Okay, this is going to be lengthy but bear with me here. Being a person of color in America is an inexplicably complex state of being. Being Black or African-American adds another layer of complexity. I'm not complaining, just stating facts. Blackness, unlike political affiliation, class association or sexual preference cannot be lost or found, does not fade or waiver. If you are born black, you die black and there's nothing to debate. Old time black folks have a saying, "There are only two things I have to do in this life, that's stay black and die." (Other variations include staying black and paying taxes but that's a whole different post). I'll also take a moment to acknowledge the multi-racials who often aren't given a chance to declare their race one way or the other. The way this country works, once you are perceived as any part of black, you are lumped in here with the rest of us (sorry, Tiger).
In addition to the association of blackness vs. whiteness or any other race, an African-American also realizes that there are perceived levels of "blackness" within our own community. Bougie blacks have an even tougher path to walk. We face bias both inside and outside of the race. We have to be "non-black" enough for White America (well spoken, non-threatening, calm, educated) yet still "down" enough to hang with our own (talk the talk and walk the walk). How many jokes about Bryant Gumbel's "lack of blackness" have you heard? What makes him more or less black than anyone else? Does he really need to rock a FUBU shirt, hold a rib in one hand and drop quotes from the Jay-Z Songbook?
Here are just a few things I've noticed that seem to weigh in on the scales of blackness…
Speech – Chris Rock tells a joke in his HBO special, "Bring the Pain" about how the main stream media emphasized how Colin Powell "speaks so well." A large portion of my life has been spent trying not to wince when white people tell me, "You are SO well spoken." Think holding back the wince is hard? Try holding back the scowl when your own people ask you, "Why do you talk so white?" Argh! What is talking white? Using proper English and embracing all the syllables? What is talking black? Talking fast and lyrically with a lot of slang thrown in? If you can put English and Spanish together and get Spanglish, how about I put the Queen's English and Ebonics together to form Quebonics?
Assimilation – I went to a private school through 9th grade. My older sister and I were 2 of the 5 black girls in all of k-12. Suffice it to say, everyone knew who we were. At least once a month, some shocked parent would say, "You are not like any other black person I've ever met!" Yes, I know – I speak so well. On the flip side, when attending my youth group meeting at the predominantly black church I attended, I overheard a disgusted parent say, "She's not like us, she goes to that private school." People, I was 12 and just trying to find my place. If I was too black for the white folks and too white for the black folks, where did that leave me? So I learned to adapt and compartmentalize. I listened to two sets of music, read two types of books, and talked two different ways. At one point I had separate sets of friends (that never overlapped) and attended completely different kinds of events. Yes, it was exhausting seeing the Kinks one night and Kool and the Gang the next.
Money – While it's recognized and perfectly okay for rappers, entertainers and ballers of color to have bank; bougie blacks get the side eye when they've acquired some outward signs of upscale living. When I was in California, I met a gentleman and agreed to meet him out for a date. I arrived at the restaurant at the designated time and pulled into valet parking (I'm bougie and I had on 4" heels, okay). BrotherMan was standing outside and watched me climb out of my car. It's a German-Engineered luxury four-door sedan. I came around the car and said hello. His entire demeanor was salty at best. "What's wrong?" I asked. He said, "Oh, that's how you rollin', all material and whatnot? Okay – I think we're done here. I keeps it real." Me and the valet were like – huh? Bouge rule #10 – Don't hate, congratulate!
On the opposite scale, two days later I stood outside a mall waiting for my car when an older white gentleman handed me his stub and a five-dollar bill saying, "It's the blue Volvo." Was I dressed like a valet? No. Did I not have a shopping bag in one hand and an Italian leather purse in the other? Just as I contemplated letting my inner Shaniqua loose, his wife rushed over and took the ticket and money from me, "Honey, she doesn't work here." Damn skippy. When my car pulled up and I slid in, he stood there with the red face, mouth open. (sigh) So either I'm too black to own this car or I'm not keeping it real because I drive it? In the Cartoon Network series The Boondocks (check it out if you haven't seen it), Riley Freeman says, "People always hate when you shinin'."
Location – Black people, don't hate me for living in the suburbs. I grew up here. Where is here? Nowhere near the hood. I know not from hood. Am I less black because I don't have an "up from the ghetto" tale to share? No one is knocking Dr. Dre for leaving Compton so why must I encounter hate for not wanting to move there? Conversely, white people – stop asking me about ghetto things or how to get there. I am not a ghetto GPS. If you want to find the hood in any major city, start by locating MLK Ave, Malcolm X Blvd and/or Cesar Chavez Fwy. (Okay, I know that's wrong but stop me if I'm lying!)
Clothing – I grew up preppy. Bass loafers, khaki pants, oxford shirt, grosgrain ribbon for a belt with a deep commitment to Keds and Topsiders. As time have marched forward, so have I… to a point. Baggy is still not in my vocabulary. Trendy is held to a minimum. I still tend to skew closer to "classic" than "fly". My work wardrobe staples include the navy "interview" pantsuit, the red "power" skirt suit and a rotation of khaki staples that I flavor up with bright tops, great accessories and shoes that grown women envy greatly. I still believe that things should "match" but discreetly.
