I might be your black friend. Only it’s New York City in 2012, and nobody really cares.
Except me! Sometimes I care! And it might not be logical, or justified (though I think what I’ll argue here is that there isn’t a ‘justified’) but here are some situations in which I’ve been aware of – and maybe paused to contemplate – the color of my specific skin:
1. Grocery store, daylight, older non-black lady with manic smile:
“Did you know you look just like Malia Obama? Just like her?”
Malia Obama is substitut-able here with either Tia or Tamera from Sister Sister, only then the old lady is a creepy frat guy and I’m standing next to my sister. No joke, neither of these situations are isolated incidents. Did you know Sister Sister had a fanbase in the Greek system? Surprise!
Also I realize, if you look at our pictures side by side, a case could be made. To do with cheekbones and complexion. See sentence five.
- At a bar with the-jury’s-still-out-on-if-we’re-friends friends and two drinks in, one non-black guy’ll say something in ebonics. Like, “Aight, niggas, let’s roll.” Something like this comes next: quick glance to me, brief worry is replaced with good cheer, ending sentence is inevitably something like, “Oh, right, Brittany. I always forget you’re black.” Tone of this remark’s delivery varies. Smirks and forgettable tension, sometimes; sometimes, we carry on and get to the next bar intact.
- Seeing pictures of Trayvon Martin moving high above a protest crowd in Union Square. Looking at the pictures from the ground and being bowled over by how he really did look a little like my baby brother. My brother when he was younger.
- Being at the beauty salon. It taking two to three hours. Related: my stylist, Nilijah, being freshly shocked at how bad I am at “maintaining between visits” each visit. Related: my mother, tutting with distress when she sees my naps. Related: my friends, who more often than not say very kind things like, “I love it when it’s big! You oughta try an afro!” Related: the mirror, day in day out.
- Slam poetry readings of any kind.5b. Any large gatherings of black people with political, social or artistic intentions: meetings, barbecues, workshops. A youth culture-awareness organization called Jack n’ Jill. My savvier black friends teasing me about being in Jack n’ Jill.
- Kissing a non-black boy, or about to kiss a non-black boy. He draws back a second or so in and is oddly compelled in the moment to say something like, “you’re so exotic, where are you from? — No, where are you FROM from?”
- Reading Zadie Smith. (Thank God.)
- Getting accepted to college. Little murmurs of Affirmative Action here and there, mostly jokes.
In 2008 I voted for Barack Obama, and before that Condoleeza Rice was in and around the White House. Someone foolish coined the term ‘post-racial society’ * somewhere on this timeline. Okay I take it back, not someone foolish – maybe someone who just didn’t get outside the cul-de-sac much, or someone who never bothered to leave their communal tent home in Santa Fe.
*And when I say “post-racial society,” for the purposes of this wandering diatribe, I’m talking only about longstanding divisions between African Americans and Caucasians. Obviously in a country where a white supremacist goes on a killing spree at a Sikh temple, racism on the whole is still alive and well.
Can we agree that our nation’s arguably largest social problem has roots (ha) in the lingering bad juju attendant to one hundred something years of slavery and two hundred other years of systematic racism? Great. Yet no one sane will argue that we haven’t made vast leaps as a society between 1800 and now, or between 1960 and now. Doy. To set the scene, let it be known that my VERY SPECIFIC CULTURAL VANTAGE POINT comes through the window of a Tudor-style house in Chevy Chase, Maryland where my Trekkie mother keeps my college degree in a nice frame, as opposed to any back-alley porthole that stares out on a grim airshaft in East New York. My family – not to mention the President – are what the post-racial-societyists are talking about; on my mother’s side, I come from five generations of college-educated NEGROES. People may pull themselves up by their bootstraps in this country, and while it’s tacitly true that the Upper East Side in Manhattan has not changed in a demographically significant way in ever, while it’s tacitly true that forgoing the President (whose salary we know), African Americans and women still make something like 80 cents to the white man’s dollar, my place is obviously not the place from which the banner should be waved. The conversation is socioeconomic now. I mean, did you guys see Precious? It seems obvious to me – and other people not in cul-de-sacs or tents – that the gap today between the haves and have-nots is still bound up in race, because that’s where the gap came from: get these immigrants to the fringes, and whatnot. I mean, when you were a fan of The Cosby Show, how often were you preoccupied with the great cultural struggles facing the Huxtable family? It’s something like ten episodes worth of charged commentary, right?
But I am here to talk to you today about the language of not-waving-a-banner because you-don’t-really-have-a-banner-to-wave, or your banner-was-bronzed-and-honored-many-moons-ago-and-no-longer-requires-waving, or, other-people-get-your-banner-because-they-live-below-the-poverty-line, so sit down and shut up and enjoy your practically equal rights, nobody really wants to talk about Langston Hughes with you. I mean, you saw Clybourne Park! But did you GET it? You went to NYU and studied experimental theatre! But didn’t you GET it?
