Have you ever been at a family function and been told that you talk or act like a white girl? Have you ever been in a meeting or classroom and had all eyes turn to you when the subject of anything “black” (be it gangbanging or Kwanzaa) comes up in conversation? If you answered yes and yes, I feel your pain my sister! Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I used to feel pain in such encounters. In recent years, I have come to understand that those situations don’t really have to be either/or-type deals.
The neighborhood I grew up in was certainly not the worst in Detroit, definitely not the best, but not quite middle-class either. I knew who the prostitutes were, I could pick out the crackheads pretty quickly and I dutifully stayed away from the near-by park that was littered with dirty needles and stripped cars. Underneath all that though was a rich and textured comradery among the people in my age group. It was a bond that was nurtured during countless trips to the corner store and solidified under working streetlamps where we analyzed life with adolescent know-it-all-ness on long summer nights. They were my people and unlike my middle-class friends from school, I never felt ashamed or embarrassed to let them in my house. Most of my extended family lived a lot like I did (and they happen to be the funniest most charming people I know), so though I did not grow up in an ideal setting, my childhood was a fairly happy one, all things considered.
Fast forward to college. My sister and I were the only girls on our block who did not become teenage mothers and part of the handful of folks who went to college straight from high school. When I talked to my childhood best friend (she had one child by then) on the phone during my freshman year, I told her something about some dude I liked. She quickly admonished me and forbade to use the word “dude.” When I came home during Thanksgiving break, she told me that I was dressed like a white girl. That was an interesting observation, especially considering the fact that I bought those jeans and that sweater while I was in high school. I was hurt and insulted by her comments and felt the need to prove my blackness somehow.
As the years passed, I got similar reactions from my family. I noticed some people would change their diction around me or make ridiculous assumptions about my views on certain topics. I felt like an outsider. In college and later on in graduate school and at work, I would get the outsider treatment too. When I joined a student government group and we had to come up with a dance routine for a regional conference, I was the only black person doing that part and they tried to force me to choreograph the routine. One girl got very upset with me that I refused to teach them how to dance. I guess because I was black, I was supposed to automatically be able to dance a jig and teach massa a step or two. In countless classroom and boardroom situations I was made to feel that I was THE representative for all black people and/or that I had to unequivocally justify or eradicate certain stereotypes.
Years of living that dual consciousness that W.E.B Dubois spoke so eloquently about, made me tense and resentful and more likely to cocoon myself within a group of friends who were very similar to me demographically. I got out of that though. I don’t think there was a particular light bulb moment, but slowly and surely, I came to see that my ability to successfully function in my hood and my achievements in school and in my career(s), were equally culturally significant and worthy of sharing.
I am not two beings. I am a woman with a plethora of diverse experiences and sharing those experiences adds much needed depth to the tapestry of human interactions.
I learned that I had no need to feel ashamed for using a four-syllable word at a wedding reception. There was also no need for me to feel embarrassed that I could break down the lyrics of a hip hop song in a sociology class and explain the layers of meaning. I am not two beings. I am a woman with a plethora of diverse experiences and sharing those experiences adds much needed depth to the tapestry of human interactions. Yes, I am from Detroit and yes , I love escargot. The first time I had a helping of those delicious snails I was in Paris on a romantic vacation with my husband. You wouldn’t necessarily know either one of those things by looking at me but they are both part of who I am and damn it, they go together.