I can remember the first time someone said something to me directly questioning my Blackness. It has happened a total of 3 times in my entire life (ha – to my face, anyway). I will tell you about each of those instances in this post (among other things) but, as I do that, I’d also like to examine what “Black Identity” means in 2021.
The First Time My Blackness Was Questioned
I was young. I don’t remember my exact age, but I do recall being near the end of middle school. Like late 7th grade or early 8th grade.
My older brother had recently moved out of our childhood home to live on his own. He got a place far away from home where he stayed with one of his friends. I remember going to see him, full of excitement. This was a fun new experience for me and a chance to bond with my big brother in a way that I hadn’t ever done before.
My big bro seemed free. He was enjoying his newfound independence and not having to adhere to our parents’ rules. And his roommate (who we’ll call “Roomie”) was a good guy. I liked him the most out of all of my brother’s friends.
Roomie had two kid brothers who were about my age – and, while we were all young Black men hanging out, it was exceedingly clear that we had grown up in two different worlds. Still, the eldest of the younger brothers was my age, and we started hanging out – even without our brothers present. We were an odd pair.
I was the kid who didn’t like hanging out with large groups, who was always drawing or watching cartoons, and who didn’t feel any rush to grow up. Roomie’s little brother? Well, he hung around his older brother much more than I hung around mine – and it showed. Although he was my age – he was into women, cars, and money way before I gave either thing any serious thought.
But we got along great! We played video games all the time and picked on the youngest of Roomie’s brothers because he was like 2 years younger than we were (good times).
I’ll never forget one day while my Roomie was dropping me off at my house, he had the little brother with him that I hung out with the most. We laughed and caught up on our day, and then out of nowhere – the little brother said, “Maaaan – you talk white!” with all the energy that you’d expect from a middle schooler. The two brothers laughed while I just kind of sat there, a little uncomfortable.
I mustered up a little bit of courage and worked up the nerve to ask a question that I would find myself remixing 2 other times much later in my life. I asked him, “What does ‘talking Black’ sound like to you?”
I wasn’t angry or anything in my tone, but I was genuinely curious – and clearly serious. I really wanted to know what this kid who I had hung out with many times at this point thought “Black” sounded like. At a loss for words, the car fell silent for about 2 minutes. I am proud of the fact that I silenced them with a simple question to this day.
We never talked about that subject again for as long as I knew them, but we all stayed good friends until they moved out of the city.
What does it mean to “Be Black”?
You would be surprised if you knew how often this could be a topic of discussion among younger Black kids growing up. When a Black child asks this question, they don’t mean it as any kind of abstraction similar to how grown thought leaders ask it. No. That kid is directly asking about the concrete expectations they have to meet, of society and their peers, as they grow into adulthood. Haha – and it’s something they pretty much only ever ask other kids (at least that was my story).
And as I got older, my friends and I realized that we could never 100% answer the question because it’s a stupid question with no answer.
We all learn that there isn’t a set definition.
*Takes a deep breath*
I have Black friends who all grew up in poor-to-middle class predominantly Black neighborhoods, but have never had a single altercation with a police officer. I know a few of them who can play instruments very well but can’t dance to save their life (like they have NO rhythm). Pockets of them don’t know squat about Black History or pop culture and would fail miserably at the game Black Card Revoked (and Uno and Spades). Some of them didn’t have a sexual encounter until marriage.
Some of my Black friends hate fried chicken and don’t like BBQ. Some of them loathe watermelon. A lot of them SUCK at sports. Many of them aren’t religious. They span many sexual identifications and preferences. Groups of them love rock music (and tons of other genres including Hip-hop and R&B). Some of them hate rap music. Some of them didn’t grow up listening to Motown. Some of them have never smoked a single thing in their life.
A few of these Black friends grew up going to very white schools. Many of them come from families where the parents didn’t divorce. A few of the men are the most sensitive crybabies you’ll ever meet. All of them have degrees. While many of them who have families have married Black spouses – some of them didn’t. None of them have a criminal record. Some of them HATE spicy food, some of them are vegan, and some of them can’t cook (sorry, peeps). There are some who wouldn’t dare say the n-word.
It is cliché to say at this point, but we (Black People) aren’t a monolith.
The Second Time My Blackness Was Questioned
The second time I was put in the awkward position of justifying how Black I was (or wasn’t?) happened MUCH later in life in the D.C. area.
I was having a few beers with coworkers during an after-work event at our office. We were outside on the lower-patio in the back of the building because it was summertime and we regularly had these social mixers (for lack of a better term) where we’d get a keg and a few bottles and relax and enjoy each other’s company (love my job, folks).
One of my coworkers, who had clearly drunk a little too much, approached me. I forget what we talked about because I became so triggered by what happened next. At some point in our conversation, he said something like, “[Blah blah blah] Yeah, because sometimes I forget you’re Black!”
He was cracking up, and I wasn’t. Hahaha – I was stuck. I didn’t know what to say because I was sober as hell and just dumbfounded. We were friends, but we weren’t friends LIKE THAT. AAAAAAAAND this was the first time a white person had ever said anything like that to me.
There was a lot swimming through my mind. But, since it was just the two of us having a one-on-one conversation off to the side of the larger group, I gave him two pats on the shoulder and told him that he’d had one too many to drink and should slow down. Then I slowly leaned toward him, with my eyes locked on his, and – with a smile on my face – I told him (quoting), “Don’t ever say shit like that to me again.”
