Little Boxes

Write about your experience as an intelligent black student in a predominantly white school. This was my prompt for this article, but to me, it wasn’t that simple. My experience at my school changes daily, by the hour it seems, and it really depends on my mood. Following this prompt, I could write a million different articles: an exposé of the racism that occurs behind doors, a reflection on the pride I feel for breaking stereotypes of my race, a dramatic telling of the woes of a black high school girl in a white male-dominated high school. But no, my mood, at the moment, is more inquisitive than anything else. So I desperately ask, for those who seem to know, what does it mean to be the “whitest black person you know”?

I have been a recipient (victim, beneficiary?) of this statement countless times during my career at my school. The circumstances are always the same: I say or do something perceived as “white”, I suppose, and a student nearby makes the remark, usually while smiling, indicating that they mean the phrase to lean more towards a compliment than an insult. In the past, I’ve laughed along with the student, not because I thought it was funny, but more in an effort to alleviate awkwardness. As I matured and began to register more and more instances of discreet racism, I gradually stopped laughing, conveying my intolerance for the so-called “harmless” phrase. The most recent time that I encountered this phrase, I frowned, and promptly asked the speaker, “What do you mean exactly?”. Probably not expecting a non-humorous response, the speaker fumbled with her words, and then quickly dropped it; seemingly, I had won. This experience, however, only provoked more questions: What exactly had I triumphed over, and did I triumph at all?

Upon close consideration, I have concluded that I did win the battle, not over ignorance, but over the belief that ignorance will be tolerated, or even accepted as a compliment. Though I asked the speaker what she meant by her words, I knew exactly what she was covertly indicating. To her, and unfortunately to many other students at my school, to “act white” is to speak grammatically and to not like many foods or sports that are characteristically “black”. “Acting white” is the norm, the default, an art form that I have apparently perfected over the years. On the contrary, to “act black”, an area where I am supposedly lacking, is to speak in a stereotypically ghetto fashion, to be loud, and to absolutely adore fried chicken and watermelon. This analysis generates yet another question in my mind: when did the white and black races begin to indicating personality type in place of just skin color?

The two parties that are allowing this detrimental belief to continue are those who make this comment, and those who receive it as a joke. When someone makes this comment to me, they put me into a box labeled “black”, and declare that, although I am still stuck in this box, I display attributes uncharacteristic of my box, and therefore I am an anomaly. My skin tells one story, while my speech and abilities tell another. By receiving the comment as a joke, I would be signaling my compliance, and even agreement, with the declaration that the speaker has made. Another question, for those who utter this comment: am I not “black” enough for you? Am I making the stereotyping process more difficult for you by displaying my individuality? Do you expect an apology from me for not behaving in the way dictated by my box? Or a thank you, because you pointed out that at least I have certain traits from the “desirable” race?

It is 2015; we need to stop the same labeling process that was used centuries past. We should be at the point where it is common knowledge that the extent of someone’s character does not fall into one category. We have evolved into a diverse people, garnished with the ethnicities and cultures of ancestors from around the world. The belief that an individual can be forced into a particular box, a set of norms that may or may not define them, is ludicrous; it’s a complete round hole-square peg situation. I certainly do not fit into my so-called “black” box constructed by society; I speak grammatically, I have little interest in sports, and I prefer baked chicken over fried. Am I any less of an African-American, even with my attributes that are uncharacteristic of my race? The mission that stands before us now is to embrace our race and ethnicity as our own, while still accepting the pieces of us that make us unique, exceptions to rules that we were never meant to obey in the first place. Let’s abandon these restrictive boxes and celebrate, not degrade, each other’s differences. 

– Written by Cierra Moore (redefy leadership team member)