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Learning to Love My Blackness: Part 3

Part III

Story 1

“Hey, why do you only date White girls?” The question unnerved me, made me immediately motionless. I was caught off-guard by this question. The tone in my friend’s voice felt innocuous enough, and yet, his words seared through me, sharp like an insult that bruises your ego. Not knowing how to respond and feeling a flush of embarrassment, akin to the time I dribbled the ball and shot at the other team’s basket during a basketball game in middle school (sports was never my forte), I simply chuckled and shrugged. Then, I promptly changed the subject.

Story 2

When I was a kid, I used to love baking with my mom. I was fascinated by the ingredients – flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, eggs – and how the combination of these ingredients, which seemed to be strangers to each other, could blend to form a delicious, succulent baked good. I’d stare at my mom in awe – amazed by how effortlessly she moved in the kitchen, knowing the precise location of every item and how she could just make food with no instructions, no recipe, no guidance. This was our time – our memories, our laughter, our love, our bond. All of these emotions, which surged inside me to the point I almost ached, left an indelible mark on my life. One day when I was in fifth grade, one of my White peers asked me what I liked to do most. With such glee and unbridled pride, I said, “I love to bake.” “That’s what girls do,” he said. I was crushed. I immediately stopped baking with my mom with no explanation. This was one of my earliest memories of feeling different, like an outsider.

Story 3

“Why do you talk like that,” he asked. “What do you mean?” “You sound funny. Like you don’t sound like other people.” My six-year-old mind didn’t know what my classmate meant. But, I knew I no longer wanted to sound funny. So, I went home and stood in front of the mirror and practiced talking differently. I tried out different voices at school. Sometimes, though, I forgot and slipped into my funny-sounding Ghanaian accent. Soon, though, I perfected my white talk, as I called it, as I got older.

Story 4

His name was Dr. Charles Lockett. And he embodied what I imagined blackness to be. He was cool, suave, radical, sure of his blackness, and you knew not to question his blackness. He was the first teacher I had who was not White, and I was now 20-years old, a junior in college. He taught my developmental psychology course, and it was the first time outside of the 28 or 29 days in February that l learned about the contributions of black people to society, in this case specifically, to psychology. During one class, he mentioned a research project he wanted to start, and because I was so enamored by him, I stopped by his office to talk more about the project. After small, trivial talk about nothing really, the topic quickly changed to the focus of his research – on black racial identity development. And I immediately felt the familiar pit in my stomach. I didn’t know a thing about what it meant to be black.

“Immigrants, we get the job done.” This is a line from a song from the Hamilton Mixtape. As the son of immigrants, this lyric resonates a lot with me. I watched my dad leave Ghana, his homeland, to build a life in America as a pediatrician. He started his own practice, sent my siblings and me to a private Christian school, paid our way through college, and raised four kids on his own after my mom passed away my first year of college. As an immigrant, he definitely got the job done. That job was learning and surviving, no thriving, in a new culture, moving through racism from his colleagues and the Immigration and Naturalization Services in the process of becoming a citizen, and raising four black kids, who by white standards are highly successful – a Ph.D., a PharmD, four bachelor’s degrees, a faculty member, a pharmacist, a computer scientist, a fashion expert, four grandchildren, and no kids who use drugs, are in jail, or are struggling financially. “Immigrants, we get the job done.”

So, as a young child, when I complained of the White kids in my class who repeatedly ignored me, made me feel small, or I believed were smarter than me, he would say, “They’re not smarter. If you work hard, you, too, can achieve. And you must work twice as hard as them.” I learned that racism mattered, even as I also learned that I could never use racism as an excuse for not making it in White America. As an immigrant, I needed to get the job done. This was a confusing message to me as a child. How could I acknowledge systemic racism subtly through the message that I needed to work twice as hard while also subscribing to the meritocratic, boot-strap individualism message that I was solely responsible for my own plight in life? My white teachers and white peers had no conception of racism, and they repeatedly made me feel stupid in my black skin and that I was merely in America by some affirmative action miracle. And yet, when I expressed my pain through tears to my dad, he told me to just ignore my peers and teachers, to not let them affect me, and to work even harder. And believe me, I tried…desperately. But to no avail. I am a deeply sensitive person whose feelings get hurt easily, so critiques and personal insults affect me deeply, more gravely than they seemed to affect my older brother.

Each of the four stories above is a story about being an immigrant, essentially, an outsider. The word immigrant means a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. When my parents came to live permanently in the foreign country of the United States of America, we resided in mostly White areas. And so, I took up residence in Whiteness. I learned White norms of beauty, success, values, and beliefs. But because my skin color was different, I could never benefit from learning those norms in the ways that my White peers did. I was relegated to outsider status even as they let me “in” sometimes, but always on their terms. Whether it was the assumption that I was “choosing” to exclusively date White girls [last time I checked, I didn’t have other options in my almost entirely White school], that baking was reserved for girls, that my accent was a problem, or that I could study black racial identity development, my immigrant status, my differentness, was pointed out, often in painful ways. As I tried to make sense of my blackness in my liking of White girls, in my interests in non-boy things, talking more white, and in observing this authority figure teacher who was not white, I often felt confused and unsure, like someone navigating a new culture. I was unsure of the norms, values, and beliefs of blackness. And the fact that I was desperately trying to fit in only worsened matters.

The aforementioned four stories are stories of pain, of trauma. I was struggling to live in my black skin and desperately trying to fit in to the white spaces I occupied. I use the word occupy purposefully to emphasize the temporariness of my occupation -- I was always a visitor in those spaces and could be told to leave at any moment, just as immigrants are. Each story is in some way about distancing myself from my blackness. Because almost all of the images I consumed about blackness were in some way negative (e.g., thugs, jail, single-parent households), I wanted nothing to do with blackness, at least not that kind of blackness. I wanted space for my particular kind of blackness to exist. In a chapter on shame, Melissa Harris-Perry noted that when you distance yourself from your blackness, you become rootless. For me, this rootlessness meant not feeling kinship with other black people, feeling excluded and like an immigrant in the few mostly black spaces I inhabited.

So, what does a boy who neither feels part of whiteness or blackness do? Where does he belong?

Who will cry for the black boy?

Who will cry for the black boy who is confused?

Who will cry for the black boy with a big heart

A heart so big it often feels like it stretches across his bony chest?

Who will cry for the black boy?

Who will cry for the black boy who has no home?

No place of safety of refuge?

Who will cry for the black boy?

Who will cry for the black boy whose skin is thin

In a world where thicker skin seems better

To shield oneself from turmoil?

Who will cry for the black boy?

Not me

I choose to celebrate the Black boy

For continuing to live and be

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