Growing up in an identity limbo as a Black woman

Illustrated by Emily Nash for SLAE Magazine

Illustrated by Emily Nash for SLAE Magazine

Growing up black in a predominantly white neighborhood, and attending predominantly white schools, is an identity crisis in waiting, and it typically starts at a much younger age for us. For me, it was the first lesson on slavery in the U.S. and the awkward stares of pity from my non-black classmates toward me. Middle school and high school are transformative periods in everyone’s lives. Those years are some of the most difficult because everyone is trying to figure out who they are, and sometimes pretending to be who they aren’t just to get through it all. My schools didn’t leave much room for interpretation, and it showed me how deeply rooted societal prejudice is.

Considering the environment, I felt as if I had to choose between having mostly white friends, which sometimes isolated me from the very small black community at my schools, or becoming a part of that black community and being subjected to the opinions of others.

None of my white friends would dare directly tell me I was too “black”, but rather resorted to microaggressions and exclusion from the group. Comments like “you sound so educated!” and “you speak so well!” were familiar words, but never followed by “for a black girl” lest they be called out on their racism. Sadly, these kinds of backwards compliments led to me seeking a kind of “approval” from the white community, as if that would solve the internal dilemma I was dealing with. After all, at that age I just wanted to fit in with the majority…and the majority where I grew up was Caucasian. I felt as if I had to prove to them that whatever negative opinions they harbored about my race was incorrect, and I had to be the one to dispel those opinions.

I was often told I was too “white” and made fun of by my black peers because I didn’t understand certain cultural references. Let me interject by saying I was born in the Bahamas, so a lot of my initial upbringing was not centered around African-American culture. Even amongst my most tolerant friends, person of color or not, the expectations and assumptions of how I should exist as a black woman were made clear to me. It’s crazy now for me to think that I allowed others to make me feel like just because I hadn’t listened to the newest hip hop album, or because I couldn’t perform a certain dance move, or speak a certain way, that made me less deserving of being black.

This combination of trying to be two different types of people all at once threw me into a kind of identity limbo. Not “black” enough. Too “white”. What does one do when they feel rejected by their own community, and has to resort to a façade to fit in with the majority?

I started doing things like putting relaxers in my hair and straightening it nearly every day not because it was how I decided I wanted to style my hair, but because I believed my natural hair was “nappy” and ugly compared to that of my white friends; like I needed to fix it. I was shamefully silent when my non POC friends perpetuated black stereotypes. I believed so many untrue things about myself. Rather than devoting my time to figuring out who I wanted to be, I let others decide based on their own skewed perceptions. Society has a way of doing that, and a lot of it comes from how media has chosen and continues to choose to represent different communities. Because of this, from a very young age, we are inundated with images, words, and videos that shape our perception of others- often incorrectly. Although the representation of the diversity of the black community is improving, a lot of the representation when I was growing up was centered around hip-hop culture-music videos, rap music, “thug culture”, etc. The prevalence of seeing a leading successful black man or woman in a series, or in animated films was slim. For generations, the media preferred to lean into the stereotypes and create one narrative of the black community. Combine this with an environment seriously lacking in diversity and close-minded adults and you get students who come to school with deficit of cultural sensitivity (I’m totally calling out parents here. Children mimic their home environment until they mature and hopefully learn otherwise).

As I grew older, and as the conversation around race and representation became a more prominent topic of discussion, I found that my experience was shared by so many others. Now, I watch my niece, a light-skinned black girl, fight the exact same battle that I had years ago trying to figure out who she wants to be in a predominantly white environment and I recognize that this is a conversation that needs to perpetually exist. Some may reduce it to a lack of maturity at that age, but no one is born prejudiced. It is a learned mentality, and I’m ready to equip her with the confidence that she needs to live her own experience as a black girl and be proud of her magic.

I had to learn that no one has the right to define my experience as a black woman but myself. I learned to be proud of the kink of my curls and immeasurable beauty and diversity within the black community. Being born black still comes with some adversity not just in the U.S., but around the world. However, it’s important to openly take pride in our unmatchable resilience, intelligence and influence on global culture as a whole. I’m no longer afraid of the confrontation that may come from the discomfort of others during a conversation about race and being black in America.

This article is a description of my personal experience. It does not speak to 100% of all black people’s experiences, I’m simply sharing my own...although I’m certain there are countless others who will be able to relate. It took way too long to realize, but now, to me, being a black woman means being proud of what God has blessed me with, not diluting my personality for the easy digestion of others, and appreciating the range of experiences, similar or different, that I share with my community- and perhaps helping the younger generation come to this conclusion much earlier than I did.

By Samantha McCartney