Last week while on Twitter I saw a link to a Salon.com article written by Danielle Small about being black yet being uncomfortable around black people.
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.
I had no idea there was a certain handshake among black women.
Where does this discomfort come from? And why do I think of Blackness as a test I am doomed to fail?
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.
Years and years ago when I was working part time while in high school a white co-worker was bitching about the white manager she had crush on who loved black music. Apparently she couldn’t stand black music. She called it n-word music to another white co-worker. I turned around and looked at her and she said she didn’t consider me the n-word since I was one of the “good black people”. I just rolled my eyes and kept moving. When my best friend from high school got a part time job at the same place months later I warned her about the white co-worker and her n-word usage.
In the foreword for the book “Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes: “There are 40 million black people in this country, and there are 40 million ways to be black … I do not mean to suggest that we are all of us in our own separate boxes, that one black life bears no relation to another. Of course not. We are not a monolith, but we are a community.”
There is no set way to be black. And it’s certainly not written in stone. Just because we’re black doesn’t mean we all have the same upbringing and personality types. You have black folks who grew up in the hood, those who grew up in rural areas and those who grew up in the suburbs. Some of us grew up in all black neighborhoods, some in mixed neighborhoods and some in all white neighborhoods. Some of us grew up in two parent homes, some in single parent homes. Some of us were raised by grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins. Believe it or not some blacks can’t stand rap music. And some of us love rock music. You have black folks that love classical. Nothing wrong with that. There is no set rule that says black folks are only suppose to like music by black folks. There are some black folks who can’t sing even though they swear they’re the next Aretha or Luther, lol. You have black folks who dance like Carlton Banks and some who dance like they’re having a Soul Train flashback. Some of us are loud and boisterous and some of us are quiet and reserved. Blacks are cool, nerdy and everything in between. Some of us attended HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) and some of us attended PWI’s (Predominantly White Institutions). Attending a PWI doesn’t make you less black. There are 40 million black folks in this country and we all have our own unique personalities, likes, quirks, beliefs, etc. Despite these differences in black community we still have to be on guard when it comes to racism and the fact that in the United States we are not living in a post racial society.
Check out Salon.com to read Danielle Small’s entire column.