our communities. It’s very embarrassing to acknowledge that systematic racism left us prejudice too. It’s worth talking about though. Change doesn’t happen when people are tight lipped.
Furthermore, this type of internalization doesn’t just happen to people of color. As a gay woman, I have witnessed homophobia in the LGBT community. Sometimes I’ll look at myself and wonder if I look gay enough, if I act gay enough. Then I go, yes. Yes, I am gay enough. Yes, I am black enough. There is no one right way to perform blackness, or queerness, or femininity or masculinity, or anything else. My black card isn’t revoked because I like ‘white people things’. We need to talk about internalization; recognize the monster within ourselves before we can fight against it.