I like to read pieces by different authors on the same topic. One of my favorites to explore is how black identity, “blackness,” is constructed for people across the diaspora. Many of the pieces I read focus on societal stimuli, seeking an answer to the question, “When did you first realize you were black?” We know that black people represent all different ethnicities and cultural practices; no one is making the case that the race is monolithic. In which case, what does it mean to be black? Does it mean anything? And if it does, how does one become black? These were questions that I had developed the lexicon necessary to ask by the time I was in college. But I believe I was black much earlier than that.
I’ll have to concede that my experience of becoming black is strictly through an American lens. I know that this perspective is limited, but that is what makes the diaspora so fascinating and so difficult to contain. There’s power in it that way, where there is also sometimes difficulty. I was raised with two black parents, mostly black and brown friends, in the city of Atlanta where black entertainers, politicians, and business-owners thrived. I listened to hip-hop and r&b, my parents had those same zebra and elephant figurines that every other black kid’s parents had. I never had to think about being black or performing blackness. I just was.
I made good grades and didn’t always have the most stylish clothes, so sometimes I was accused of “acting white,” by my black classmates, but I never took it to heart. The only white people I knew were my teachers and a couple of families in my neighborhood. I was pretty sure I didn’t act like them, so it never stuck with me. I went through elementary, middle, and high school (even after transferring to a private, mostly white high school in the 10th grade) doing my thing for the most part. I was aware of whiteness, racism, and othering, but also aware of my black skin, cultural indoctrination, and the fact that some people wouldn't like me for it for little-to-no reason.
It started in college. I’ve always viewed college environments as microcosms of American society. The difference is, based on the leadership and culture, which students (more so than typical citizens) are integral in forming, the little societies can shift significantly in much less time than the big one, embracing things like equality, safe spaces, and culturally sensitive programming as indispensable to the cohesion of the community. College, on most campuses in America, in an incredibly white space. As soon as I stepped foot on campus, I was rocked from all sides with tension and oppression from the geography and the people. I met students who had never gone to school with black people before. I met professors who openly embraced racist and white supremacist ideology in their teaching of American history. The walls were closing in on me. I felt isolated. Stifled. Small.
That’s when it happened. I started becoming black.
I started with history. I learned as much as I could about the black experience in America and abroad, from people who had written on the topic from a critical perspective. I communed with my peers, older folks. We compared notes, we shared similarities and differences from all angles. This gave me a sense of comfort in my experience. It helped to know I wasn’t the only one who had ever experienced the things I felt on that college campus. It was terrifying to know that people had been feeling the same emotions I felt for centuries. Nothing was changing. It was only transforming. I started becoming black, in my mind, when I began to assert my blackness, and to make space for it in spaces where it was challenged or cast aside. I felt internally that this was the right thing to do, but I felt uneasy that my blackness was being defined in opposition to whiteness. Did whiteness, and oppression, and racism have to exist to validate blackness? Would racism ever stop? And even if it did...what would that mean for the black identity?
I continued to grow, in age and experience, and also in the comfort of my blackness. I learned more, advocated more, and helped others to advocate for themselves. I met new challenges, like being confronted in my workplace for having an Afro, an “unprofessional hairstyle.” Being assigned all the team projects that called for engagement with minorities. Or even being the only non-silent team member during moments of clear exclusion or disregard of people of color by senior leadership. I found comfort in the head nods from unacquainted black people in my work community; stolen glances with my (very few) black co-workers when the manager unknowingly committed a micro-aggression. Or even sometimes having a client choose to do business with my organization because knowing their consultant would be black gave them a sense of trust. I found comfort in the unspoken bond between many black people that causes us to support each other as second nature. I proudly added that element to my definition of blackness. The balance felt good.
My journey continues. We are in trying times, and without much life experience myself, I’ve found myself in numerous roles that call for guiding and advising younger black people as they face their own, unique challenges, but also some of the recurring oppressive tropes from throughout history. I know that one of the clichés that is often applied to the black identity is strength. But I believe in it. Not in a stock character, or subhuman sort of way. But in a bold, adaptive, persevering sort of way. We have lost so much to gain even more. And as one of my role models, Assata Shakur, says, “...we have nothing to lose but our chains.”