Black People Don’t Like Me
A Myth I’m Tired of Fucking Hearing
“You sound like a white girl!” those few teasing words sent me running from the playground into my mother’s arms, my face wet with tears. I was likely a newly minted six-year-old, a few weeks into the school year, at a primary school in Greenwich Village across town from where we lived. A community within a community, within a community. I grew up in a public housing development in Alphabet City, a swath of lower Manhattan blocks named after the first four letters of the English alphabet. A cute lil child with a miniaturized version of my face, the same pot belly, the same knocked knees, and I guess the same white girl voice. This was one of my first memories of being in a place where folks looked like me but also feeling and being told that I didn’t belong. I don’t remember exactly what my mother said to me, but she soothed me. Whatever it was she said offered relief in the form of a superiority complex. One that positioned me in contrast to the girls from my neighborhood.
It was from then on that I swore never to hang out with the “people on the bench.” This vow would be broken in little more than a decade, after dropping out of college and coming back home. Then sutured shortly afterwards when I regained my footing and decided to again venture outside the confines of my neighborhood. Nothing against my local homegirls, but I needed that moment then to learn that my skin color, my place in life (my class), and my gendered experience wasn’t singular. I would have to find belonging elsewhere. It was what I desired. Very much so. Feeling othered as a girl did something to transform the way I thought of myself, but it didn’t trick me into thinking having proximity to whiteness was going to make me special. There’s a lot of information available about the dangers of that kind of closeness in the general American consciousness for it to be missed. Since childhood I’ve had an acute awareness of race and the dangers of white folks and their ways. TV, film and even public-school history lessons revealed a pattern of torture, deception and destruction. I wonder if having Baby Boomer parents who experienced the violence of integration contributed to where I locate my attention. It’s likely.
There are ongoing multipoint culture wars happening online, vehemently on Twitter – and though I have my opinions, I like to be an observer. Twitter is way more fun as a spectator. I once read a tweet that that said “Every day there is a main character on Twitter. The goal is to NOT be the main character. Simple.”
So, I just mind my business, but so many, many people do not. Some days the debates (which can quickly spiral into outright attacks on folks’ humanity with the aims of destroying mental well-being) seem to come from out of nowhere. A lot of clashes are prompted by some celebrity/ internet-famous /random viral tweeter saying some dumb shit or some dumb shit resurfacing because a pop culture obsessed person had time that day to scour the nets for dirt. This might be where I would embed some tweets as examples but the rate that social media turns over they’d likely be out of context by the time they appear in this essayette. It matters though that people feel the deep urge to protect their culture and what feels familiar, it’s natural. What usually grabs my attention are the stories of Black folks justifying turning their backs on and rejecting Black culture. These discussions often lack nuance, and the 180-character form is most designed with this purpose in mind. These statements echo a lot of what I’ve heard from actual people in the real away from keyboard world.
The story sort of goes like this. Black person says: I date/hang with/only have white/non-Black friends. Often supported by a sad tale from childhood where they felt alienated by other Black people. The moment becoming evidence and a point of departure. To which I call: Bullshit. I know so many Black folk from all over this country and world who have had trouble socializing in their communities. Even those who have been few or the only in their communities, who—once given the opportunity to explore beyond the rigid confines of place, be that physically or digitally—found other Black folks to call their own. These folks didn’t indict Blackness, and then use it as means to be anti-Black.
Which brings me to my point: I know the painfully subtle alluring reminders and personal betrayals of internalized anti-Blackness. I grew up in a Black and Puerto Rican community that was rich with the machinations of the complex systems of: colorism, texturism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia—I could name dozens more. But this harm that was enacted upon me never made me feel I needed to run from my people. What it did for me at that small age, in contrast to my predominantly white primary school, was allow me to reckon with the nuance and plurality of Blackness. In the ways that I could see how Black folks were represented in TV, in movies, in books, magazines and other forms of mass communication, I knew that there were more than just the Black folks within walking distance.
