Tag Archives Internalized racism

Guest Post: My Blackness is Enough

Nearly 200 million people in the world identify as African or African-descended. Like Europeans, Asians and other “racial” groups, our culture, languages and experiences are extremely varied, despite the fact that – especially in the United States – we’re often seen as one large, indistinguishable group.

For my first guest post, I’ve asked Mary from Verily Merrily Mary to share her experiences growing up as a Nigerian-born black woman in North America. I met Mary through a bloggers group and enjoy her thoughtful and absorbing writing. I hope you enjoy it too!

My-Blackness-is-Enough explores the struggle of a Nigerian-born young woman growing up in the United States as she discovers what it means to be black | Guest post by Very Merrily Mary on The Girl Next Door is Black

 

She confided in me about her cross-cultural dilemma. Her trust in my perspective came to light when she explained,

“Cuz, you know, you’re not black.”

Yet I look like this:

Mary from Verily Merrily Mary as seen on The Girl Next Door is Black

Dear readers, I am here to officially announce that my whole life is a lie.

Melodrama aside, I know what she meant; I’m not Black American. Since I originally came from a non-Black American background, she knew that I would empathize with her. She, like me, was a non-Black American who was deeply supportive of her Black American friends and their culture. But to her dismay, they didn’t support her Hispanic culture, refusing to go out to events and dances that celebrated it. It was too different for them, too far from their comfort zone.

I visualized them talking, picturing the look of disappointment on her face when the same gesture of support wasn’t extended to her. If you saw them, you would see that they looked different; she was a lightly-tanned Hispanic girl with long, subtly wavy hair and her Black American friends had kinky, coily curls, one of them light-skinned and the other one dark-skinned.

Say she left and I entered the room to be in the company of the two. Say you had no knowledge my background. Unless you’re one of the select few who are able to pick up on my African features or the Canadianness in my accent, you’d probably think I’m nothing but a Black American.

And then my life story would laugh in your face with one big, “Well on the contrary…”

The abridged version is that I am Nigerian-born, Nigerian-, Canadian-, and American-raised. Prior to my move to the U.S., I lived in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I did my first three years of elementary there and in almost every setting, I was the only black person among my peers.

Nigeria on map of the world from "My Blackness is Enough" on The Girl Next Door is Black
Source

Victoria was most definitely one of the whitest cities in Canada and it showed in my school as my dark skin and my Minnie Mouse ear-shaped pigtails stuck up in their poofy, gravity defying glory. But I was comfortable in childhood innocence, aware of the difference in skin hues and that I was outnumbered, but oblivious to the idea that someone could treat me badly because of it. In Canada, the only identifier I used to mark me as different was “Nigerian.”

Then I moved to America and found out I was also black this whole time.

In South Central Kentucky, I saw more people who looked like me, so much more than I saw in Canada. I was happy and intrigued by this and made an effort to play with the black kids in school. I was in third grade at the time and from then even up till high school in Southern California, I tried my best to fit in.

I made a few black friends; however, most black kids (and a few white kids) whom I interacted with, were suspect to the legitimacy of my black identity. It was as if all knowledge of my Nigerian and Canadian background was erased in their memory after I told them about it. All they could see was a black girl with an American-sounding accent in the context of an American city and they expected me to play the role of the Black American without blinking.

They didn’t realize that Black American culture was something I was brand new to; that the jargon, the music, the mannerisms that I observed to be ways in which fellow Black Americans would greet and bond with one another, were things that I didn’t know off the bat. I had to learn them. As long as I remained unaware and/or did not practice those things (as I did sometimes during my childhood to prevent any uncomfortable scrutiny toward to my identity), I was “white” according to many of those Black American kids (and a few white kids).

Interestingly enough, it was often the white kids who befriended me more than my black peers. While the white kids were mostly inviting, many of my black peers never failed to verbally bully and laugh at me nearly daily. Phrases like “Go back to Africa,” noises mocking my African identity, and putting me on the spot only to publicly harass and humiliate me weren’t exactly heartwarming gestures.

