During the 4th week of a dance festival celebrating cultural dance from around the globe, I watched a hip-hop dance crew made of Oakland kids. At first, I was embarrassed that the festival would include hip-hop on par with traditional ethnic rituals and elaborate, colorful, cultural dress from regions like Bolivia, Africa, and China. Dances that have survived and fostered for hundreds of years – from visualizations of hardship to re-enactments of marriage ceremonies. As the dance continued…as I realized that hip-hop has become a voice, a staying voice, just as important to our culture as any other, my embarrassment turned to shame at myself, which evolved into pride that a fairly recent American ethnic expression has been accepted on the world stage, and I started to cry just a little.
I cry for my Black people.
I cry for my Black people because even I stereotype and wrongly characterize people I don’t know…based simply on what neighborhood they live in, the color and quality of hair extensions worn, cars driven, or imperfect grammar. I cry because, how can we overcome prejudice, when people in my own race, myself included, can’t get past the superficial? It is shameful for me to say that I am more nervous in a room full of Blacks than Whites. Yes, it is appalling, but it’s true. I could blame it on the fact that I grew up in a 99% White community; I could blame it on the fact that I work with 99.5% Whites and have so assimilated into the mainstream, that I have forgotten my roots. Having spent 18 years loving a White man with blond hair and blue eyes, you could either say that I am totally un-prejudiced or you could say that prejudice overtook me. Both would probably be right. My uncle (I heard) once told my Mom ‘one day your kids will realize they’re Black’.
My children’s father, from a single parent family in inner city Oakland, once said, “I’m like the field Negro and you’re like the house Negro. They don’t mix.”
If we can’t accept all the varieties that we are, from high yellow to midnight black, from green eyes and straight hair to soulful brown, from a Harvard-educated President to a hard-working blue-collar painter, how can we expect anyone else to embrace us without reservation?
But we are wary of each other. We are suspicious that someone will try to take what we’ve got, try to take advantage of us. We are a jealous and envious clan, putting so much stock in what others think we have, with self-worth based on material possessions, that we will try to debase each other. We have adopted self-prejudice, whether strategized by others or self-imposed, and silently created a caste system amongst ourselves. We are a divided camp and easy to conquer.
I cry with my Black people.
I, too, feel the sting of being watched in a store, of having someone hold their purse just a little closer to their body as I walk by, an onlooker’s surprise as I get into my car. I want to scream from the mountaintop that I am not who you assume I am, that I might make more money than you! That my kids are straight A students, debating intelligently with me about our carbon footprint; that I have no qualms about saying who’s next in line, neither promoting myself nor conceding out of meekness, simply telling the truth, no angrier than anyone else, when tested.
And yet, why am I the only Black employee, although I’ve started to see other minorities, mainly Indian and Asian faces and, to a lesser degree, Latinos. Why is it common for me to lead conference calls professionally, and then meet someone face-to-face who is so utterly taken aback when introduced? If I sound educated, do I not also look educated? I am tired of carrying their load and mine, on my back.
“Ghetto” is a well-known term. But all too often, using the word ghetto presumes a poor Black person lacking a good education, living in inner-city squalor. Anybody can live in a ghetto and anybody can be ghetto. Living around San Francisco, you become familiar with Asian ghettos, White ghettos, and Black ghettos. It is not our term. We do not own it. But somehow ‘ghetto’ has become synonymous with Black.
How hard must we try, without losing ourselves? I know of no other race that is encouraged, no…required, to leave their heritage behind, to be accepted.
All my life, I’ve had Black acquaintances that have accused me of ‘selling out’ because I speak proper English, or said, “You can stop talking like that now. We’re all Black here.”
I’ve also had White acquaintances who think they’re complimenting me by saying “you don’t act Black” or “you’re more White than Black”.
To both, I say, “If your version of ‘Black’ doesn’t encompass me, then I’m not the one with the problem.”