It’s been a crazy few weeks with regard to the racial climate in the United States (among other things). If you don’t know by now, tensions surrounding police brutality against black men (and women) in the US are at an all time high, as they usually are after a police officer kills a black person.
But this time feels different. This time feels transformative and interestingly mobilizing. More people are realizing that the Black Lives Matter movement is legitimate and exists to prevent the loss of the lives of black people at the hands of the police force in the US. Some people still believe it’s a cult designed to single out black people as being the only people on Earth whose lives matter and to disregard law enforcement in general, but Rome wasn’t built in a day!
Now, you’ve probably picked up on this by now: I’m a black woman. I live in these United States of America, a country with a dark history surrounding race including the capture and enslavement of blacks from their native countries in Africa, subsequently the attempted separation of blacks from the rest of society, followed by the killing of blacks by police officers and/or white supremacists. And so much more in between that has been swept under the rug. Racial tensions have always been high; and they get higher as these things happen.
And it’s real uncomfortable for black people and white people alike. It seems, though, that even though both groups are uncomfortable, it’s for totally different reasons. I’m uncomfortable because I hate conflict and wish myself and other black people could be accepted for who we are, rather than dismissed or ignored or seen as a threat because of what our skin looks like.
When you think about it objectively, people have been brutalized for the amount of melanin the melanocytes in their skin produce. For having skin that has evolved to withstand the direct sunlight on and around the Earth’s equator, where they’re originally from. So interesting and infuriating but I digress.
Growing up, I was taught both subconsciously and overtly by my parents, the media, and other adult figures to sort of censor myself in ways. Like, I shouldn’t appear loud or angry or stupid or poorly dressed or overly expressive. I couldn’t wear my headscarf in public and for that matter, my hair was chemically straightened; to the point where I felt embarrassed by my natural hair and would always play the “my hair is so difficult, I wish I had hair like yours” game with my white friends.
I realized at a later age, this “censoring” was to appease white people. To not upset them or not have them think I was ghetto or to not perpetuate stereotypes of blacks. It’s no fault of my parents or anyone else– this is a survival mechanism for not having the favorable skin color of your country’s choosing. A form of protection against what might be: unwanted comments, questions, concerns from white people. Or worse: adding to the statistics.
I can’t name all of these learnings because most were subconscious, but it got to a point where I felt embarrassed to tell coworkers and peers the black-casted movies I’d see over the weekend or that I ate fried chicken for dinner the night before out of fear that I’d get questions or “typical black people” looks (yes, we notice those looks and we can see them). I kept those things to myself, including my accomplishments and just generally stayed quiet and under the radar.
As an adult, I realize this is damaging. Not only to me, someone who felt she couldn’t fully be herself or was scared to try; but also to white people I’ve interacted with over the years of my life, who were softened by some watered down version of me. Who then, weren’t used to seeing a black girl/woman beaming in their presence.
I think lots of black people do things like this – survive like this. It’s really damaging. Because we then share exciting things about ourselves and get looks from our white peers of bewilderment (yup, we have eyes that can see looks on people’s faces) when we would rather get looks of excitement or approval. The “how did she get there?” or “how did that happen?” looks (again, we have eyes that can see these looks). The funny thing is: I can’t help but feel like I’ve played a role in those looks because I’ve hidden parts of myself for most of my life. I’ve been shy about being black.
But the recent events have shown me I should never be scared to be me.
Because anyone who I interact with should see all of me in my glory. I think as black people, we’re conditioned to hide so much about ourselves (even our pain) that we’ve become less relatable to our peers. We shouldn’t be satisfied with being reduced to stereotypes because we’re afraid to be ourselves.
As I’m nearing my 30s I’m becoming less and less concerned about what people think of me. I’ve spent too much time worrying about how I would come off to others, mostly white people. I’d worry about if my natural curves were too much, if my natural hair texture was unprofessional or unkempt, if I sounded too “black” or used too much colloquial language, if I’d be considered an angry black woman because I’m not bubbly and smiley, if I’m too different for folks to want to hang around me, the list goes on. It’s what so many black people ponder each day, trust me (if you’re a black person in America, you’re probably nodding your head “yes”).
But, who the hell even cares? Hiding is exhausting because you have to remember to do it – every day. And things are bound to slip out at some point – amazing things that make us unique and special. There are BILLIONS of people on this planet and I’m not going to hide who I am to serve a handful. The Black Lives Matter movement is teaching me to be proud of who I am because my life matters more than the thoughts and feelings of strangers or loose acquaintances.
My skin color is one of the first things people notice about me when they see me. It’s something I was born with and cannot (read: will not) change. It’s also not something I can hide. I think subconsciously I’d try to hide or “lighten” my skin color through my behavior or through hiding the “stereotypical” parts of me. Which is crazy because I LOVE the color of my skin. I LOVE being black. I LOVE being a black woman. I LOVE my culture and heritage (or what I know of my heritage). Why should I pretend that I don’t to appease anyone and to avoid weird looks or commentary?
I shouldn’t. And neither should you. No matter your background or preferences, don’t hide. Your attributes, whether you’re in control of them or not, make you who you are. You should be proud of that. Who cares what people think?! To hell with anyone who cannot accept you or me!
We live in a world full of pain and suffering. I’ve noticed over the past several months that we as humans often make the world a more difficult place to live. More difficult than it already is or has to be. Both through the way we treat other people and the way we treat ourselves.
And if it’s not clear: black people are not a monolith or a homogenous group of people. We come in different shapes, sizes, and shades. We come from different countries (originally) with different cultures and languages. We all live different lives, have different hobbies, experiences, careers, interests, etc. The one thing we probably have in common is the maltreatment and the feeling of needing to hide who we are due to our skin color. We’re fighting every day to not have to be subject to those things because we know through all of the BS we go through in this country (and the world at large), our lives matter, too.
It’s hard to figure out on what part of the spectrum I fit into that fight as a black woman. One step I’m taking for sure is to stop hiding or trying to erase or take away from my skin color by trying not to be a “typical black person.” To stop caring if people think of me a certain way because I’m black. Because being black is just part of who I am as a human being on this planet.
And I challenge you, too: stop putting so much effort into watering yourself down to please or appease people. It’s just not worth the loss.