Welcome to Being Black

Welcome to Being Black

In every black person's life, there's a moment when they go from believing their blackness merely serves as another descriptor, like "she has a slight overbite" or "he snorts when he laughs," to their blackness and all the complications surrounding that identity becoming the number one thing that defines them. Remember in The Amazing Spider-Man when Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, "With great power comes great responsibility"? And then Parker turned into Spider-Man and went on to be celebrated by society for his heroism? Well, realizing you're black is exactly like that, except in the place of special powers, an uncle who is mad chill about your newfound special powers, and everybody high-fiving your awesomeness, there's the following: coming to terms with being treated like the "Other," accepting that a lot of people will view your actions as either defying or affirming preconceived notions about you, and figuring out ninjalike ways to escape the circle coworkers randomly form around you and another black person because they're hoping a dance battle will pop off. 

To be fair, these kinds of adjustments happen with every race, every sexual orientation, and any group that does not fall into the category of "straight white dude." However, because of the centuries-long antiblack sentiment in America, it seems that some want to assign particular characteristics to blackness as a means of flattening or dehumanizing people. Blackness is not a monolith. There's nerdy black, jock black, manic pixie dream black, sassy black, shy black, conscious black, hipster black...the list goes on and on. But some people don't want to believe that, because if varying degrees of blackness become normalized, then that means society has to rethink how they treat black people. In other words, if you allow black people to be as complicated and multidimensional as white people, then it's hard to view them as the Other with all the messy pejorative, stereotypical, and shallow ideas that have been assigned to that Otherness. 

And it can't be understated that these ideas become internalized, no matter how hard you fight them. As a result of these negative labels, for example, I and other people wind up adjusting our behaviors to counter the negative stereotypes or to avoid becoming the butt of jokes. I'll overtip to combat the stereotype that black people don't tip well. Most, if not all, of my black friends have been mocked for speaking intelligently, yet if their diction were poor, they would have been dinged for that. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, as they say. In my apartment, I'm more hesitant to blast Missy Elliott than Sting for fear of my neighbors being like, "Of course, the black girl is playing hip-hop loudly like she's on the set of Breakin' 2:Electric Boogaloo." So the peeps in 4A, that's why you hear "Fields of Gold" on the damn repeat. Sowwie! Anyway, the point is this type of hyperawareness is taxing. 

Given that it's such an important aspect of a POC's identity, it's interesting to me that I can't remember the first time I ever realized I was black, in the sense of how the world viewed me. Normally, I would chalk up this blank space in my memory bank to nothing more than getting older, except there are other, slightly less life-defining things that I remember to a T. Like that time when I tastefully explained what the X-rated term hummer meant during dinner with my ex-boyfriend's family, and somehow ended up charming everyone in the process. Seriously, I was breaking down a randy sex act to his family, and I was like "Jennifer Lawrence falling up the stairs at the 2013 Oscars" charming. I remember that moment so well, but the moment I truly realized I was black? I got bupkis. There was no aha moment, no "Ohhhhhhhhh, I see. The game. Done. Changed. For. Me. Moment." Maybe because I'm a child of the '90s, which was a much better decade to be black than the '40s, '50s, or '60s, which were eras where the racism was so palpable that the moment when blacks recognized they were viewed as the Other would be firmly etched in their minds forever. Not that racism didn't exist in the '90s --- hello, Rodney King! --- it's just that the kind of racism I might have been exposed to was less Little Rock Nine and more "after-school special  where everyone learns a lesson." So since I can't remember when I realized that everything was changing, the next best thing is to recall the most recent time I was reminded I'm black. And like any story about funky behavior due to race, the setting for this tale is...a Michaels craft store in Manhattan....

So I ordered [a] frame job from Michaels and went to pick it up a few weeks later. It was shortly before Christmas, but the framing department was practically empty, save for two employees, one white and the other racially ambiguous, or as it's called in the biz: Liberal Arts College Pamphlet Face. They were tapping away at their computers at the counter, seemingly just going through the motions of a typical workday; meanwhile, I was excited because I was about to see my career achievement in a frame. I approached them all smiles...and, nothing. No acknowledgement. Under normal circumstances, that would be ominous, but since this happened in NYC, the rudeness is standard-issue. A few minutes passed, through, and both employees had walked past me multiple times to get printouts, frame parts, etc., and had still failed to address me. I was slightly annoyed by that point, but I was on that "new year, new me" ish early, meaning I stopped approaching life as though my finger was on speed dial to Al Sharpton. This is not to say I had been wrong in those previous instances; I wasn't. However, constantly being on guard for racism can make one age in "old black people during the civil rights era" years. It's similar to aging in dog years except that you say, "Lord, I'm weary," all the time, and whenever you're at a wedding, you always ask the DJ to interrupt the dance party and put on a Nat King Cole slow jam. Anyway, despite my annoyance, I made sure to remain calm. This is messed up. I know they see me. I'm a five-foot-seven black woman with a red weave, I told myself, but I'm going to rise abo ---- HOL'. UP.

A white lady wearing striped socks with wooden clogs - a style I normally think is incredibly stupid, but on her, looked hella cute - waltzed up to the counter and in less than ten seconds was helped by Liberal Arts College Pamphlet Face. I thought this was weird, but I tried to not take this personally, and I hoped that now the white employee would acknowledge me. She did not. Still, I said nothing because I wondered how long I was going to have to wait to get service. Turns out, quite a bit of time....

Now, getting shitty customer service at the frames department in an arts-and-crafts store is pretty much the crux of #MiddleClassProblems, especially in comparison to how black people were treated fifty years ago. But just because this slight by the Michaels employee doesn't register high on the racism Richter scale doesn't mean it's something to ignore. Micro-aggressions like this accumulate over days, weeks, months, and they shape my experience as a black person. And this is not to say there aren't many wonderful things about being black. There are, and a lot of them have been absorbed by pop culture - fashion, music, food - but still, there are tons of things about being #TeamMelanin that blow. 

Like how if I leave the race/ethnicity box empty on a site like Monster.com, I'll get more job inquiries from employers than if I were to check "black." Or how if I go apartment hunting solo, landlords tend to be ruder to me than if I bring a white friend along. Or those reminders that I'm not welcome to audition for casing calls via the following stipulations: "No braids, no twists, no dreadlocks, only natural hair color allowed." Riiiiiight. Because the casting directors are totally going to turn away every brunette white actress who shows up with blond hair. All those things and many more reinforce the idea that who I am is the problem. And in the case of the Michaels incident, it seemed the universe was using this to say, "In case you forgot, I'm here to remind you. Welcome, once again, to being black."

To read more of Phoebe Robinson's YOU CAN'T TOUCH MY HAIR: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, you can purchase the book here, or in many of your local bookstores. 

Coming Alive: Part 1

Coming Alive: Part 1