Feeling uncomfortable in unfamiliar territory is something that most of us have experienced or will experience at some point on our lives, but Wisconsin native Danielle Small says her struggle with feeling like an outsider goes far beyond the norm.
In an essay for Salon, Danielle, who is a Black woman, says her less-than-Black upbringing has caused her to feel “uncomfortable” around her own people for the majority of her life. She says not being abreast on common knowledge and mannerisms in Black culture has always made her fee like an outsider despite her brown skin and dreadlocks obviously solidifying her as a Black woman.
Danielle recalled coming face to face with her realization during a routine visit to her hair dresser.
It happened. I failed the “black” test. My hair stylist and I were chatting while she was taking a break from retightening my locs. I made a funny quip, and she extended her palm so that we could partake in the standard Black American handshake. In what was most likely the longest three seconds in the universe, I stared at her hand in befuddlement, trying to figure out what she was doing. By the time I realized that this was the handshake, it was too late. I tried to recover with some weird amalgamation of a fist bump and a high-five, but the damage had been done. I had revealed myself to be the Carlton to her Fresh Prince.
I replayed the scene over and over in my head during my walk to the train. How could I have been so oblivious to an obvious cultural norm? This set off a mini existential crisis where I came to one of my greatest philosophical epiphanies: I’m uncomfortable around black people. This is a peculiar realization being that I am also a black person.
She goes on to detail memories from her upbringing in a predominantly white Wisconsin suburb during which many of her white peers even challenged her “Blackness” by suggesting that she wasn’t really Black because she wasn’t familiar with seemingly common things in Black culture.
Like most psychological problems, it all began in my childhood, specifically the eight years I spent living in all white towns in rural Wisconsin. If there was one phrase I heard more than “nigger,” it was “You’re not black.” Talk about irony.
Sometimes it was phrased as a “compliment,” meaning you’re one of the good black people. But other times it was meant so white people, whose sole interaction with black culture came through the distorted lens of racist media, could assert their own twisted version of blackness over me.
“I’m blacker than you because I know more Tupac songs than you.”
“You’re not black. Your lips aren’t even that big.”
“You’re not even that black. Look, my ass is fatter than yours.”
“I know so many white girls that can gangsta walk better than you.”
“You’re not black, you can’t even dance!”
In the end, Danielle admits that keeping herself isolated under the assumption that she’d be dismissed as “not Black enough” by her own was to blame for her likely missing out on things that she would have enjoyed or benefitted from, like attending a HBCU or joining organizations that may very well have helped her overcome her life-long fear.
Who knows what I’ve missed out on? How many friends I could’ve made, how many organizations I didn’t join out of fear.
For years I isolated myself from the community that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. talks about, keeping potential sources of emotional support at arm’s length. And with new hashtags popping up every day, strong emotional support systems are needed more than ever.
White supremacy takes on many forms. It’s most visible as the daily physical assault on black lives. But we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological effects of something as seemingly simple as how we define what it means to be black.
While many of us may find Danielle’s struggle difficult to relate to or even understand, it is one that many African-Americans face or have faced in society. Her brave decision to open up about what she went through will likely help younger Black people who may be going through something similar overcome their fears and embrace their culture before spending large portions of their lives in the same self-imposed isolation that Danielle became accustomed to as a young woman.
You can read her full story HERE.