Black Enough : Internalized Racism, Tokenism, Division, and Identity
Growing up, I never really fit in anywhere. I was always too “white” for the black kids and too “black” for the white ones. I’m a black woman but some may refer to me as a water-downed black girl. If you turn on the TV, you’ll get a twisted view or stereotype shall I say about who they think we are. Loud, “Ghetto”, undesirable, strong, and single are just a few of the stereotypes that they place on us. According to society, being black in general means that we somehow all like the same music, we excel at sports, we have big butts, and that we all can dance.
I was the exact opposite. I grew up listening to Avril Lavigne, Destiny’s child and Mary J. Blidge. My favorite movie was and still is Steel Magnolias. I never played a sport a day in my life. My booty is not big whatsoever and I’d rather go play in traffic than to be forced to dance in front of anyone.
I went to a predominantly white and hispanic school. I was probably one out of the ten black kids that attended my elementary school. I was ridiculed for my braids and called all kinds of names that still sting to this day. All of my crushes from elementary school till high school never liked me back and always ended up liking a friend of mine who always happened to be non-black. I always felt like the black and ugly friend and those insecurities eventually bled into my adulthood.
As I grew up I was at a constant war with myself because of how everyone else viewed me. I remember crying to my grandma after school and telling her that none of the kids liked me and she would say it was because I was special.
Fast forward to high school, I was stunned to see as many as black people as I did in one space. I thought for sure I was going to have more black friends so I was ecstatic on my first day of school all just to feel rejected. Almost none of my melanin counterparts were receptive of me at all. Through the years I was always super nice, super friendly and still, nothing. I was never welcomed to hang around all of the cool black kids so I hung around those who accepted me. My other multicultural friends embraced me fully but I always felt like an outsider of my own race. I couldn’t use terms that I would normally say at home around them, my hair was different, I pronounced things differently and no matter how close we got, there was a part of me that felt like an oddball.
I didn’t have all the cool new shoes, I’ve always had a mind of my own when it comes to fashion, I wasn’t on the step or dance team and according to practically everyone, I was an oreo or Cream of wheat and I didn’t belong. I also struggled with fitting in a group where I was the only black one. Friends would say “why did God give you guys hair like that?” “you’re the prettiest black girl I’ve ever seen” “You’re so white, you’re not like them at all”. Friends would say terms like “nigger lips” in front of me and I hated it. It was a constant internal battle that I just felt like I couldn’t overcome because I was outnumbered. This battle felt extremely lonely and as odd as it sounds, I swore I was the only human being in the world who experienced this.
With the world shedding a very dim light on the racism that’s been around FOREVER, I’ve noticed people around me were speaking out about their experiences so I was inspired to do the same. Little did I know that there were other girls, black girls that felt just like me.
Nikea Reed, 26, grew up in the same city as me and we’ve shared similar experiences. Her experiences brought tears to my eyes. Reed was often labeled as an “oreo” by her peers too. She shares her experiences growing up in an all white school and neighborhood.
“My self-esteem has been so low as a kid. Not one single guy had a crush on me . I remember this one guy I used to like ending up liking someone else. I never felt pretty or smart enough. People just assume because I’m black that I wasn’t those things. I felt invisible.” Reed said.
Reed also felt as though not having a lot of black friends caused her trauma from racism while growing up.
“My best friend was white but her parents never allowed her to go to my house. One day we went ice skating and her dad followed us there. I had friends who used to call me “Nigga Nikea” when I was in 7th grade. At first I didn’t say anything because I wanted them to like me but I should have, because it was traumatizing. On top of not feeling cute and not having a boyfriend. Black people in high school used to call me an Oreo and ask me why I was so white. I’ve even had a white friend say. “ You’re more white than me,” Reed explained.
Growing up around so many non-black people and black people can definitely make you second-guess yourself at best and at worst, it can make you feel nonexistent.
“I’ve always felt invisible…. My self-esteem was low and I don’t even date black men. I’ve felt rejected by Black men numerous times.” Reed said.
Reed describes her experience with some black men as a series of constant disrespect which I can also relate to. She also notices that all 4 of her siblings have non-black partners. Where we grew up, since we were outnumbered as a race it was more common to see black men in interracial relationships than it was to see them with black women. I remember growing up never having a boyfriend, never being desired and rarely even liked back. My “friends” never understood this pain at all. We had to constantly even wonder if the guy we liked even dated black girls even if they were black themselves and that’s just one of many examples of the self hate in our community. Reed had similar experiences when it came to dating.
“The men never took me seriously. The two relationships I had, I didn’t expect more for them. It was never “could you be my girlfriend?” I haven’t been on many dates. No one has asked me to ever go on one. When you meet guys the first thing I always think is “do they like black girls?” It’s always second-guessing.” Reed said.