So you think you’re obscure:
I have grown up in America always knowing I looked black (I get ‘are you mixed?’ a lot, but with a bit of rue and not enough evidence I think this also has to do with how I move around in the world. E.g, not maintaining my hair) . I have not been especially phased by this in that I’m not actively thinking about “my people,” or my identity with or responsibility to a group of people, every day of my life. It’s semi-recent, this brow-furrowing business, and perhaps to do with the President. I grew up with many colors and kinds of friends, I grew up around loads of new holidays and traded for awesome new kinds of food at lunch. I grew up privileged, and I grew up smart, and I grew up at all when a non-negligible portion of kids in my bracket did not. And I’m still growing up and I might get a Master’s degree and I don’t have a baby, and I’m still growing up and I never once went to a kwanzaa party in college, and I’m still growing up and I’ve never had a weave or dreadlocks and I’m still growing up and I might not talk like you if you’re black and cool and from an urban center, probably, and I’m still growing up and I’ve never really dated anyone my skin color. These are some facts. Stark and side by side they might yet present something, but I swear to you, I have not come to a conclusion. Because, WHY SHOULD I?
I’ve never doubted I was black because, recall, I have mirrors in my house. And I’ve never doubted I was black because my Grandpa will still say things like, “Oh, another darkie!” when he’s visiting and there’s cause. And maybe sadly I’ve never met another person quite like me, given the warm cocoon of my brilliant, weird family in their some-would-call uppity glory. (Don’t even get me started on UPPITY…) I feel black when I’m with my Dad and his side of the family in Houston, Texas, where my Uncle Burns smokes cigars on a back porch and everyone’s belligerent three beers in and no one sits down for Thanksgiving. I feel black also when dancing to Michael Jackson or when I can get my hair to get huge, I do, I do feel a kind of fun, fabulous pride in a what must only be cultural way. And despite the I must assume kindly-meant incidental cruelties of the non-friends who say ‘nigga’ or the black friends who can’t hide their skepticism when I explain my plans for my hair, I have never really questioned whether I was black enough.
Yet I’ve defended me from all angles, and do so here preemptively, and I feel compelled to all the time. I feel the need to remind people. I need to make it clear, somehow, that while this is not the whole of Brittany Allen it is meaningful, and bound up in how I’ve become. My list at the top is indisputably dinky besides people with more than first-world problems, but I take it personally, always, hearing ‘Strange Fruit’ on the radio or imagining my ancestor being lured on to a slave ship, or imagining what my children will look like and encounter if I fall in love with someone who isn’t from where I’m from. I did feel something personal when the President was elected, and was deeply irritated when people who weren’t black asked me if I felt something. Like you, I want to stand on my little rug. It is not the same as your little rug because we all, all of us, have little rugs. Mine is laden with gross history – a lottttt of peoples’ are – but finding out how to talk about what still smarts when eons away from the actual injury is a frustrating science, and makes me feel either in the wrong or on a high horse or like I’m imagining things tout le temps. I don’t think I’m imagining things, though. In fact I’m pretty sure.
I think a lot about the way shows like Tina Fey’s 30 Rock present and acknowledge race in the world. I love that show. It’s so cheeky. When comedians can acknowledge race relations in a self-deprecating and self-aware way, I think we’re making progress: let’s speak our setbacks and small, criminal assumptions aloud, name them and implicate ourselves by so, and then it’s out on the table and up for debate. Shoving ‘race’ in the closet as a been-there-done-that issue is counterintuitive, and less funny. Making anything interesting taboo for the sake of political-correctness is about as dumb as a a paper dock. (Maybe this expression will catch on. You never know.)
So hey world! Hello, I am not a Cosby (they’re a fake family) and I’m not from the ghetto. I probably don’t want to join your slam poetry league, but I wanted to tell you about all of this because it feels uncomfortable for me, even writing the first sentence is somehow an act of aggression. I do have neurotic, likely irrational worries — if I cut my hair short or keep it in braids, will the guys I like continue to like me? If I don’t lividly inform my manager that I think his remark about my head scarf was inappropriate, will my ancestors weep on me from their heavenly plinth? The concept of blackness, as tokenism and cultural identity, is charged in both directions. I know just the kinds of reactive faces I’m courting should my friends read this, any of my friends, and I know exactly how I’ll feel once this is on the Internet, and if anyone asks me to explain anything in this article I may very well say no. And will I keep flinching, when you say the n-word? Whether lyrically or in culturally-acceptable-shorthand or in anger or in explanation, in some kind of historical or intellectual context, will I? I will. I promise I will. I will flinch when I hear ‘nigger’ no matter what. That has always been so.
My dealio is, from the communal tent in Santa Fe now, I want all of our differences to be acknowledged and understood and celebrated in this world, but I also want my relationships and interests and individual neuroses to belong to me. I want to belong to me. I am a narcissist, and an individual, I am a continent, this is the matrix, you are my friend, that is a table, we’re all going to die someday, and if nothing else, I want to own what I touch sans a shred of apology. Because I’m not sorry.