He immediately apologized.
And then I asked him, “What do you even mean [by your question]?” This was all as I laughed a fake-laugh in his face and continued to drink my beer.
I was admittedly still heated about the comment. So much so that I almost entirely dropped my code switch for work (I have one… every Black person you work with has one).
He didn’t have an answer, just apologized with a look of shame on his face – and we moved on.
As a Black person in America, (sadly) you have to pick your battles and decide what to let slide and with whom in social interactions that cross an unspoken line. I still consider this guy a friend.
We Come in Many Shades
Like many other cultures, you’ll find subcultures in Black America. Pretty much any variety you think of among… say… White People… You’ll find among Black People. The terms might not be the same, but the variety is there.
I’ll just show you this video as an illustration (from one of my favorite sources – Jubilee):
Seriously – it’s a wonderfully done video that proves a point. Check it out if you have some time.
The Third Time My Blackness Was Questioned
The last time my Black Identity was openly questioned was probably the most egregious and uncomfortable for everyone involved, but it is also the one that let me know I probably have a few more of these moments waiting for me in the future.
This was months after that second story in the same place. Hanging out with a different group of coworkers. I promise my job is really cool, but these two instances just happened to occur there — and I’ve only had one job in my time in the D.C. area, so if any coworkers are reading this… sorry?
Rather than this particular story having a warm and carefree outdoor summertime vibe, it was cold. A chilly December had arrived, and we wanted to warm our spirits. As luck would have it, a small team I worked with was celebrating and invited me to a nearby bar to have free drinks with them after work. Nice!
Anyway, alcohol hadn’t really begun to flow. We were all literally one beer in. Everyone was sharing stories about wild times from their past, so I decided to disclose something that I did with a group of friends, back in my hometown, during my recent Thanksgiving vacation. (Nothing too wild. I only broke 1 law – it’s ok.)
A White male in the group interrupts me in the middle of the story and then says, “Wow – finally! Sometimes I forget you’re Black!” (Sound familiar?) This was at a group full of 8 people of mixed racial composition (Hispanic, Asian, White, and me).
He was pleased with himself. I honestly don’t know if that was something he’d always wanted to say to a Black guy, or just to me specifically – but he super-proud. I still remember the smugly-satisfied look on his face.
Happy as a clam.
His manager on the other hand? She looked mortified.
I have never seen a person turn white with fear until that day, but that manager (a White woman) turned a pale complexion that I didn’t know was humanly possible. Maybe her reaction was driven by embarrassment, or maybe it was motivated by fear that I was going to raise an HR complaint, putting her reputation on the line (which I’d never do – she was cool people in my book and didn’t deserve any flak for this situation).
With an appalled look on her face, she was stumped. The table had gone silent. A very comfortable White male had successfully managed to make a table half-filled with minorities go mute. And I know why they did — this was traumatic for them. It was a situation that no minority ever wants to be in: Having a White coworker put you in a tense pubic racial situation where you have to choose between your pride and professionalism in front of your peers. That is a real fear.
But, oddly – I was incredibly cool about what had just transpired, and I didn’t let the silence go on for too long because I didn’t want to miss the golden opportunity for my reaction.
Timing was key.
I let maybe 5 seconds pass as I took another drink of my beer, and then I very confidently asked him, “What does being Black mean to him?” as I took another sip with my eyes trained on him over the rim of my frosty glass the entire time. I put my glass down and gave him the kind of smile you only see a Black man drop if a racist is held accountable publicly.
I am not saying my coworker who blurted out that ridiculous comment was racist, but his comment? Yeah. It was a microaggression at the least, and blatantly discriminatory at its worst.
Others at the table smiled as well because they knew where I was going with this. I wanted him to realize that he’d just made an ass out of himself and came off as a fool. I forget what he said, but the point was made. We had our immediate collective revenge at his expense.
We all continued having our drinks and the night went on.
That was the third and final time (so far) that I’ve had to ask some remixed version of that question from my childhood.
So, What Do You Mean by “Black Person”?
Black People sometimes have to answer questions about their identity to other Black People…
So… I ask that question of everybody reading this regardless of ethnicity.
Do you see someone you admire when you picture a Black person? Do you see someone you look down on? Do you see someone who is kind and multifaceted? Or do you see someone who is dangerous and very easily defined in generic terms? Do you respect this Black person you’re picturing? Do you think Black is good? Do you think Black is bad? Would you be upset if your child was romantically involved with a Black person? Do you think all Black People are the same? Do all Black People look alike? Does Blackness make you feel guilty (yes, this question can still be directed to a Black person)?
I am not trying to come at you with these questions. Answer them however you answer them.
But… Think a bit before you answer. Especially if you’re Black.
Be honest. I think that’s the first step. Honesty.
Probe your mind on Black Identity for a few minutes and decide if you’re comfortable or uncomfortable with whatever concept you have in your mind.
Wherever you land – positive or negative – own it, and then accept that you still haven’t seen it all.
Blackness isn’t a checklist. Blackness isn’t a club that you need certain credentials to certify membership in. Blackness isn’t static. Black Identity in America is internally fluid and adapts to the environments it’s exposed to. Black Identity in America is externally in flux – as it always has been.
I look forward to seeing what Blackness will look like as I continue to grow, and I’m proud of my Black Identity. It is a beautiful thing (whatever the hell it is).