Growing up in predominantly white spaces was tough, not just because I was the only Black person in my classroom, but because I was constantly being told I was doing it wrong…
One of my first memories was in first grade. I was the middle of explaining my favorite part of the Lion King when I was interrupted by a classmate: “Why do you sound so…white?” I’m not sure what they expected me to say, but even at five, I was already used to hearing it. I heard it most often from various older family members, and at such a young age, I wasn’t equipped to properly defend myself. Thus began the complex relationship with who I was as a person, and who I was as a Black person.
I began to think I was inherently wrong — all wrong — everything single thing about me, and I kept it all to myself because I assumed every person I knew thought the same thing about me. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.
“You speak so properly,” my mom’s friends would chuckle, with inquisitive looks. This, after I finally found the courage to say something in public. “Why do you like this kind of music?” my mom asked me, when I played Switchfoot as we drove to the grocery store. When you’re in a place where nobody looks like you (like a classroom, a city, a state), and they’re telling you something’s wrong with you, you believe them. When you’re in a place where everyone looks like you (like a household, a family reunion, a church), and they’re telling you something’s wrong with you, you believe them. White supremacy had sunk its teeth into my classmates, my own family and myself, and I eventually had to learn to confront it. But first I needed validation that who I was was ok — a flare in the dark. I craved something that flew in the face of this idea of levels of Blackness — a supposed monolith — or the idea that if I didn’t fit within its walls, I was in no man’s land.
I remember reading Ashley C. Ford’s story about embracing her beautiful Black body with her white boyfriend, and her unapologetic love for Kenny Loggins’s music, and clung to it. I read essays by Samantha Irby and Bassey Ikpi and healed layers of myself I didn’t know were wounded. I read Song of Myself by Walt Whitman to discover my inherent glory as a human being and listened to anthems by Lizzo, to know the worth of my bigger Black body.
It took me years into adulthood to fully come to terms with myself, to no longer be the shy cousin at family gatherings who didn’t speak much for fear of teasing, to dump white friends who relied on my discomfort as the “White Black Girl” of the group, for their entertainment. I started to make room for my own expressions of Blackness, which sometimes includes listening to the best of 90s Punk Rock. My Blackness doesn’t have to look like that of my Black colleagues, my mother’s, my father’s or my relatives who looked like me but didn’t sound like me. It is much less about learning how I should be and more about affirming the person I am, explaining her favorite part of The Lion King, uninterrupted.
(Photo by Aaron Siskind.)