I was never “Black” enough for the Black kids in my high school for whom society and dominate culture media would deem examples of “The Black Experience.” If a reporter came to my home looking for examples of the stereotypical “Black Experience” they would have found, lots of Tofu, whole grains, Golden Legacy Comic Books, handmade Christmas Ornaments, yearly PBS “Eyes on the Prize” viewings, in house play dates with the only Caribbean family that lived in our neighborhood, weekly trips to the Union Square Farmers Market, and the Food Coop in Brooklyn where my mom has been a member for years. They would have found me reading and journal writing obsessively while staring out the window of a large bedroom at a guy who I had a crush on who incidentally was probably living the life most likely to be voted as the “Black Experience” at least from the outside.
I used to buy into that bullshit too. I was as scared of outspoken, rambunctious, healthy black males in high school as any latently racist white person crossing the street to avoid them. Classism breeds these kind of destructive notions. They thought I was an “Oreo,” that I didn’t speak “Black,” that I thought I was all that. I thought they were too loud, disrespectful, “Ghetto,” mean and scary. None of us went any deeper than that until after a few years and even then, it’s taken me several High School reunions and a series of enriching friendships with people from different backgrounds to really appreciate the fact that among people of color, there is no “Black Experience.” What the fuck is that anyway? I never hear critics review movies with all white casts using words like “a slice of the White experience.” I do understand the need for the term in the Black community but from the mouths of White people it just exposes the usual narrow-minded ignorance that makes the daily news.
People of all colors, cultures and backgrounds have a human experience. Media sells us these categories to perpetuate a sense of classification, which unfortunately raises the constructed experiences of “Whiteness” to the level of sought after preference while it devalues, dehumanizes, denigrates, marginalizes and falsifies the experiences of people of color.
The funny thing about “Whiteness” though is that most everything they promote is stolen from an historic ethnic and or urban culture to be appropriated and repackaged on White faces and constructed White lifestyles. Am I saying that White people have no culture of their own?
I’ll go even further and say this.
Whiteness doesn’t really exist, just like “The Black Experience” doesn’t exist. Think about the definitions of each given to us in the media and really think about if you believe it’s true. The reality of what Black people experience in America as they navigate the odds of systematic racial profiling, poverty, bogus drug wars and a racist educational system is not “The Black Experience.” But it is the experience of a lot of Blacks.
Growing up, I didn’t experience poverty, drive by shootings, violence, a one parent household, or living in the projects. In fact, now when I think of it, I can see how specific incidents in my childhood communicated to me demonstrably, that people who did experience these things were not as valuable as me. For instance, growing up in Brooklyn my brother and I were strictly forbidden to run the streets with the kids in the neighborhood. I remember the strange tension I would feel climbing down a stoop with my brother and parents through a gauntlet of stoop sitters from the building and the neighborhood. They looked up at us with judgment. And we made sure to be friendly without really engaging. We made our way through to go off to some cultural and our extracurricular activity and we never really connected with these people. I never played hopscotch or double-dutch or handclapping games with the girls on my block. No time was spent on hot Brooklyn Summers running through illegally opened fire hydrant floods. Mine was not the Spike Lee directed Brooklyn “Black Experience.” I was pulling up weeds in the Children’s Garden, making Kachina dolls at the Brooklyn Museum and filling my head with stories at the RIF club in the Brooklyn Public Library.
But I remember those hopscotch and double-dutch, hand-clapping girls. I wanted to double-dutch. I still thrill at the skill of double-dutch. I still don’t know how to do it. I used to mimic their movements as a girl at home when I was alone. I guess we all miss out on experiences we wanted to have because of invisible gaps and lines we didn’t draw and don’t understand the meaning of.
I just know I don’t want anyone defining my experiences for me but me. When I wore apparel in High School that said, “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” It was in response to a dominant White culture that told me my experience wasn’t as important, valuable or significant because I lived in Black skin. That’s the reason I chose to start my locs in high school. I wanted to be an example to Black girls my age that being natural was okay too, that it was in fact just as good as straightening or relaxing, or hair extensions all of which I had done to my hair as well. But I was also told by some of my Black peers that my experience wasn’t shit to them because it wasn’t “Black” enough. That confused and angered me. I guess it still does. But as an adult, I’m very careful not to respond to those kinds of one-dimensional assessments by being one-dimensional myself. I know that as people of color, our experiences are broad, complex, diverse and ridiculously untold by popular media and culture that would have the world believe that the “Black Experience” is the single story and that the experience of those who define themselves as White is just the human experience.