A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published this piece titled “‘The Very Real Racism’ Within the Black Community.” I approached the piece with high hopes, but I was immediately disappointed when the opening letter from a reader, Allene, included this quote:
For the life of me, I cannot understand how black people are so quick to recognize racism as directed towards them from whites, Latinos, Asians, et al, and miss the very real racism that exists within our race from one another.
This gave me pause, but I soldiered on and continued reading. Unfortunately, it looked like Allene wasn’t stopping there:
While being black requires us to respect our culture and heritage, it’s difficult not to be influenced by a culture, our culture, where black women are often not accepted as being intelligent, desirable, and beautiful by black men. In my own black life, most of the black men I encounter either wanted to dominate me (“You need to be tamed”) or insult me (“Your husband ain’t going to want you when he can have his pick of Asian women when he returns from Vietnam”—way to go, uncle, with the generous compliment about my physical attributes).
I don’t know why black activists feel that each and every black person in America must be black before any other aspect of their personalities and lives. I have been called an Oreo Cookie because of the way I speak, where I live, and the people I choose to have/share my life with.
I cannot and do not carry the burden of my ancestors’ bondage any more than I carry the scars of being disenfranchised in an alien land that robbed my people of a language, a culture, a land. As a black American, I cannot return to Africa. In Africa I am also considered to be untrustworthy, a bastardized offshoot of a people long ago sold into slavery by people with skin the same color as mine.
Begrudgingly, I finished reading the piece, and then I immediately started penning my own response to Allene—a response that is steeped in my lived experience as a Black woman in America, growing up in a family that embraced all facets of Black culture:
Like Allene, I’m an American, and I come from generations of Americans. But I know that there are millions of people who still view me as an outsider because of my race. My Black ancestors weren’t considered to be human when this country was founded, much less a citizen of the United States. Throughout history, people who look like me have been marginalized in the most brutal of ways, and that continues in 2016.
Allene says she doesn’t carry the burden of her ancestors, but she’s still living with the legacy of slavery, no matter how much she wants to deny it. She may not have someone call her the N-word, but systemic racism is pervasive and far-reaching. Generational wealth disparities, housing and mortgage discrimination, sentencing disparities, racial profiling, police brutality, the achievement gap among students, unemployment disparities, the fact that resumes with Black-sounding names don’t get calls—these topics just begin to scratch the surface of the myriad hurdles that Black Americans still face. These hurdles still exist because of the legacy of slavery and second-class citizenship that Blacks have faced in the US and still continue to face now.
After reading Allene’s letter, I was dumbstruck by how different our experiences have been as Black American women in the US. I felt her sense of detachment from the Black community, and it actually saddened me a bit—I’ve never shared those feelings. I grew up in a home that celebrated Blackness, and my parents surrounded their children with as much Black culture as they could. I grew with a bookcase full of books written by Black authors, with Black characters. Every doll I had was Black, and every film in our movie collection was a Black film. I was exposed to Spike Lee, John Coltrane, Ralph Ellison, and other Black artists. My parents took us to festivals and events that celebrated Black culture, and every December we celebrated Kwanzaa as a family. In my home, Blackness was not a thing to be ashamed of; it was to be celebrated and worn as a badge of honor. In short, my parents taught me that being Black was lit.
My parents exposed us to almost every facet of Black life, but they also gave us extensive lessons in Black history. While our public schools only taught about slavery (briefly), the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement, my parents supplemented our education at home. I think we were the only kids who had to write book reports on Black history before we were allowed to go outside and play. At the time, I thought my parents were nuts—it was not until I went off to college at a PWI (that’s a Predominantly White Institution) that I had my a-ha moment. What my parents spent my childhood doing was building me up, so that when society tried to tear me down, I’d have the strength to withstand it. And withstand it I did: when I had classmates treat me like an oddity in chemistry labs, or boldly told me that I was only there because of affirmative action.
It may seem like I lived my life in a little bubble, but I had (and continue to have) friendships and relationships with all types of people, not just Black ones. My friend circle is as diverse as the UN, and I’ve dated my fair share of non-Black men as well. As great as each of those guys were, it wasn’t lost on me that there were some things about my life they simply would never be able to understand and relate to. I did not date the man who is now my husband intentionally because he is Black, but it has been a source of comfort to me that we are able to relate through our shared Black experiences. My husband also grew up surrounded by Black culture, and like me, he’s often been the only Black person at work. We have differences like all couples, but we have an unspoken understanding when it comes to race, and what it’s like being Black in America.
bringing it all back home
Just a few weeks ago, a Black man named Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer just ten miles from our home. The morning after the shooting, I hugged my husband fiercely as I begged him not to go to work, begged him not to even leave our apartment. The gravity of the situation struck me deep in my core—a Black man just a few years younger than my husband had been killed near our home. What if it had been my husband? Will they see my husband the same way and shoot him simply for reaching for his wallet? How can I keep him safe and make sure he comes home to me each night? How can I make sure he’ll be here to help me raise our unborn baby? All these questions and more ran through my head as I sobbed that morning. I still worry about my husband’s safety, and I ask him to come home safe each time he steps out the door.
I haven’t gone through my life wearing my Blackness as a scarlet letter—it has and continues to be a source of pride. But I don’t pretend that it doesn’t have its challenges, and there are times when I’m overwhelmed by the stress of it all. I feel the weight of what it means to be Black in America—the enduring legacy of slavery, the decades of second-class citizenship, the enormous gaps between Black and White Americans in almost every category. I know that employers are less likely to call me for an interview when they see my “ethnic name,” that as a Black woman I make less money than both White men and White women, and that there are a myriad of other issues that affect Blacks disproportionately.
I recognize the extra hurdles that Black Americans must tackle in pursuit of success, but I don’t wallow in it. Instead I choose to embrace the joy of the Black American experience.