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Published 7/11/2009

I’ve never been a sought-after celebrity, never sang a song on stage (except for that one unfortunate karaoke incident), never had the paparazzi chase me down in the street or out of a Starbucks to hang on my every word, speculate how my relationship is going based on the amount of stuff I bought and then race back to the office to talk trash about my outfit. But I can empathize with the feeling of having to be in the spotlight-ready all the time. While I’m no Halle or Rhi Rhi or Sanaa or B, I have been the only black person in a room full of white folks. More times than I care to calculate, actually. So trust and believe, this much I do know: You better be prepped for your own personal close-up if you ever find yourself the only polka dot in a sea of porcelain white.

My experience on this matter stretches back over 15 years, way back to when I was a wide-eyed freshman in high school. I had moved from a large metropolis full of all kinds of brown and bronze and chocolate-y dark people to live with my grandmother in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Straight Amish country. Fields and farms and lots of fresh air and bugs and all kinds of things that generally make city girls swat, scream and flail about. Aside from the National Geographic aspect of my transition to God’s Country, USA, there were all kinds of social adjustments to be made. I was promptly enrolled at the local high school (whose mascot was a mule, if that gives you any indication at all about the level of sophistication we’re talking about here).

Once the forms had been filled out and the shots had been administered and my class schedule had been squared away, I became the sixth black student in a population of 1,600 kids. (Thas’ right—six outta 16 hunert.) Without even volunteering for the job, I became the physically uncrowned but undisputed reigning regional Miss Black America. As far as a good majority of the students at my school were concerned (and even a hefty portion of the teachers and administrators), I was equipped to answer their every burning question about Africa, music, soul and other mystifying issues swirling around the subject of Blackness.

Why don’t we wash our hair every day?

Why did it seem like every Black person had a thousand cousins and extended relatives?

How come we walk like we’re limping?

And just what is grease and how do we use it in our heads?

History class was a trip. Music class was a trip. But the biggest laugh of all was gym (shout out to every team leader who picked me because, obviously, my skin color makes me a natural born athlete. Sorry about all those missed lay-ups and bricked jump shots!)

After my joyous graduation and inevitable release from the hallowed halls of hillbilly-ism, I moved on to college—at none other than the first Historically Black College or University, thank you very much: I needed to be surrounded by my people. But four years flew by and sooner than I expected, I found myself looking for a job, otherwise known as dancing for the man. Back to switching the way I talked, the way I carried myself, heck even the way I laughed, to appease and include the non-black company I was in—only this time, it was to tap dance my way into a full-time position in corporate America. It was much different than humoring the curious kids in my high school. Too much swagger in my walk could suggest one of two things: 1) I was one of those fabled black sex kittens or 2) I didn’t have the carriage to represent said company name with professionalism and white bread purity. And one Ebonical slip from me would confirm to them not only my inability to do the job, but the probable incapability of everyone who looked like me. That’s a lot more to think about in a job interview than your basic “where do you see yourself in five years?” line of questioning.

In social situations, in the academic arena, at the office power networking luncheon, at the neighborhood hockey game (and just what are you doing there, anyway?), there stands a good chance that you, too, will be more than just a face in the crowd. (Read: spotlight on the black girl.) So here are three off-the-cuff tips on representing black people in a less than diverse situation:

1. Don’t get too comfortable.

Once, in a conversation with a white woman at an art gallery opening, the talk initially flowed so familiarly and freely that I lost myself and hollered “girllll, please” while we were laughing. She immediately looked perplexed; I immediately felt like a dummy and we parted ways with the quickness. The point is, never become so engrossed with the goings-on that you forget that unspoken but very real rule: be a watered down version of yourself. Stay true to the real you, yes. Just give them you at 45% instead of you at 100, the you you are when you’re around your brown-skinned brothas and sista girls. Someone is bound to oppose this concept (there’s a comment box at the bottom of the page, baby) but sure as last night’s lotto numbers, you’ll lose your connection if you get too Black on ‘em.

2. Shock the crap outta them.

White folks, bless their souls, consciously and subconsciously like to throw curveballs into the conversation to prove their superiority and mental dexterity. They pull out words that regular people just don’t use on a daily basis or random facts to show off all of that sparkly high-end education they’ve received over the years. So it often rocks them down to their Birkenstocks when we can jump into the mental ropes and chop it up about whatever obscure fact or item they’re trying to work into the conversation. It helps to know a little about history, a little about literature and a lot about current events and politics, since those are their favorite subjects to broach.

3. Carry yourself like royalty.

My grandmother always told me this, and I find it to be a dead-on, can’t-even-debate-it-truth: when you know you came from greatness, you act like you came from greatness. Don’t slump, don’t slouch, don’t allow yourself to be visibly intimidated by an Ivy League degree, a holier-than-thou disposition or a complete lack of the filter that generally keeps people from asking the kinds of questions that have been posed to me in the past. Aside from ancient royalty, we have the blood of the most intelligent, charismatic and faithful people pushing us on, so all of that bowing, scraping, cowering and superficial phoniness just isn’t part of our natural black DNA. Stand tall, look everyone dead in the eye and represent.

Author’s Disclaimer: Please understand that there are some big time generalizations at work here and that though I am aware that there are Fergies and Asher Roths and Stephen Baldwins and Jennifer Grahams (my ride-or-die best friend in high school who just so happened to be white), the clueless folks, for the most part, reign supreme.

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  • somebody out there

    What you’re describing is called a “pattern interrupt”.

  • james

    Absolutely dead on, you can’t get to comfortable around white folks sad but true. As a Blackman, I feel theirs all ways a hint of suspicion against colored people in general

  • L. Hill

    Great article!

    I had a similar situation as the author-going from multicultural San Diego to White Christian Terrorist Georgia my freshmen year of high school. I have always grown up around white people (my God mother is white) so I always was comfortable around them and never felt until I moved to Georgia.

    Then I realized there were White People and “those” White People.

    Through the years you just start to detect who is genuinely interested/just doesn’t like you as a person and who is just “tolerating” you as a Black person.