I don't do raggedy. There are no clothes with holes or faded spots anywhere in my closet. When I was moving from one apartment to another in San Francisco, my girlfriend said, "Even your moving clothes are bougie." I had on a denim shirt, navy leggings and denim Keds. I thought I looked like a bum. I was told that bums don't match their shoes to their shirts on moving day. And then we have my colleagues at work (read Caucasian) always proclaiming, "You are always so well put together, I couldn't pull that off." Is that a compliment? Me throwing a scarf over a basic jersey two piece outfit is flashy and therefore inherently black?
Tale 1) Covert Racism - In 7th grade my mother enrolled me in Charm School. Yes, people – charm school. This is where one goes to learn how to walk with a balanced and elegant gait, how to descend stairs like a lady, pour a tea service for eight, and sit properly in public as well as skincare and beauty regimens for the well bred and gentile Southern belle-in-training. Shock and surprise, I was the only African-American belle-in-training enrolled.
Twice a week, my mother would rush me home from school, have me change out of my uniform, make me scrub myself to spit-polish shine, don a button-down shirt with knee length skirt and loafers before shuttling me back to charm school. I thought she was crazy, these were the same girls I saw all day, and most of them came straight from after school events in rumpled uniforms and grass-stained socks. Not for me, not while Bougie Mom was in charge.
The fifth session was on beauty and skincare. A consultant from a department store brand of beauty products was there. She wanted to show us how to clean our faces. She asked for a volunteer, looked around the room and pointed at me, "You, come on up, we'll clean your face." I looked over at my mom whose face had turned to stone, she gestured for me to go up. The lady (blonde and over-made-up) proceeded to give a lecture about how sometimes you thought your face was clean but it really wasn't. She doused a cotton ball with some expensive tonic and swiped my face. "See the-"she paused, there was no dirt on the cotton ball. "Huh." She was confused, got a fresh ball and swiped behind my ear, still no dirt. Then my forehead and my neck, none and none. "Well, someone is really good about cleaning their face," she said it with fake cheer before saying, "You may sit back down." She called up another "volunteer."
I just remember the front of the room where the students were sitting started clapping as I slid off the stool. I paused, were these white folks clapping because I was clean? With typical irreverence, I executed a royal curtsy (yes, we were taught that too) before sitting back down. Then I looked at the back of the room were my mom sat with the other moms, they were all huddled up talking to her. It wasn't until the car ride home that she explained that they were apologizing to her. I didn't really understand what the issue was until much later in life. I was so naïve that I didn't even realized the woman had called on me, the only black in the room expecting me to be dirty when in reality out of the eight girls she swabbed down that night, I was only spotless one in the crowd.
Tale 2) Overt Classism – In 11th grade, I went to a retreat with my church group. Out of about ten churches with 200 kids, we were the only black church represented at the Methodist youth camp. On the last night there, we gathered in the great hall to play Jeopardy. We split into teams and it started off as Bible Jeopardy. Since we had that down, they switched to regular Jeopardy. As the questions got harder, the team leaders could swap out members they thought were weak and replace them with someone from another team. For the first few rounds, the black team stayed intact, though we were answering questions well none of the white teams wanted any of our members nor did our team attempt to import diversity.
The last and deciding group of questions were music related, Soul Train, Motown and Top 40 hits. My team leader (a boy I thought was a friend) turned to the team, pointed to me and announced, "Her siddity ass don't know nothin' bout this, I'm trading her." To their credit, two good friends protested but the rest of the team sided with him. They shipped me over to the team that was closest to us in points. I was so upset; I was almost in tears but determined not to show it. The poor little white team looked no happier to have me. The director of activities said, "Okay, she gets the first question, if she gets it right, she gets control of the board."
I proceeded to answer the next 14 questions (Steve Perry is the lead singer of Journey, Smokey Robinson wrote My Girl, yes I'm sure!) correctly including Final Jeopardy (Sting's real name is Gordon Sumner! In yo' face!) leading my Caucasian adopted teammates to a resounding victory. No, a trouncing. Sometimes it's classier to let your actions speak for you but that did not stop me from pointing at my trounced team leader and shouting, "Don't let the siddity fool you, I know my music." I'd like to think I taught the whole camp a lesson that day about making assumptions but who knows. I learned that once again, I had to prove that I was more than the labels the world placed on me.
All of this to say what? It's hard out here for the bougie? Yes. Our own President was accused of being elitist for eating arugula but militant for doing a fist bump… that's the fine line the educated, upwardly mobile Black American tiptoes on every day. I can't speak for all black Americans, I don't know if other segments of black America are made to feel not black enough in their own community but too black outside of it. What I do know is that until people learn to accept each other as is, without labels… the debate and duplicity will continue. What do you think? With so much division within our own race, will there ever be true post-racism? Do you have any stories of "black but not black enough" stories to share?
What do you think? With so much division within our own race, will there ever be true post-racism? Do you have any stories of "black but not black enough" stories to share?