(This is gonna be a long one, guys. It is, however, the most personal thing I’ve posted publicly, so I’d appreciate your support and feedback if you read it all the way through.)
Picture this girl: Ashlee grew up with her nose buried in books, loved bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, has a thing for “gamer” boys, likes anime and manga, goes to comic book conventions, gets great grades in school, and has a vast vocabulary.
What does the girl you pictured look like? Is she black?
That girl is me. And for the majority of my life, I was told that I was, under no circumstances, to be considered “black.” No matter what color my skin was.
I grew up in a small town with a largely black population. While there is a bit of Native American and possibly some Caucasian mixed into my lineage, my parents are both black, as were their parents, as were their parents. I have brown skin, thick and curly black hair, and brown eyes. However, from as far back as about third grade, I began to be called “white.” Honestly, for years I didn’t really get what people meant. It was never something that bothered me enough to ask for clarification. I had a white stepfather, and therefore other white family members, so I saw nothing wrong with being a white person. I ignored it, and in the meantime I kept watching anime and engulfing every book I could find and shopping at Hot Topic. I had a best friend who liked all these things with me, even introduced me to Avril Lavigne and my all-time favorite manga. We loved what we loved, and for awhile it seemed like there was nothing wrong with that.
It wasn’t until middle school that I realized there was, in fact, a problem with my interests. I’d already noticed I wasn’t like a lot of my classmates–I didn’t like rap music, I was uninterested in BET, didn’t really know how to dance, and I genuinely liked learning in school. I had a couple like-minded friends, but for the most part the people I went to school with might as well have been aliens for all we shared in common. They noticed this too, and like good public school children, they made sure I knew. I began to get labels like nerd, geek, weirdo, loser, along with still being referred to as “white.” I was made fun of in class whenever I was eager to answer a question, and sneered at whenever I did well on a test that others did not. I was asked why I talked the way I did, using “big words” and always “trying to sound smart.” I was made fun of for my “white people music.” I had books pushed out of my hands when I was reading “that freaky Japanese shit” at my desk. It was made clear to me that all these things were not what I was supposed to like as a “black girl.”
Resentment and indignation began to harden me, and rather than just disliking the classmates that teased me, I began to dislike black people in general. I still had black friends, but the majority of the people I connected with were white. I went to a white church with my grandfather, and even though we were the only brown faces in the room I still felt more welcomed than I did at school. I started hanging out with my white cousins more and their white friends from their white school, and they were all nicer to me, too. I began to get pet names from them, like “oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside), and “token” (token black girl), and even just “whitest black girl.” I was so happy that my “whiteness” was accepted that I didn’t stop to think what these names meant. There was no intended malice or ridicule within my group of friends, of course, but the subtext of the jokes and pointing out my race was that it seemed ironic. I’m black, but don’t do any “black things.” Look at the black girl, she’s like us white people! Isn’t it fun and cute, that she thinks she’s one of us?
I blossomed in 8th grade–small waistline, wide hips and generous thighs, and a big perky butt. To my dismay, my body type seemed to attract a lot of black boys. This was especially evident when I started high school. Though my new school was more diverse than the others I’d attended growing up, there was still a very large black community. As a girl who grew up with an awful self-image and low self-esteem, suddenly being told I’m pretty and being hit on was shocking and very quickly addicting. I didn’t like a lot of the black guys who found me attractive, but I liked feeling wanted. People who would’ve made fun of me when I had acne and braces were now finding reasons to talk to me, in spite of my whiteness. It was foreign to me, but the positive regard was so intoxicating that I began to suppress my interests in order to be more appealing to the male population around me. I still had a “nerdy” group of friends, but when I wasn’t around them I began to act differently. I became known as a bit of a tease–flirty, but a prude. This turned me into a challenge, and many guys wanted to “break” me. All this attention surrounding me was thrilling, even if it was only because of my body and pretending to be someone I wasn’t. In the first two years of high school I quickly became less and less interested in anime, video games, and reading, and more interested in my social life.
