In middle school with limited examples of what black is supposed to look like, realizing my identity was no easy feat. Blackness wasn’t something I actively thought about. Growing up, I was immersed in white spaces with limited access to diverse perspectives. As most black people who grow up in white spaces, I was conditioned to believe in colorblindness. Sure we’re different, but overall color does not matter. It’s the new millennium after-all and as a society we have moved past that phase in our history. Twelve year old me was blissfully unaware that this idea was only true of my white counterparts who have the privilege of not being burdened with thinking otherwise unless choosing to.
One particular day, I remember being in class, working in groups and somehow hip hop and Tupac came up in conversation. This would be the first time my blackness would come into question by someone who wasn’t even black.
Admittedly I wasn’t the biggest Tupac fan — I had never listened to an album of his in it’s entirety but I was very familiar with his signature songs and videos.
This white boy in my group gave me a begrudging look.
“Tupac? He said, eyebrow raised. You don’t even know who Tupac is.” he said condescendingly. “Name a Tupac song.” He demanded.
In that moment I knew what was behind the look he was giving me. I knew my identity was being tested. That because I “talked white” I was for some reason not viewed as truly black and couldn’t possibly be aware of hip hop music, let alone Tupac Shakur. My speech pattern made me subject to proving I am deserving of the “black card” that was bestowed upon me at birth — blackness in the mind of a white male middle schooler subconsciously or otherwise, being a symbol of cool yet inferiority.
I felt exposed. I was mortified. I didn’t know my blackness could be questioned by skinny white boys with skater shoes and emo hair.
I shouldn’t have even entertained this fool but somehow I felt I had something to prove so I blurted out the first Tupac song that came to mind. Brenda’s Got a Baby. He and the rest of my work group — comprised of other white boys — erupted in laughter. I sat helpless and ashamed, having seemingly been stripped of my ethnic identity by a blonde white boy who clearly wasn’t as big of a Pac fan as he thought he was.
The insulting implication this misguided white youth made was that he is blacker than I am because he listened to Tupac once or twice. Being that this is not the last time a white person would try to question my blackness, I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people of the caucasian variety feel this way about those who have the misfortune of being the token black person in their lives. Somewhere along the lines, white people have subscribed to the notion that they have the authority to police what is authentically black and what is not.
As an adolescent, I’m not sure I had really given much thought to what blackness meant. I didn’t realize at that point how diverse blackness could be.
Blackness is difficult for an adult to pinpoint, much less a child to wrap their minds around. The problem begins and ends by even attempting to assign a solid definition.
We are each unique in our experiences, family structure, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even knowing these things to be true — and should go without saying— it seems nearly impossible to disregard stereotypes that have been so deeply embedded into our psyches. So much so, that rather than celebrating individuality and original thought, we end up policing each other’s blackness all because of the knowledge— and perhaps fear — that white people are watching. Playing into the idea being that there is one way to sum up the black experience. Adhering to the expectation that once we leave our homes, we no longer represent ourselves; that we must be on our “best behavior” lest we risk being an embarrassment to the race.
We must be outspoken but only in AAVE and only on certain subjects. We must jump high and excel in sports and other creative arenas but no other areas. We must be respectable and look presentable at all times. Imposing this pressure on ourselves is a psychological burden that is unique to us in that there are more negative stereotypes to combat than positive.
As I mature it’s slightly easier to disregard the expectations and just be me, though there will most likely always be that lingering fear of the white gaze in the back of my mind. Perhaps it’s just an extra coming of age obstacle that all POC have to deal with? All I know is I want nothing more than to make sure the children around me are better equipped to deal with those trying to police their identity than I was.