When it came to white people, while there were some who genuinely liked me and my family for who we were, they generally liked my family because of three things:

  • I wasn’t “like those black people”
  • We were African
  • We shared the same Christian faith

As a young child, bitter towards the black kids who treated me horribly, I took my distinction from “those black people” as a compliment. They said I was articulate, that I had class, and I was well behaved. I had white approval and I was content with that though I didn’t realize that white approval is what that was. Finally, people who see my value! Or did they?

The fact of the matter is I had ingested internalized racism and it became one hell of a drug. As many of my black peers bullied me, I mocked them behind their backs, sometimes even in the presence of other white people who laughed along with me. It also happened with a few other black kids who also received the seal of white approval. It was a tragic scene of black people from different lands pitted against each other. The kind of thing that white colonial people would have applauded, except now it was white people in the 21st century.

They say that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Though my Black American peers and I made blackness our abode in beautifully different ways, us black people – often hailed as the originators of civilization – were divided among ourselves to the point where we could not stand together.

Abraham Lincoln once said "A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand". | As seen on The Girl Next Door is Black

The other thing that attracted white people to me and my family was our Africanness. Part of it was intrigue. Another part of it was condescension: their assumed idea that we were lowly Africans far removed from anything Western, when the very existence of Nigeria’s borders and the fact that English is Nigeria’s official language are all thanks to Britain. Western culture was forcibly ingrained in our culture thanks to their colonization. Interestingly enough, white people would vocally support me when I would be equally as vocal about my irritation with people’s ignorance with Africans and the African continent. Not so much when racism was the topic at hand, however.

As I got older, that intrigue, – specifically from white men – became lust. A number of them (and a few men of color) were taken not only by my black womanhood but my African one. To them, I was exotic, a possible contender to fulfill their “African Queen” fantasy. Somehow, that was supposed to be consistent with the claim that they “don’t see race.”

When it came to race, I was well aware of white sensitivity to it. As such, I was always tiptoeing when discussing race around white people, making their comfort a priority over confidently speaking my truth. However, I stopped caring about their comfort, as I became more aware of my cross-cultural dilemma, realized there was a name for it, became more self-confident, forced myself to walk into my university’s Black Student Association meeting wanting to no longer be bound by fear due to my horrific experiences in school, and made awesome, substantial friendships with black peers.

I realized that many of the white people I was surrounded by also prioritized their comfort over me effectively speaking my truth. As you would expect, many of my white friendships aren’t as strong as they used to be. I realized afterward that it is probably because many of the ones I was surrounded by were mostly right-leaning in their political stances. Nowadays, those close to me tend to have cross-cultural experiences and/or are people of color.

Nigerian Egusi Soup
Egusi Soup
Source

The bottom line is no matter whom I interact with, no matter how I may come off to them, my blackness is enough. The experiences that shape my black identity – though they stretch beyond the United States – are just as valid. I have been shaped by hip hop culture, by the taste Egusi soup that always brings Nigeria to mind as I eat it here in The States, by the African American Vernacular English that pops out naturally one minute and into Nigerian pidgin the next, by the company of my Black African and Black American friends, as well as by my love of nature and swimming that made for a carefree black girl in Canada. All of this and more has shaped me into the black woman I am today.

As I think of my black brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, in Latin America, in Europe, in other African and Asian countries, as well as in Australia, I am reminded that blackness is everywhere; that “black” does not automatically mean “Black American.” I am only fortunate to have experienced just a little taste of black diversity, so if my blackness is nuanced in any way from how you are accustomed to seeing it, let it be a reminder to you that blackness is not a monolith. My blackness, in all it’s complicated, nuanced glory, is enough.

