Not black enough

by guest contributor Tami Winfrey Harris

A couple of months ago, I asked my stepdaughter about a young, black student at her school. “She’s okay. You know she talks like a white girl. At first I thought she was weird,” she replied.

The comment struck me. You see, I’ve been that “weird” black girl—that not-black-enough girl—all of my life.

I was 12 years old and new to a predominantly black school the first time my “black card” was revoked. My gaffe? Saying “you guys” when “ya’ll” was the preferred parlance for black kids. Also not helping my race cred was my affection for pop music. Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” was on heavy rotation in my bedroom. The fact that I was a bookish honor student sealed my fate. I was a pop music loving, book reading, Midwestern twang having little girl, and in the eyes of my peers, not black enough.

Years later, I arrived on the campus of a big Plains state school with a tiny black population. My dorm mates, who were mostly white, embraced me and became my closest circle of friends. We bought season tickets to football games, hosted floor parties, participated in intramural games, and traveled home with my each other on breaks. I quickly learned, though, that being seen around campus with white friends too often was a faux pas among the school’s black community. Soon, I saw the rolled eyes and heard the familiar hiss of “white girl” when I passed a group of black students. They seemed not to know that I treasured the friendship of black women, too. All of my closest friends in middle and high school had been black. And in college, where I was so often the only black person in the room, I sometimes longed for the shelter of a group that looked like me and shared some commonalities of culture, but I worried that I’d find rejection among other blacks who had already branded me an outsider and not black enough.

Five years after college, I was one of only three black employees on the professional staff of a public relations agency. One of my co-workers, a black woman who I had considered my friend, informed me that other blacks in the office had reached the conclusion that my speech pattern, the one I’ve had all my life, was insincere—an attempt to “sound like a white girl.” Oh, and I spent too much time with my white colleagues and not enough time speaking to my black ones. I remember feeling a familiar lump in my throat and stinging in my eyes. Not black enough. Luckily, my black colleagues thought I could be redeemed. Most of them wouldn’t even speak to the new black woman in the office, who “sounded whiter” than I and had failed to reach out to other blacks. She really wasn’t black enough.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I moved to an exurban town north of a mid-sized Midwestern city. The town of roughly 30,000 people has a Mayberry-esque town square and plenty of cornfields, despite a recent development boom. When my husband told a black colleague at his new job where we would be living, she sniffed, “What, is your wife white?” Once again—not black enough.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am…because it stings to be rejected for simply being me. The old “you think you’re white” charge is one of the ugliest ways people of color find to alienate one other. It feels more objectionable than well-meaning white friends who assure, “You’re not like other black people. You’re different.” I expect a prejudiced and patriarchal mainstream to try to push me into a stereotypical box, but not other black people.

It is colonized thinking that I hear too often from those who should know better. Witness the hand-wringing over Barack Obama, the “not black enough” presidential candidate. Even Jesse Jackson accused Obama of “acting white,” never mind the senator’s record of service to Chicago’s black neighborhoods. On the other side of the political spectrum, Condoleeza Rice is regularly branded as not black enough. Now you may, as I do, deplore Rice’s politics, but does being a black woman mean that you don’t have the right to think and form your own opinions, no matter how misguided? Did my ancestors not fight for hundreds of years for the freedom to make their own choices about their lives?

So, what do I tell my stepdaughter and stepson, who have lived most of their lives in a segregated community and have developed narrow definitions of what it means to be black enough? How do I give these children that I love, the freedom to be themselves outside the bonds of racial stereotype? And how do I teach them to give other people that same freedom? I’m not sure that I know. So much of parenting seems like fumbling to me. But here is what I do. I gently challenge them when they label behaviors and interests “black” or “white,” “Asian” or “Hispanic.” I encourage them to be open to new experiences, not just ones common to their peers. I try not to let racial assumptions creep into my language. And I try to be an example by showing that I am confident in myself and my interests, and not defined by race or gender.

Here’s the deal. I love Jill Scott, John Legend, Aretha Franklin, the Dixie Chicks, U2 and classic Journey. I don’t have much rhythm, but I can belly dance. I love collard greens and corn bread, and sushi, too. I faithfully watched “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World,” “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” I dated men of several races, but married a black man. I think Lewis Black is hilarious; Eddie Griffin is not. I read bell hooks and Agatha Christie. I am a liberal Democrat with a strong belief in personal responsibility. I was raised a Baptist, but I love to hear the Dalai Lama speak. This is me. Call me weird. Just don’t call me not black enough.

Tamara Winfrey Harris is a communications and marketing professional living in central Indiana. An aspiring writer, Tamara blogs at whattamisaid.blogspot.com. You may reach her at whattamisaid@gmail.com.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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