A few years back, a white colleague quipped: “Well, you’re not really Black, Christine.” It was one of those times you struggle to come up with the right response to a microaggression on the spot. Outrage? Teaching moment? Laugh it off? I chose the third (and still regret it). But I was somehow less angry about the comment than about the shame that flared up in me in its wake. It was painfully racist, yes, but it also hit a soft spot: a sort of racial imposter syndrome, the feeling that there’s a “right” way to be Black (or Latina, or Jewish, etc.) and that you somehow fall short.
I come from a long line of strong Black ancestors, straight outta Alabama, and it would be laughable for them to worry about being “Black enough.” And yet, it’s an anxiety I’ve carried most of my life. I’m not alone in that experience, given my discussions with other Black women, many of whom were, like me, raised in the post Civil Rights era, in predominantly white spaces and, as a result, feel like we have “something to prove,” as one woman I talked to described it, in terms of their identity. Or for bi-racial folks, like my friend, Denise, it’s the pressure to “pick a side.” Intellectually, we understand that there’s not one way to be Black and not one person who has any business or authority to decide that — certainly not my publishing colleague — but it’s a very different story, emotionally.
It cuts one way when it comes from white people, and a completely different way (harder, sharper, deeper) when the judgment and side eye comes from your own, when you’re on the receiving end of unspoken scrutiny or unsolicited comments that tell you don’t belong, you’re not one of us — like the guy who told my friend, Felicia she needed to turn in her “Black card” when she admitted she hadn’t seen the show Atlanta. Or the college friends who were outraged when Daphney, another woman I spoke to, didn’t know Black sorority rituals. The taunts of “Oreo” or “she thinks she’s white.”
I’ve never once thought I was white (nor wanted to be, for the record). In fact, it was often glaringly obvious that I wasn’t, given how often I stood out as the “only” Black person. I grew up with mostly white friends in suburban Maryland; our friendships were born the way most are: proximity, shared classes and extracurriculars, and that adolescent cliqueness that builds upon itself. I loved these women and they were a fundamental part of my coming of age — and yet every time we sang along to Indigo Girls,, every party or sleepover where I was the only Black girl, every time I put on my Gap cargo pants instead of FUBU, I felt like I was doing something wrong. Every time I looked over at the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria, I felt self-conscious and apart. Judged. Why is she friends with them? She thinks she’s too good for us? Seen as one of “those” Black girls who would rather be around white people, or worse, just didn’t want to be around Black people (which wasn’t the case at all, of course). Even my long straight hair and the fact that I had no booty to speak of — physical attributes I had no control over — seem to conspire against me. It all left me slick with a specific type of shame.
By the time I left for college, I was determined to course correct. I made a conscious effort to have only Black friends; this was my chance to prove to them (and myself) that I belonged. My friend Ciji had the same goal, so she moved from an almost all-white Texas private high school to an HBCU. And yet, we both found that our self-consciousness lingered — and even grew more intense. “My image of college was informed by TV and whiteness: frat parties and sweatpants and beer kegs,” Ciji tells me. She felt out of place with her Black friends when she didn’t have the “right” clothes, know the “right” music, or have a familiarity with the deep rituals and traditions of HBCU culture. “I knew how to play Spades,” she said, “but I was too scared!”
For my part, I learned to play Spades in college and dominoes. I learned all the lyrics to Biggie songs. I lined my lips with brown liner and wore sheer black shirts just like En Vogue. I read Baldwin and bell hooks. I made lifelong Black female friends, with whom I could talk for the first time in my life about things my white friends would never understand. With whom I could talk about my white friends.
And still. It didn’t erase the feeling that I had to hide my Ani Difranco CDs or else be dragged. It didn’t stop my heart from racing every time I got on the dance floor and imagined someone laughing at my lack of rhythm. It didn’t make it hurt any less when someone mocked the way I talked. It didn’t make me any less desperate to be better at code switching and easily drop slang. In other words, the struggle continued.
As it did for Ciji. Years after graduating from her HBCU and making her own group of Black ride or dies, Ciji visited her now-husband’s large extended Black family for the first time and felt nervous about how she — and her Blackness — would be perceived. “I didn’t even want to open my mouth, because I worried they’d judge the way I spoke from the jump. I figured I wouldn’t be trusted to bring the mac & cheese or greens to family dinner.” When she headed out for a morning run, she was sure they were all thinking, ‘That’s some white people shit.’ Ciji stresses to me that her in-laws are warm and welcoming, and seven years later she can laugh about her concerns when she first met them — but that initial anxiety was real. In fact, when I first asked her if we could talk about the idea of not feeling “Black enough,” she answered, “Yes, but I’m going to cry.”
The self-consciousness can be hard to shake. At the same time, it’s futile, not to mention toxic, to try to fit into some clichéd definition of “Blackness.” Does it come down to an ability to twerk, or be good at basketball, or grow up in the projects, or bring down the sanctuary with your rousing rendition of ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’? No, of course not — those are just tired stereotypes that only serve to constrict “Blackness” to a very narrow version when ours, like any culture, contains multitudes, which is something to be acknowledged and celebrated, not reduced or mocked.
So can I go hiking in Alaska and love Fleabag and not be able to cook a damn thing and still stand fully in my Blackness? Of course I can. Maybe an omniscient voice will always whisper “white girl,” like in this funny Instagram reel, but that’s okay.
My friend Daphney put it best: “Being fully in my Blackness means enjoying whatever I want to do — from eating watermelon to paddle boarding — in whatever company I’m in and not caring what people say. It’s centering whiteness to even think any other way. Because ‘Blackness’ only exists relative to ‘whiteness.’ So, to say, I’m this type of Black or that type of Black is splitting hairs. I’m just gonna fully, wholly be myself and enjoy life, enjoy my rest, enjoy what I like, and not have to defend or prove it. I can’t let people limit me, white or Black. Instead of putting limitations and definitions on Blackness, which is playing into the hand of white supremacy in creating schisms between us for no real reason, we can all just be who we want and need to be.”
Yes, that, exactly that.
I would love to hear from you. This essay focuses on my personal experience with identity, but I would love to know how people of other ethnicities have struggled with this. Let’s get the conversation going in the comments! See you there.
(Christine Pride portrait by Christine Han.)