It happened. I failed the “black” test. My hair stylist and I were chatting while she was taking a break from retightening my locs. I made a funny quip, and she extended her palm so that we could partake in the standard Black American handshake. In what was most likely the longest three seconds in the universe, I stared at her hand in befuddlement, trying to figure out what she was doing. By the time I realized that this was the handshake, it was too late. I tried to recover with some weird amalgamation of a fist bump and a high five, but the damage had been done. I had revealed myself to be the Carlton to her Fresh Prince.
I replayed the scene over and over in my head during my walk to the train. How could I have been so oblivious to an obvious cultural norm? This set off a mini existential crisis where I came to one of my greatest philosophical epiphanies: I’m uncomfortable around black people. This is a peculiar realization being that I am also a black person.
But you see, my stylist embodies a certain Harlem black cool I’ve always been told (by white people) that I lack. Every time I walk into the black barbershop where she does hair, I feel like I’m going to be “found out.” In my mind when other black people see me, they’re thinking: “She may look black, but she’s not black black, if you know what I mean.”
Where does this discomfort come from? And why do I think of Blackness as a test I am doomed to fail?
Like most psychological problems, it all began in my childhood, specifically the eight years I spent living in all white towns in rural Wisconsin. If there was one phrase I heard more than “nigger,” it was “You’re not black.” Talk about irony.
Sometimes it was phrased as a “compliment,” meaning you’re one of the good black people. But other times it was meant so white people, whose sole interaction with black culture came through the distorted lens of racist media, could assert their own twisted version of blackness over me.
“I’m blacker than you because I know more Tupac songs than you.”
“You’re not black. Your lips aren’t even that big.”
“You’re not even that black. Look, my ass is fatter than yours.”
“I know so many white girls that can gangsta walk better than you.”
“You’re not black, you can’t even dance!”
It didn’t surprise me that Rachel Dolezal truly thought she was black. I’ve long known that, for many white people, being black is simply checking off a list of well-worn stereotypes.
I always brushed off those comments, because I knew I was black enough to be called “nigger.” I was black enough that white people stared at me everywhere I went in those lily-white towns. And I was black enough to be accused of stealing during shopping trips.
But if you hear something enough, it can seep into your unconscious and start to guide your decisions. Somewhere along the way I started believing that I wasn’t black enough, whatever that meant. This is the clusterfuck of all realizations: Racism made me uncomfortable around my own people. Ain’t that some shit?
And it even affected my college experience. I never applied to any historical black colleges because I thought everyone would make fun of me because my black wasn’t cool enough. I was more comfortable with the thought of being around white people, where my blackness was for sure going to be denigrated in one form or another, than I was with the thought of being around my own people. By that time I had already accepted racism as a staple of life, but the thought of possibly being rejected by people that looked like me was too much to bear.
Recently I was hanging out with a friend who was born and raised in Harlem. For me she represents the epitome of black cool and I envy that she grew up around black people her entire life. She told me that because of her alternative interests, namely metal music, she was accused of “acting white” by her high school peers.
No black person has ever outright accused me of not being black enough, while that’s all she ever experienced as a teenager. Our childhoods couldn’t have been any more different, but we both grappled with having our own blackness invalidated by superficial parameters.
In the foreword for the book “Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes: “There are 40 million black people in this country, and there are 40 million ways to be black … I do not mean to suggest that we are all of us in our own separate boxes, that one black life bears no relation to another. Of course not. We are not a monolith, but we are a community.”
It’s taken some time, but now I’m aware that there is no “black test” and that, even though I’m more Carlton than Fresh Prince, my blackness is still valid. My hair stylist doesn’t see me as some racial imposter. To her, I’m just some weirdo who doesn’t know how to do a proper handshake. Resisting the temptation to police my own blackness and the blackness of others has been a gradual process, but a necessary one.
And who knows what I’ve missed out on? How many friends I could’ve made, how many organizations I didn’t join out of fear. For years I isolated myself from the community that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. talks about, keeping potential sources of emotional support at arm’s length. And with new hashtags popping up every day, strong emotional support systems are needed more than ever.
White supremacy takes on many forms. It’s most visible as the daily physical assault on black lives. But we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological effects of something as seemingly simple as how we define what it means to be black.