Note: This essay originally appeared as “Will the real Black girl please stand up?” in marlo, in 2003.
Why is it that to certain black people, some of us don’t fit the code? Apparently, there’s a particular way we must dress, speak, and act – and if we should fall short of these standards, we‘re somehow not “the real thing”. It didn’t occur to me that I was an outsider until my last day with Tasha, an old roommate. It was quite a rude awakening.
I was scouring my room – you know, checking behind the dresser, under the bed, to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind. In the midst of a packing frenzy, there was a knock at my bedroom door. Slightly annoyed, I answered. It was Lee, one of my roommate’s friends who was visiting from the Caribbean.
“Your mom’s on the phone,” he drawled.
I followed him into the living room and picked up the receiver. On the other end, my mother’s tone was icy. “Do you know what Lee said?”
“What?” I asked distractedly, trying to remember where I put my guitar pick.
“I asked for you, and he said, ‘Who, the white girl?’” His words, straight from her mouth, were like a slap in the face.
My first goal was to calm my mother down. She wanted to confront him, and I fought off the urge to shame Lee into the next century by reminding myself that after the next sunrise, I‘d never have to see him again. But in the aftermath of our farewell, my anger over the telephone incident hadn’t faded. It even evolved into a bit of curiosity. Why would someone who should know better – someone who is black like me – call me a “white girl”?
Thinking back over the few times that I’d interacted with Lee, something he once said stood out. We were making small talk one day, and out of the blue he said to me, “You know, where I come from, you’d be considered white.” Immediately I wondered why he would say such a thing. I even asked, but he didn’t explain. I attempted to draw my own conclusions.
Where he came from was Trinidad, the same island where my mother was born and raised. My complexion is brown; nobody who has ever seen me could deny that based on my physical features, I am Black. But apparently for some people looking the part isn’t enough.
There are a few things I can think of that might set me apart from [some] Black people – mainly how I dress, and the way I speak and act. Few, if any of those things fit certain people’s ideas about what makes an “authentic” black person.
Not too long ago, I laughed and shook my head in disbelief when my friend Lisa told me about an encounter she once had at a local mall. She had been shopping for her mother and stepped outside to call home and double-check a few items. According to Lisa, her mother became quite aggravated, and in turn Lisa’s frustration mounted. And after a series of “yes, mother,” “I don’t know, mother,” “I’m trying my hardest, mother” replies, she exploded and unleashed a few angry words before hanging up.
Meanwhile, she noticed a young black man watching her, amused. Lisa smiled at him, and, with a great sigh was about to re-enter the mall when he approached her.
“So, that was your mom, eh? You seem kind of upset, still.”
She smiled wanly, and said, “You know how mothers can be sometimes, when they want you to do something for them? I swear mine thinks I’m an imbecile. Next time I’ll just let her run her own errands. ”
His eyes widened, and then he laughed. “Listen to the way you talk! So proper! What kinda nigger are you? Har har…”
“What kinda nigger are you?”
Since when does speaking in a proper manner make one’s blackness questionable? In his observation, it was though the young man doubted Lisa’s authenticity. Obviously Lisa’s diction came as a shock. But why? Why should it be surprising to hear a black person use dignified language? It still seems that certain members of my community still associate such speech with those who are white. Perhaps it goes back to the notion that propriety was the purview of those who were despised or feared.
I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the young man used the word nigger. Sure, you could replace the term with the words Black Person; that’s what he obviously meant. But for many Black people, nigger automatically connotes a battery of negative images. Sometimes I think that when someone refers to himself or others by the n-word, he might have a dangerous belief system that dictates Black people ought to adhere to the negative archetypes associated with the word. We deserve better than to aspire to the ideologies that nigger embodies.
Oddly enough, I can almost tolerate it when people who aren’t Black think this way. It’s easy for me to point my finger and call such people bigots. But when I have to put up with such garbage from members of my own race, I want to scream. Don’t they realize what they’re doing when they adhere to stereotypes and ostracize those who don’t follow their example?
The way I act and speak doesn’t change the fact that I’m Black. To use words that you might have to look up in a dictionary isn’t a whites-only privilege. Yes, Lee may have called me a white girl; I suppose he wanted to hurt me and deny my identity by saying that I’m “other”. While I was insulted by his words, he only revealed his ignorance and earned my pity.
I don’t know which is sadder: the fact that this society continues to perpetuate lies concerning black people’s existence, or that those lies are believed and perpetuated by the very people they’re told about.