No, I didn’t have some fairytale vision of my Black life with other white sounding Black girls. In fact, I struggled so hard with the complexities of who I was, even wanting for most of my teenage life to be MORE HOOD. I thought that belonging to Blackness in New York in the late 1990s was to come from a place that was MORE violent, that had MORE class and race-related stress. The confines of poverty, of the city that I grew up in, despite all that was unavailable, still held so many iterations of Black identities. On the floor of my building, there were eight apartments, all teeming with the nuances of the cultures of first our families and then our motherlands, the places from which we arrived before we landed there.
My elementary school, its adjacent neighborhood, and my subsequent queerness, (which would later be in proximity to the physical neighborhood of the West Village) were hotbeds for venturing into homogenous white spaces. I’ve had to negotiate these spaces for academic or professional advancement, but I never was fooled into thinking they had any supremacy over the ones that made me. Being invited or accepted into a room, or into a culture, a welcome does not make. I’ve always found a sincerity in making my way into various Black and now into Latinx and Asian spaces, where showing up and being yourself is the way towards welcome. I think I am lucky though, and my outgoing personality and acute people-reading skills have offered me ease into slipping into and out of community.
In the same ways I learned the importance of the sad reality of code-switching to navigate bureaucracies, I had to do the same among people of all races and classes, including Black people. Code-switching is not just about masking in order to protect myself in spaces that homogenize how I am witnessed, surveilled, or experienced. Code-switching is existing in different environments and locating the best way I would like to be interpreted. When I’m a part of the minority, this is very much a function of how to be heard in those spaces. However, integrating numerous cultures into our lexicons are not merely for survival or are solely for accessing institutions. Code switching is an inseparable part of diasporic connection. It has made being in community with Black folks more exciting and expansive because the aperture of our points of views are so wide. It’s easier to access the ways we relate or don’t.
I can imagine how alluring it might be to other oneself, to want to be outside of the margins of how Blackness is stereotyped and portrayed in mainstream media. The-respectability-to-ghetto-fulcrum for Black performance is one that needs to be trashed. It’s the low-hanging fruit when it comes to how proximity to safety, class ascension and survival are measured. It’s a spectrum that doesn’t serve me, because it’s a sham. I’m very much the product of many environments, but being where I’m from has made me shrewd, self-aware, and confrontational. These are useful characteristics for those of us who are curious.
But it’s still very much a track playing in the background of how I make choices from the personal (how I might dress) to the social (who I might find myself engaging in conversation with) to the political (how I express my beliefs). The thing is, I usually keep this aspect of my existence on the pages of my journals or in conversations with friends. And these tricky feelings change as I do. This is what motivated the scrub my Twitter Hotep phase (2009-2012), after I learned that me, my community, or my culture are not static.
Reading the comments under the Twitter threads of many of the Black-centered culture wars are so cringe though, because in the same way people are fighting for their cultural domination—determining things in the absolutes of what’s wrong, or what’s right—we miss the chance to be multitudinous. The voices that are loudest seem to be the ones who, when they experienced otherness, decided to reject the whole rather than seek out those whose otherness is centered in a lived experience. We all just want to belong somewhere. I have to remember that first I belong to myself. In my case it was talking white that othered me, but in other cases it might be colorism, sizism, classism—or some arbitrary function of (let’s be plain) white-male-supremacist-colonial thinking. That stale-ass ideology is tiny compared to the vastness of a global imagination. It seems our efforts at resistance are pointed in the wrong directions.
What would it be like if folks could transform the impulse of gatekeeping cultural artifacts? And instead design tools to illuminate cultural points of references. All with the function to expand the definitions of being Black? That feels free to me.
When I’m in certain spaces, my New York accent becomes truncated into some weird Mid-Atlantic experiment. When I’m drinking, I sound more like Remy Ma than I’d like to admit, but now I understand that in all cases I always sound Black. Talking the way I do has only put me into community with resistant, political, wayward and divergent Black people. I’m better because of it. Respectability politics can be convincing enough to thrust oneself away from what seems to be the parts of a culture to be ashamed of, but it’s not enough to turn my back on such a rich way to go through life. At six years old, I wiped my tears, and I ventured on, knowing that if being me in that place wasn’t good enough, I would have to go elsewhere, and that was okay.