As expected, the kind of guys who wanted me just because I had a nice ass and was a virgin weren’t the kind of guys who were going to treat me well in the long run. After being hurt, played, and completely taken advantage of more than once, I began to write all black guys off. At this point in my life, the black man represented nothing but disappointment and trouble to me: my absent birth father, the rude boys from middle school, the aspiring rappers and basketball players and “gangstas” who didn’t care about classes, the sagging pants and too-large shirts. The way they hit on me made it even worse, with their annoying “sup shawty” and “lemma holla achu” and other disrespectful and unwanted come-ons. No, I don’t have a man. No, I don’t care that you think I’m fine. No, I don’t want to be with a “real nigga.”
Fast-forward a couple years to my freshman year of college. I’d developed a very distinct anti-black personality. I was interested almost exclusively in white guys, I had mostly white friends, I had all my “white” interests (though some were lost in the maelstrom of high school), and frankly, I was racist. I damn near hated black people. I equated being black with being “ghetto,” rude, and uneducated. If a black man even looked at me twice (which they often did), I glared at him. I found black women to be loud, gaudy, and trashy. I’d gone my whole life being rejected and attacked by the black community, and finally I’d decided to reject and attack them back. I amused my white friends with biting racist jokes, but there was always a bit of truth to them for me. I’d even grown to resent my own body, because it brought me constant attention from a subset of men I wanted nothing to do with. I was, in truth, ashamed and embarrassed by the fact that I was black. I could find nothing positive about my skin color apart from the fact that I’d never need to go tanning.
Can you imagine a girl who’s been so hurt, ostracized and ridiculed by her own people that she feels her skin color is merely a set-back? An unwilling connection to a group of people who disgust and disappoint her? That’s what being black meant to me.
Then one day, I was introduced to this funny, educated, well-dressed, respectful, friendly black man. He was unlike anyone I’d ever met before, and we quickly became best friends. It didn’t take long for me to find out he liked me, and though I’d only considered him a friend before, I realized I had feelings for him too. This caught all my friends and family off-guard, including my new-found love interest. Everyone knew Ashlee doesn’t like black people, especially not black men. I hadn’t given a black guy the time of day since 10th grade. But this man was different, and now it’s been two years and I can honestly say dating him has been one of the best choices I ever made.
It was through him that I saw my racism for what it really is–harmful and unfair. Sure, I have a right to be bitter. Yes, I’ve been mistreated by my people, and some black people are shitty. He experienced much of the same unfair disdain that I did (minus the particular issues with black men), and came to terms with things during his college career that I had yet to realize. He helped me see that I am black, regardless of what people told me growing up, or the stereotypes, or what little I may have in common with many of the black people I’ve met. I may have been ostracized from the black community, but that doesn’t mean that I am not viewed by the color of my skin by the rest of the world. The same oppression and unfairness that the most “ghetto” black person faces can easily be directed at me, and this is a connection that will follow me for the rest of my life.
Lashing out at black people who seem to be assimilating to “white” culture is a byproduct of bitterness and a lack of unity. Just like feminism and the LGBTQ movement, the black community has a need to come together to work for the good of black people as a whole. Telling people they are not “black” enough is extremely problematic, but so is hating your people because of how some of them treated you. No matter how many great black people I met, I still allowed myself to harbor resentment and biases. I put black people like my boyfriend and my mother and my best friend in a separate category from the “rest” of them. This was not only unfair, but it was also narrow-minded and immature.
So hey, I’m a black woman. There’s no addendum or caveat to that fact–no “but I’m educated” or “but I’m not ghetto” or “but I’m different.” I’ve grown to love my skin, love my body, and love my hair. I don’t feel the need to feign interest in things that I don’t like, but I also don’t turn my nose up at people who remind me of those I grew up with. I’m still working to rid myself of some of my long-held biases, but I’ve come a long way. I understand that I am never going to be able to overcome the obstacles that the world has created for black women if I never accept that I am one, and I will never help eradicate the stereotypes if I hate and judge the people who fall victim to them.
I do not try to hide my color anymore. I am black.
*for those interested in my boyfriend’s experiences with this issue, you can read about them here!