Reed also felt like she was judged for not being black enough for her family members and felt a sense of invisibility because of the constant ridicule from both sides. She always felt like an outcast, just like I did.
“ I would go down south to be with my cousins and they always thought that I was better than them because we talked too “white” Reed said.
I know that feeling all too well, I’ve had my own siblings tell me that I wasn’t black enough and that I wouldn’t ever know what it was like to be black because of my surroundings. Little did they know, being the only black one in every friend group makes you become hyper-aware of your surroundings.
It wasn’t until college that I finally felt accepted. That’s where I met Kianna. Kianna Hendricks grew up in Northern California to a white mother and a black father. She shares her experiences while growing up and being labeled as not “black enough”.
Hendricks describes herself as the token mixed girl who was fair-skinned and grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood and school.
“I didn’t talk at school until college. I was extremely shy, and uncomfortable in my skin my whole life. I was the token black mixed girl. I’m white passing-I’m really fair. My schools were ethnically diverse. Most of my friends were Russian, Filipino and one black friend. It’s hard to tell if I was being ostracized or if I was ostracizing myself. I’m very self-conscious with how I’m perceived by the black community. I get very quiet and I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.” Hendricks said.
She went on to say that even though she didn’t feel discriminated against due to her skin color, that she still didn’t feel confident at all. Hendricks feels that most men wanted to date her for insignificant reasons and Colorism.
“I’ve benefited from my skin color, I know I have privilege and that I’m treated better than some of my darker-skinned sisters. I know men and women fetishize light skin women but I still never felt confident. I always felt like men would be physically attracted to me but once I opened my mouth and they realized how white washed I am that they probably wouldn’t like me.”, Hendricks said.
Colorism is something that I believe exists in all cultures. However, it has a lethal effect on the black community as does the internalization of how we are treated as black people in America. The stereotypes we’ve all heard.
“Black people are lazy and so ghetto. “
“Black people have the same opportunities as everyone else.”
It’s already deafening to hear those things but to see how it’s been internalized in our communities is nothing short of a travesty. Those little things that we are told growing up really shape us into who we become.
I’ll never forget the words my mom taught me growing up about black men. She would say “Wanna know the quickest way for a n*&^% to leave you? Have a baby by him.” Those words were ingrained in me and now that I’m older, I realize that’s why I never wanted to have kids. I always feared that I would be left to be a single black mother and that scared me. It also changed the way I viewed black men growing up.
Hendricks believes that some of the things she was told as a child shaped her worldview of her black identity.
“I wasn’t aware of my ethnicity. I didn’t know Colorism existed in elementary school until I got to junior high. I had a white mom and a black dad. I grew up with my father telling me not to date a black man because they will beat on you and cheat on you. My mother was the opposite because she empathized with black men and knew the struggle. My dad told me to stay away from them. “ Hendricks said.
Hendricks went on to say “I grew up with the perception of black men but also of myself. I grew up my entire life hating myself and my culture. I’m going through an internal battle .I had to do a lot of internal work to get where I am today. “
That’s when it dawned on me. I didn’t just hate high school and growing up around people who didn’t look like me, I hated myself. I was unaware of who I was and thinking that I wasn’t “black” enough because my perception of what a black girl was supposed to be like. My friends who weren’t black tended to put all of us in a shallow box that was perpetuated from what they saw in the media and it was always tough trying to be who I really was out of fear of being too “black” or acting too “white”.
I started to project that onto the girls who looked like me in my school and thinking things like “They don’t like me, so why even bother” or “I can’t dance, I can’t jerk and I have one black friend at my school so I can’t possibly be a real black girl” and that was the furthest thing from the truth. Looking back to high school which was almost ten years ago, I’ll never know if the hate I felt from my own community was real or if the hate was solely internal. I do know that since moving away I’m so comfortable in my skin and I feel confident knowing that I’ve always been black enough for myself and that’s all that matters.
I was the same as Kianna and Nikea. I always second guessed myself, thought I was inferior, and just wasn’t confident enough to be who I really was out of fear of being different from both sides of the race spectrum and that caused a lot of conflict.
On one hand I had a group of friends who accepted me but didn’t understand my experiences on a deeper level and then I had people who I resonated with so deeply because (kinfolk) but didn’t welcome me for so many years. It was always such a disconnect with my identity. But now I find joy and human empathy with beautiful black women who are just like me. Who don’t fit the box of which they try to place all of us in. We’re universal, we’re complex, we’re vibrant. We are everything. There was never a “me” and “them”. I’ll always be black, no one can take that from me and if I could’ve had the confidence to express that growing up then I probably would’ve had different experiences.