“You don’t have to keep talking like that. There are no white people around.” Laughter erupted in the cramped copy room, as the cluster of African-American work colleagues congratulated the accounting clerk on what she said to me. As a shy 23-year-old, a newly hired employee at the Los Angeles investment banking firm, I said no more as I quietly backed out of the space.
Emboldened by his discovery of being a more learned student of hip-hop culture, a white male acquaintance once exclaimed to me, “Wow, Erick! I’m pretty sure I’m blacker than you are.” His declaration drew attention to us lounging in the home of a mutual friend.
Being black is much more than what one looks like. At least it is for black Americans, with assumptions often made about how we’ll sound and/or act. Examples include if our conversations will be influenced by what’s currently popular within black culture. Or that we’ll speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE), “the variety of English natively spoken, particularly in urban communities, by most working- and middle-class African Americans and Black Canadians (A Handbook of Varieties of English, 2004).”
“Assumptions around who’s “really black” can also determine one’s standing within his cultural circle, influencing if he’s marked as an outsider.”
But what about black individuals who don’t meet all of these qualifications? Who are we in the eyes of those around us? When parts of ourselves are beyond the borders of one’s definition of what it means to be “authentically black”. How do we work through criticisms focused not on who we are, but who we’re expected to be?
Expectations surrounding how one’s perceived can determine the value of his social currency, economic potential, and emotional and physical well-being. “Socioeconomic status can encompass quality of life attributes as well as the opportunities and privileges afforded to people within society (American Psychological Association, 2017).” This is true for African-Americans, who often work against societal perceptions minimizing our social standing and cultural influence.
Assumptions around who’s “really black” can also determine one’s standing within his cultural circle, influencing if he’s marked as an outsider. This has been my experience. Not quite knowing what to do when faced with the hostility I may feel when interacting with those who share my cultural heritage.
My first full awareness of this was during my first year of college, after I attended the school’s black student union meeting. On a crisp northern Arizona spring afternoon, I arrived to meet others like me in pursuit of their scholastic goals. Met with a detached coolness, I assumed my shyness kept the others at bay. However, I’d later discover through an acquaintance that I was ignored “because of the way you sound and dress. They think you’re an Oreo.”
Oreo is “a derogatory label meant to slur blacks spurned by those within their own community for showcasing ‘white mentalities’ (Dominican Star, 2018).” For me, the word conjures up ostracization and ridicule. In college, UK music artists of the time influenced some of my fashion sense. But it didn’t detract from me being a proud black person.
From a family of voracious readers, the books surrounding me encouraged and quenched my thirst for black history. My mother reinforced this too by saying, “If you have an interest in something, you owe it to yourself to see if you’ll like it.” However, I’d later discover it took more than historical knowledge to be an acceptable representative of my ethnic community.
As said by American comedian and YouTube personality Franchesca Ramsey, “My blackness does not magically go away because of the way that I talk. (YouTube, 2015)”. But it does seem to foster mistrust in some if a black person speaks or acts in a way not attributed to the black American experience.
“…I resisted the limitations placed on my interests and achievements as a black person. But I never longed to be white.”
Growing up as a sheltered kid who moved around a lot I believe shielded me from asking myself why others commented on the way I sounded or acted. Plus, I sounded like the other members of my immediate family. And one rarely questions what is familiar to him.
My family encouraged me to progress beyond my economic circumstances in Phoenix, Arizona. And I resisted the limitations placed on my interests and achievements as a black person. But I never longed to be white. During my formative years, I believed it was possible to “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (‘I Have A Dream’ speech, 1963).”
Today I’m more in acceptance of who I am. But there are still moments when I struggle with the apathy or confusion I feel when someone’s challenged with how to interact with me. This includes individuals who have not identified me as black before meeting me.
Before the internet’s popularity in the late 1990s, some work interactions were conducted by phone. As is often the norm, we formed alliances solely through hearing another’s voice. During this period, I met a visiting colleague coming to Los Angeles from the firm’s Chicago location. “I’m looking forward to finally meeting you in person, Erick.” I heard the joy in her voice.
Mostly, my image of a middle-aged woman, possibly of Irish-American descent, was accurate. I also envisioned her with shoulder-length dark blond hair. However, as she was guided to my desk, I saw the light in her eyes dim as her pace slowed.
The voice which had always been so warm over the phone chilled me with its iciness. “Hi, nice to meet you,” she said as she stiffly shook my hand. Perplexed why she was so wooden, I attempted to return warmth to our connection by reminding her of a joke we’d shared just a few days before. The moment brought to mind the scene from E. R. Braithwaite’s 1959 novel, To Sir With Love. When the black Guyanese protagonist received a similar reaction during a job interview.
The answer to my question of acceptance of who I am as a black man rests less on the approval of others and more on my acceptance of myself. In a 2014 Larry King Live interview, American actress Tracee Ellis Ross pondered this with guest host Janet Mock when talking about ABC’s Black-ish sitcom. “…is the question we’re asking really about are you black or not. Or is it really about your culture and your identity and what’s important to you?”
What I get from the question above is that for many, a desire to ensure that black Americans’ cultural achievements aren’t forgotten may fuel the drive to preserve our black authenticity. Who we are, and how we’ve positively impacted the United States goes back centuries, helping the country to become what it is today.
I may not come packaged in a way that’s ideal for some. But I am doing my part. Through writing and other creative outlets, I look for ways to promote and celebrate the achievements of black Americans. I too am committed to shining a spotlight on what makes us who we are. And what we’re capable of doing.