Verily Merrily Mary Headshot | The Girl Next Door is BlackMary is a Nigerian-Canadian-American third culture kid and immigrant with an overactive mind and an obsession with words. Music, scientific research, dancing, and discussing culture are some of her favorite pastimes. She likes Saturdays.

If you’re interested in more of her work, visit her blog, Verily Merrily Mary. You’ll also find her on Twitter (@verilymary).

 

The Sneaky Privilege in Greeting Cards


Greeting cards on display at retail.

Earlier this year I was lounging at Starbuck’s with my friend V, who is Chinese-American. A friend of hers, also Chinese-American, was getting married to a half-white/half Japanese-American man.

She told me, with some sheepishness, “You’re going to kill me, but I bought a card for ___ and ____ with white people on it.”

I laughed.

“Why would I kill you? It’s not like I’m some militant “black power” chick. ‘You must only buy cards with people of color on them!'”

She chuckled and nodded.

“But, let me ask you this,” I continued, “would you give one of your white friends a wedding card with a happy Asian couple depicted?”

She thought for a beat and answered, “No. No, I wouldn’t.”

“That’s all I’m saying. You can do what you want. But, if you would think twice about giving your white friend a card with a non-white person on it, why wouldn’t you think twice about the reverse?”

The answer is pretty simple. In our country, the dominant culture is white, of European ancestry. White is considered “normal” or the “default.” To not be white is to be different, other, a minority.

*****

When The Hunger Games movie was released last year, a subset of moviegoers were less than thrilled to discover that two of the characters, Rue and Thresh, were played by black actors. One particularly warm-hearted malcontent tweeted, “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”

Well, damn. To me, that comment suggests that this person doesn’t see a black life as valuable as a white life. Seems pretty racist to me.

Amandla Stenberg played Rue in "The Hunger Games" film. | photo cr: mockingjay.net
Amandla Stenberg played Rue in “The Hunger Games” film. | photo cr: mockingjay.net

As Anna Holmes rightly identified, in her article in The New Yorker on the “The Hunger Games” tweets, “…the heroes in our imaginations are white until proven otherwise.” Again, white is the default. Some people assumed Rue and Thresh were white. It should be noted, as people who read the books (including me) pointed out, the young adult novel explicitly mentions Rue “has dark brown skin and eyes” and Thresh has “the same dark skin as Rue.” Why shouldn’t there be black characters in The Hunger Games (or Asians or Latinos)? We exist too and we should also be represented, and not superfluously to fill an invisible quota or to simply play the sidekick propping up the white hero. Also notable about the book, is the fact that Rue and Thresh’s skin color was explicitly mentioned. Often when characters are white, their color isn’t addressed. It’s often only when a character is a person of color or otherwise “different” that their ethnicity or race is explicitly stated.

The fashion industry loves to use the words "nude" and "flesh" as colors.
The fashion industry loves to use the words “nude” and “flesh” as colors.

Many of my friends have heard me rant about the fashion industry’s use of the words “nude” and “flesh” as colors. Those colors are basically tan or beige, maybe peach. When I look at my flesh, it’s brown and decidedly not tan. When I am nude, I am still brown, not beige. Those color terms, as innocuous as they may seem, represent just a slice of how pervasive the dominant culture is in our country. “Nude” and “flesh” are normal. If I want an article of clothing or an undergarment that closely matches my skin tone, the color won’t be called “nude”, it’ll be “chocolate” or “deep brown” (and likely there will only be one dark shade, but many more lighter shades).

Concerning oneself with the lack of ethnic diversity in greeting cards, or taking umbrage at the terms used to describe colors in fashion may seem trivial to some. I very much disagree. It’s all too easy to internalize the idea that you are somehow inferior to the majority or the dominant culture, when you don’t readily see representations of people who look like you. When people who look like you are considered abnormal – outside of the norm.

I cannot count the number of friends of color who have shared with me stories of “the time they wanted to be white.” Their reasons varied from they “wanted to be like everyone else,” to they “wanted their family to be like the white families they saw on TV.” More harmfully, however, there were expressions of the desire to be more “conventionally attractive.” There were fears their nose was too wide, face too flat, butt too protruding, hair too nappy, skin too dark, eyes not large enough and so on. We, the “different ones”, should not have to live in a society where we feel excluded or somehow less than. The prevailing standard of beauty in this country is a European standard of beauty that more often than not, doesn’t include people of color. Yes, there are exceptions, exceptions some are all too quick to name when they want to avoid acknowledging potentially discomforting realities. However, these exceptions prove there’s an issue.

Some people of color bleach their skin to achieve the lighter, brighter tone they think is more desirable. | photo cr: politics365.com
Some people of color bleach their skin to achieve the lighter, brighter tone they think is more desirable. | photo cr: politics365.com

The famous “doll experiment” from the early 20th century aptly demonstrated the internalization and implicit acceptance of a white standard of beauty. A group of black children were given two dolls: one brown with dark hair and one white with blonde hair. They were asked questions such as which doll they’d prefer to play with, which was nicer, which doll had a nice color. The kids showed a clear preference for the white dolls. When the study was repeated in the 21st century, obviously with a different set of children, the results were sadly, quite similar.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark conducting the Doll Test (Harlem, New York, 1947) © Gordon Parks
Dr. Kenneth B. Clark conducting the Doll Test (Harlem, New York, 1947) © Gordon Parks

I remember being told once as a kid, by a black female relative, “Don’t stay out in the sun too long; you’ll get too dark!” The subtext of that warning was, of course, that being “too dark” would make me less attractive. Internalized racism is real.

I don’t want to take anything away from anyone. I want to be equal. I should be able to feel good about the body I was born into. I deserve to feel good about the body I was born into. It’s real work to feel secure in a society that tells you that you aren’t normal. As much as I’ve built up my self-esteem, I still find traces of that internalized racism lurking down deep from time to time. It horrifies and disgusts me. Even a black woman, who is aware these issues exist, I am not impervious to their power.

It’s not just about a card (or a doll, or birthday decorations, or “nude and “flesh” colors) to me. It’s so much more.

The idea that we’re living in a “post-racial nation” is a bad, bad joke. We are still not equal. As long as these minor, but cumulative signs and symbols of racial power and subversion continue to exist, we are not and will not be equal. In the same way that women fought and continue to fight for equality, including challenging existing male-centered, patriarchal language, we have to do the same for people of color. This is a call to everyone to examine the ways in which our society still doesn’t acknowledge and include all of its citizens and work to change it.

From Hallmark's Mahogany line | photo cr: hallmark.com
From Hallmark’s Mahogany line | photo cr: hallmark.com

You can find greeting cards for purchase online that encompass diversity. However, it would be nice to be able to walk into a standard drugstore or greeting card store and have a varied, diverse set of greeting cards to choose from. There are Spanish-language greeting cards. Further, Hallmark has a separate line of greeting cards specifically for African-Americans. This is progress. However, these “speciality lines” are segregated in store displays. There are the “normal” cards with images of inanimate objects and / or white people and then there are the “other cards.” Segregation, even among greeting card displays, doesn’t demonstrate inclusion. It should be considered “normal” to have diverse sets of people represented on greeting cards, whether those people are black, white, Asian, Latino, multi-racial, gay, disabled, etc. The faces of Americans are ever-changing and our societal artifacts should reflect as much.

*****

A few days after our greeting card conversation, V and I visited Papyrus. V wanted to find a more suitable card for her friends. I’d picked up some Christmas cards there, one batch of which featured a tall, thin, brown-skinned woman, with long-flowing hair in a fashionable outfit. She didn’t look anything like me other than the brown skin, but it was a close enough representation for my satisfaction. We weren’t able to find a card representative of her friends, unfortunately, so she ended up purchasing a card without people on the front flap. Problem solved…for now.